Ukuwela Nature Reserve – building resilience for wildlife and people

Ukuwela Nature Reserve
Drone view of the Greater Ukuwela Nature Reserve
Image by: Wild Tomorrow Fund

A newly proclaimed private nature reserve in Zululand has secured the potential to restore an ancient wildlife corridor, while also protecting critical habitats and building resilience to climate change.

Situated within the Maputaland Centre of Endemism, the Greater Ukuwela Nature Reserve is strategically positioned between two major protected areas thus creating a unique opportunity to expand wilderness, protect ecological integrity, support surrounding communities, and play a meaningful role in ensuring the survival of endangered species in southern Africa.

Map showing the location of Ukuwela Nature Reserve
Map showing Ukuwela’s strategic position
Image by: Wild Tomorrow Fund

There is no shortage of privately owned game reserves in South Africa but what makes the Greater Ukuwela Nature Reserve different from most, is that its main purpose is not tourism, but to save habitat for wildlife conservation. The Reserve is the outcome of an agreement between Wild Tomorrow Fund, an NPO that owns 85% of the reserve, and several private landowners to work together to protect the region’s exceptional biodiversity.

Protecting endangered species

Spanning 1283.1ha, the reserve directly borders iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Site to the east. Its northern neighbour, the Mun-ya-wana Conservancy, in which &Beyond’s Phinda Private Game Reserve is located, lies across the Msineni River that edges sections of Ukuwela and flows into the False Bay section of iSimangaliso.  Being thus positioned, Ukuwela, which in isiZulu means ‘to cross over’, is well placed to substantially reduce habitat fragmentation through linking existing wildernesses and restoring a wildlife corridor, which could contribute significantly to securing the survival of endangered species.

Maputaland Centre of Endemism

The ecological value of the new reserve is enhanced by its location within the Maputaland Centre of Endemism, which is part of the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Biodiversity Hotspot, one of 36 hotspots covering just 2.4% of the earth’s land surface  – arguably the most important 2.4% of places on Earth to protect.  According to Conservation International, to qualify as a biodiversity hotspot a region must have a high percentage of plant life found nowhere else on the planet and, at the same time, its continuing existence must be threatened.  The Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Hotspot, which is the second richest floristic region in southern Africa with an estimated 8,100 species  ̶  at least 23% of which are endemic – is the most densely populated region in SA, and is characterised by high levels of poverty, severe land degradation and transformation, and uncontrolled development. Yet it retains corridors of pristine habitat that must be protected at all costs if rare and endemic species are to survive.

Habitat protection

Newtonia hildebrandtii
Newtonia hildebrandtii, giant of the Sand Forest.
Image by: Andrea Abbott

Given its full protected status, Ukuwela Nature Reserve is set to play a pivotal role in guarding unspoiled habitats as well as rehabilitating degraded areas. Containing three habitats – Dry Sand Forest (endangered), Subtropical Freshwater Wetland (vulnerable), and Western Maputaland Clay Bushveld (also vulnerable) the reserve supports over 1000 species, nearly 50 of which are threatened with extinction. These include African Wild Dog, Leopard, Suni, the critically endangered White-backed Vulture, Southern Banded Snake Eagle – also critically endangered, and the vulnerable Eastern Hinged-back tortoise. 

The 235 tree species identified to date include the threatened, near-endemic Carissa tetramera (Sand forest Num-num), and the magnificent giant of the Sand Forest, Newtonia hildebrandtii commonly known as the Lebombo Wattle, a protected species that’s in decline.  More than 160 wild flower species have been identified, among them the critically rare Sanseviera metallica and the endemic, near threatened Crinum acaule.

IUCN Red List

Ukuwela’s ecological importance is further amplified when considered in the context of the global figures for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) 2121-22 Red List of Threatened Species that was presented at the Union’s World Conservation Congress in Marseille in September 2021. Of the 138,374 species assessed 38,543 (or about 29%) are threatened.

These figures are only for species that have been assessed for the IUCN Red List to date, which means that not all species on Earth have been evaluated. Nevertheless, the list provides useful and sobering insight into what is happening and highlights the urgent need for rigorous action to conserve biodiversity.

Wild Tomorrow Fund

Such action is what defines Wild Tomorrow Fund. Founded in 2O15, the NPO is registered as a charity both in the United States, where the major donor base is established, and South Africa, where a dedicated team is responsible for the day-to-day rewilding and ecological management of the reserve.  The organisation’s initial goal was to support under-resourced reserves in northern KwaZulu-Natal, supplying park managers and staff with essential equipment needed to keep wildlife safe.  Subsequently, when the charity acquired two ecologically sensitive properties, parts of which were at risk of agricultural encroachment, the vision broadened to include habitat protection. 

Saving 80% of species on Earth requires us to protect half of the Earth’s land and sea…

E O Wilson

Says Wild Tomorrow Fund co-founder and Executive Director, John Steward, who is based in New York, “We believe that the solution to the wildlife extinction crisis lies in protecting wild spaces in areas rich with biodiversity. According to eminent biologist EO Wilson, who started the Half Earth project and from whom we take great inspiration, saving 80% of species on Earth requires us to protect half of the Earth’s land and sea to ensure species have the space they need to thrive. Since 2017, Wild Tomorrow Fund has acted on this urgent call in KwaZulu-Natal South Africa.”

Supporting local communities

Recognising too that local communities must have a stake in protected areas, Wild Tomorrow Fund  works hand-in-hand with its neighbours through, for example, upskilling and employing residents, supporting schools, empowering women (14 so far) through a mutually beneficial livelihoods training project called the Green Mambas and, during Covid lockdowns, providing emergency food parcels. In their dual commitment to their neighbours and to conserving habitats, the organisation’s work is consistent with one of the major goals of COP26:  Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats from the impacts of climate change.

“…our habitat protection programme is a nature-based solution that mitigates the impacts of climate change…”

Wendy Hapgood

“Climate change is deeply inequitable” says Wild Tomorrow Fund’s co-founder and COO, Wendy Hapgood. “It impacts the most vulnerable people on our planet who contributed least to historical emissions, particularly the most innocent of victims: children. Globally, approximately one billion children – nearly half of the world’s children – live in places at extremely high risk from the impacts of climate change. By saving and restoring ecosystems, our habitat protection programme is a nature-based solution that mitigates the impacts of climate change while helping communities, children and wildlife adapt to escalating environmental hazards.”

A moral calling to protect biodiversity everywhere

While tourism sustains most private wildlife reserves, the Greater Ukuwela Reserve offers only minimal tourism opportunities and is dependent instead on the generosity of donors, many of whom who may never set foot on the far-flung reserve they support. But these are people who are concerned with the greater good and who understand that environmental degradation in one part of the world – for example, rampant clearing of the Amazon rainforest –    affects us all.  According to the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), South Africa is ranked the third most biologically diverse country on Earth and is one of 17 megadiverse countries which collectively contain the majority of the world’s biodiversity.  Much is at stake globally if we don’t protect that exceptional biodiversity.

As Wendy Hapgood says, “We believe it’s the international community’s responsibility to help protect African wildlife.  Most of us grew up reading stories about elephants and lions, rhinos and hyenas, and watching the Lion King. A future when these animals no longer exist in the wild is unthinkable. We have a moral calling to help save our planet’s threatened wildlife and wild places.”

More Information available at www.wildtomorrowfund.org

Video: “How we save wildlife” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jOLPQnJ2d7A

Additional Media: Media images available on dropbox here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.

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