Casting a Coastal Lifeline


18 years on the Sokhulu Mussel Harvest Project Thrives

What began with a single programme to control the harvesting of mussels has leapfrogged into an entire community programme that speaks to the wise harvesting of all sea resources along the KZN coastline.

Eighteen years ago the once-abundant mussel stocks on the coastline north of Richards Bay at Sokhulu were threatened with depletion. Years of strip-harvesting by the resident community had threatened this.

But the inauguration of  Ezemvelo’s Sokhulu Mussel Harvest Project not only spawned an enduring community-driven operation that safeguarded this resource but also sponsored a wide ranging community upliftment programme stretching along the entire KZN coastline to include subsistence fishers as well.

The overall benefits in terms of education, training and engagement with stakeholders beyond their own communities, is self-evident.   

The ‘Buhlebemvelo’ Sokhulu Mussel Project began in 1995 by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (then Natal Parks Board). Today, some eighteen years on, the resource continues to be managed sustainably, a wonderful success story that speaks to the enduring importance of engaging communities in managing their own needs for the long term.

Over this period, the Sokhulu community has enjoyed an annual off-take of about 5000kgs of mussels from the Dingini and Nyokinani sites (give or take annual fluctuations).

Aside from providing them with their traditional protein, the project has spawned a critical insight amongst them into how to manage a programme centred on the principle of sustainable utilisation. Much of this has to do with the Sokhulu Intertidal Co-Management Committee that represents Ezemvelo’s District Conservation Officer as well as community representatives and the monitors selected from the community.

What started out then still exists to this day. Many of the original members of the Sokhulu committee are still there and the community monitoring programme remains functional. But its greater impact lay in kick-starting a far broader community subsistence programme that extended from mussel harvesters to line fishermen.

At about the time of Sokhulu’s inception, a Subsistence Fisheries Task Group was formed, that was later driven by Dr Jean Harris, head of Ezemvelo’s Scientific Unit. Within the structure of the then, new Marine Living Resources Act of 1998, subsistence fishers were acknowledged. So the net of overall monitoring and engagement with communities was cast much wider to include such fishermen.

Community committees were established, each electing their own representatives to take up the ‘exemption permits’ being offered by Ezemvelo to allow them to fish on a sustainable basis. And today there are more than 1000 line fishers operating within this overall ‘co-management’ structure.      

By 2000 the Sokhulu model had been rolled out along the entire KZN coastline (except Maputaland). A Subsistence Fisheries Implementation Unit was formed and now we have some 128 community monitors employed to collect data from small-scale fishers where they work both inside and outside of protected areas.

Along our entire coastline, there are now 16 co-management partnerships operating with small-scale fishing communities. As a result of this, seven people have been employed in the Small-Scale Fisheries Management Unit.

A greater good has grown from this. It lies with the training and education that Ezemvelo has subsequently offered all these monitors. They have gained insight from the courses offered them, such as fisheries management and fish identification given by SeaWorld’s training centre at the Oceanographic Research Institute (ORI).

They attend an annual Monitors Workshop. The co-management committees also participate in exchange visits to other fishing areas for a broader insight.

Proposed 5 year Plans include:

‘Ezemvelo’ Small-Scale Fisheries Unit appointed as the implementer for the new small-scale fisheries policy.
Increased salaries for Fisheries Awareness Monitors
Skills training for Monitors, Fisheries Awareness Monitors, Small-Scale Fisheries Extension Officers, Project Administrator and Data Capturer. These include advanced fisheries management, leadership skills and GIS training
Employment of Monitors to ensure all fishing on the coast for 2014/15. (Roving creel surveys are done where Monitors walk up and down fishing zones to find fishers and collect information)
Dept. of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) met with Small-scale Fisheries Unit and fisher community representatives in November to communicate the revised 5 year implementation plan. Identification of small-scale fishing communities will commence soon.

Increased salaries for Fisheries Awareness Monitors

Unsung Heroes of Battles in the Bush (2)

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Sleep is a luxury for rangers guarding our parks. The rhino war might rage and the statistics mount. But hidden from view are those driven, day in and day out, to hold it all together. Regardless of everything, they patrol, confront, pursue and persuade. They and their feats are largely unknown.


The Beauty and the Beast - Ozabeni and Karl Bentley (2)

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Some call it the Achilles Heel of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Others see it as the Gorongoza of South Africa. The truth is it’s both!

The Park’s exceptional, distinctive beauty is well known, acknowledged by its World Heritage Site status. But what lies beyond the reach of tourism is its northern section, the 42km long, loosely-shaped, rectangular Ozabeni Park that largely serves as a flat wetland draining from Sodwana Bay south into the lake.
It is here that Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is currently experiencing its most focussed rhino poaching threat – and casualties. Of the 67 rhino that the organisation has lost this year, 17 have gone down in Ozabeni.

Conservation Manager Karl Bentley is big; in size, passion and vision. His wording is short, expletive-minced! He curses the park’s porous borders and thunders loudly with frustration. He’s your proverbial character. He’d only been in the job a few months when he ‘bust’ a syndicate stealing cycads from the Coastal Forest Reserve; red-handed, he caught the thieves in the process of transporting 92 of them away! He’s well known for a long story where he eventually had to front up to a charging black rhino, standing his ground when, against the odds, it veered away at the last moment.
There are many gung-ho, legendary stories about Karl Bentley, a number of which stem from his years working in Ezemvelo’s Marine Compliance unit. Here he hooked more illegal shad and crayfish “shlenterers” than were in the ocean, or so he put it! But this is only half the story.
For all the bluster, Karl is a bird-watcher, an admirer of landscape, bio-diversity and wildlife. He’s as sharp as a button and surprisingly gentle and insightful. It’s hardly surprising he’s such a valued member of Ezemvelo’s field staff.
Ozabeni is as huge as the poaching threat is real. Out of frustration, he speaks of driving into the park at the dead of night, flashing the lights of his bakkie to create a law enforcement presence, hoping to deflect some of the many syndicates that target Ozabeni. Rhino in vulnerable areas of Ozabeni are frequently corralled by his bakkie into safer areas. He is renowned for the phrase; “Rhinos aint saved in the office”.
He might hate them but he’s able to hold an almost perverse admiration for the poacher’s feats of endurance and athleticism.

“Listen, some of these guys are super-human. They are rugged like you can’t believe. They can walk and hide and jog for 30-40kms in a day. We’ve followed them to the point of capture and then when you think you’ve got them cornered, they break out of their hideout, flick their antelope prey off their shoulders and they’re gone; like that.”
To patrol this park borders on the nightmarish. Its overall 64 000ha expanse has only 50 kms of boundary fencing, though much of the park reveals natural obstacles. The entire eastern section comprises a line of large sand dunes bordering the Indian Ocean while a smaller section of its north-western boundary comprises the vast Muzi Pan. So, while the sea and beach form a barrier of sorts on the one hand, Muzi Pan and the lower Mkhuze swamps act as inhospitable swamp land on the other, a buffer from the KwaJobe and Mnqobokazi communities.
“Man, its one thing to even think of crossing these reed beds and wade through that swamp. But these poachers not only do that they even hide out there; I mean for a whole two or three nights, if needs be. These are soldiers of another kind”.
The obstacles mount. There’s Ozabeni’s open corridor road that leads to Sodwana Bay and passes through the north-western part of the park; then a slice of its northern section is given over to the community’s cattle and their herders who could well be the eyes and ears for poachers. And his scarce resources have still to deal with the illegal crafts and gillnetters on the western boundary of Muzi Pan who cross into Ozabeni.
And, he’s bedevilled by his own staff shortages, a familiar deprivation that Ezemvelo is trying to overcome, despite the stringent financial climate. (Plans are well advanced to beef up Ezemvelo’s presence here with new field rangers being brought in).
Despite all this, Karl Bentley is able to see beyond. And in Ozabeni he sees future greatness for bio-diversity and tourism.
“This is an incredible region. I really believe it will one day be one of KZN’s greatest game reserves. You know Gorongoza in Mozambique? Well, this place reminds me of it. It also holds so much diversity; coastal forests, pans, small lakes and outcrops of wetland forest.”
We travel south down the only dirt road. He points out this landscape, identifying some of its abundant birdlife; Secretary birds and Stanley Bustards, for example. We head south to the border of the 15 000ha Wilderness section.
His appreciation for its potential reflects the priority that the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority places on Ozabeni’s future. The ‘Authority’ is now in the process of erecting wooden viewing towers at strategic sites within the Park. And there is real talk about fencing out the cattle and their herders that wander so freely inside Ozabeni’s northern areas.
Future plans include introducing elephant, buffalo, cheetah, wild dog, eland, waterbuck etc. But for now it’s all about security.

Sea Rangers Show Passion (2)

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Nothing suggested it would be so, but the sea came alive. Grey skies and smooth, swollen seas provided a calm backdrop to what opened up before us.

Anything up to 12 whales were seen breeching; two hawksbill turtles poked above the surface, three ragged tooth sharks glided past our boat and schools of dolphin cut through our wake in the two hours we were out there.

Perhaps it was ordained because this eye-opening trip gave such meaning to the growing recognition that Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s Marine Compliance Unit is an outstandingly visible and active group of some 55 staff responsible for monitoring 380 km of our coastline. It’s a vast, tough and often confrontational responsibility, where 11 teams of five people each patrol 15 kilometres of coastline from Mapelane in the north to Port Edward in the south.

They work 24-hour shifts to cover both spring and neap tide fishing activities, day and night. (And poachers favour poor weather conditions). To say nothing of the abuse they field from fishermen, either arresting them and / or transporting them to the nearest police station. On this particular occasion the focus was trained on a team with a growing reputation; the monitoring of our internationally-prized Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area (MPA), stretching from Umkomaas River mouth some 18 kms south of Scottburgh to the Mzimayi River mouth.It was a special day. The gutsy professionalism and transformative nature of an emerging black staff embracing marine conservation was worth the trip on its own. Here was Londiwe Mbuyisa, Ezemvelo’s Manager for Marine Districts and Projects. She’s worked her way through the ranks from being a trails officer, Protected Area Manager and Marine Off-Shore Compliance Officer. She’s the senior conduit between Ezemvelo and such government departments as Fisheries and Forestry and Environmental Affairs. This day she dropped everything to get back to the coalface of her responsibilities. Amongst these, Londiwe now commands the tricky task of overseeing the expansion and re-zoning of the Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area (MPA). This is a complex process of encouraging all user groups to support this initiative.“With conservation, it often appears to be the carrot and stick, not so? But I try to impress on people the growing need to protect and manage the limited resources available to us all. And the expansion of this Aliwal MPA is part of a larger governmental initiative to secure a greater share of our overall marine resource. Yes, it’s a tough process as various users could lose some of the benefits they enjoy. But, it’s for the greater good, not so?”
Our boat pulled up against a small fishing vessel and later on a scuba diving outfit. Both operators clearly knew Sam Ndlovu, Ezemvelo’s Marine Compliance Officer. Now, here’s a no-nonsense, battle-hardened type. Whatever the familiarity amongst them, the fishing operator had forgotten his licence and Sam made no bones of the fact that he present it when he got back to Rocky Bay. Ezemvelo’s manager for the East Region Ken Morty described Sam a beacon of commitment and discipline: “The public should really raise their hats to all members of this unit. But he has an unwavering compliance ethic; a ferocious commitment to protecting our oceans. For 24 years he’s been largely responsible for the respect that Ezemvelo commands amongst recreational and commercial fishermen”.  A renowned conservation manager and administrator, Ken spoke of the unit’s dedication and success; of 7000 patrols carried out last year with more than 50 000 inspections done. Amongst this 247 arrests were made as well as numerous successful prosecutions for a variety of permit and fishing irregularities. Some R240 000 worth of fines were paid, too. 


Yet Sam is not just a policeman. He has a wise and appreciative head on his shoulders. "I’d prefer to be understood for the lessons I’m trying to give others. I want to share my knowledge. I want to make the seagoing public my larger surveillance team. Many people care but you know that it only takes a few to disrupt everything.” He was proud to highlight some of his unit’s recent successes: A R4 000 fine paid for the illegal capture of four east coast rock lobster during the closed season and catching a fisherman for having 67 shad (you’re only allowed four!) resulting in a house arrest. He arrested someone for having 37 geelbek (only two allowed) – and caught him again and this time was fined R5 000.Boat fishing and diving are predominantly sports enjoyed and operated by whites. In this respect it was invigorating to be skippered by Themba Luthuli. Here ‘Ezemvelo’ has a boat skipper of real skill and experience. Trained by the Sharks Board, Themba moved to Ezemvelo some two years back. Knowledgeable and highly assured, he provides an outstanding role-model for future black interest and advancement in marine conservation. “My greatest wish is for my people to learn this trade and break their fear of the sea. It will happen, I am sure of that. And there are a few – perhaps four I know of – that are doing their Skippers Course. Slowly we are moving forward.”


At a time of real financial stress with all focus given over to Rhino poaching, few pay attention to such marine efforts. And yet here we have some ‘sea rangers’ who should make us all proud.


A South African 1st! As Ezemvelo pioneers ‘Humanity’ in keeping captive animals

Calling all owners of captive wild animals in KZN! Please help Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife make their innovative and humane terms and conditions embodied in the permits needed for keeping them in captivity as acceptable as possible.