Report warns against iMfolozi damage
By Tony Carnie
ONE of the last truly wild corners of ancient Africa would never be the same again — and could lose its global status as a wilderness area — if a local mining company was allowed to blast open new coal mining pits on the wilderness border.
This was the stark conclusion of scientiﬁc consultants who released a draft environmental impact report, funded by the Ibutho Coal mining group.
The consultants concluded that the potential loss of wilderness designation for the iMfolozi game reserve was a potentially fatal ﬂaw that could lead to the project’s being scrapped.
This loss of status for Africa’s oldest game reserve and wilderness area could have far-reaching ramiﬁcations by damaging the country’s tourism industry, along with its international reputation as a custodian of some of the world’s last wild places.
It noted that Wilderness areas now made up less than 1% of South Africa’s land surface area and remained under increasing threat from the expansion of industrial and human activity.
The report by the Scientiﬁc Aquatic Services consultancy noted that iMfolozi (now part of the larger Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park) was declared as Africa’s ﬁrst game reserve in 1895, later becoming Africa’s ﬁrst ofﬁcial wilderness area in 1959.
If the mining company was allowed to blast open six large coal pits on the southern border of Imfolozi, the noise, dust and light pollution from 24-hour mining operations “may result in the possible declassiﬁcation of the Wilderness area and as such, be a signiﬁcant setback for the re serve and conservation as a whole”.
“A worst-case scenario would be the complete de-designation of the Hluhluwe—iMfolozi Park’s wilderness status”.
The 480-page draft environmental impact report — open for public comment until August 3 — said the mine would have a “major potential impact” on tourism.
Johannesburg-based Ibutho Coal hopes to export high-quality anthracite coal to industrial furnaces in China, Europe and India.
“It is very difﬁcult to explain or quantify the concept of ‘sense of place’ yet this is a very important concept for tourists.”
Because Hluhluwe-iMfolozi was seen as a tranquil reserve set in a pristine environment, it attracted large numbers of ecotourists, adventurers and birders. However, the combination of light, dust and noise pollution was likely to rob current and future generations of “the true wilderness experience they were seeking”.
No roads, no cars and no permanent human settlements are allowed in the iMfolozi wilderness area. On arrival, visitors are asked to remove their watches for the duration of their wilderness trail and learn how to tell the time by watching the sun and the stars. They sleep in the open, bathing and collecting drinking water from local rivers, and are able to observe wildlife close-up and on foot, rather than from the safety of cars and 4x4s.
Each visitor is also required to stand night-watch, sitting next to a camp ﬁre into the early hours, and if need be, alerting an armed ranger to the presence of lions, elephant, rhino and other dangerous wild animals during their watch. Visitors have to bury their waste using a spade because their are no toilets.
The report stated that such areas “provide modern man a place to escape to, where he can experience life in its most simplistic form, where a sense of detachment from the world can be experienced”.
“The notion that the game reserve will now have a large industrial mining operation on its border will impact greatly on the environmentally friendly characteristics of the park and in particular the iMfolozi wilderness area.”
Explosives, ﬂoodlights and clouds of dust would degrade an area characterised by “silence and solitude, timelessness and unspoilt wilderness, free from the impingement of modern technology”.
The erection of tall mining ﬂoodlights was also likely to create “skyglow” common in big cities, reducing visibility of the night skies.
The report suggested that several species of wildlife could also be affected negatively. For example, the loud noise from blasting operations could disturb or mask territorial calls of several species.
Elephants had an extraordinary sense of hearing and emitted infrasonic rumbling sounds that could be heard at least 10km away to convey warnings, greetings, excitement, fear or mating calls. Research on forest elephants in central Africa indicated that they tended to avoid areas where oil companies were conducting blasting operations.
Vultures and other birds were known to abandon nesting sites because of noise disturbance.
Crocodiles were also highly sensitive to blasting operations, while research showed that black rhinos had a better breeding rate inside the iMfolozi Wilderness zone.
The report said a mine on the fence line of the wilderness zone could also lead to increased rates of poaching, especially of rhinos. Poachers would have easier access via new mining roads and could be less conspicuous because of the inﬂux of new workers and job seekers.
This article appeared in the Mercury on Wednesday, 24 June 2015.