The Greater Kruger National Park Socio-Ecological System

Our study region encompasses the rural and urbanizing communities along the Kruger National Park’s western border (see map below). We call this area the Greater Kruger National Park Socio-Ecological System because it includes the intensively studied savanna ecosystems protected and managed within Kruger’s fence line, as well as the human dominated landscape outside the park’s boundaries.

For our preliminary investigations we have been focusing on two main study areas: Hamakuya (Mutale Municipality, Limpopo Province) and Welverdiend (Bushbuckridge Municipality, Mpumalanga Province). Hamakuya is located on the northern border of South Africa, near Zimbabwe. This study site is predominately rural and located in the former homeland of Venda. The TshiVenda is one of the smallest of the 11 linguistic communities in South Africa. In contrast, the municipality of Bushbuckridge, formerly known as Gazankulu, is located along the southern and central boundaries of Kruger and is represented by a large Shangaan and Seswati speaking communities. This region also has an extensive long-term research presence associated with the public health and rural livelihoods programs associated with The University of the Witwatersrand Rural Research Facility (Wits Rural - http://www.wits.ac.za/wrf; Agincourt - http://www.agincourt.co.za/).

Separating rural and urban identities within the two provinces in this region, Limpopo and Mpumalanga, is not easy. Not only is there constant movement of people migrating from rural to urban and back again, the border of KNP is developing so rapidly that there are entire rural districts resembling urban agglomerations. These regions (dubbed “rural/urban”) follow most standard definitions of the rural: they have low resource availability, poor services and very little manufacturing. However, these inequalities also owe much to the legacy of apartheid spatial planning, which forcibly removed and relocated at least 3.5 million people across the country, driving many of them into ethnically conceived homelands governed by dubiously installed, compliant traditional leaders (Ramutsindela and Simon 1999; King and McCusker 2007). Bushbuckridge, which straddled the two homelands of Lebowa and Gazankulu, was a dumping ground for “surplus” farm laborers: its population density doubled every decade between the 1950s and 80s, and was further swelled by the influx of 50,000 Tsonga speaking refugees from Mozambique (Polzer 2004). Yet this area also hosts bustling centers of activity, and informal economic production, notwithstanding the extremely high population density that in some areas exceeds 300 people/km2 (Pollard et al. 2003). Akin to squatter developments where people build what they need from the ground up, such zones might very well be the “urban centers” of the future.

Most of the homesteads in this region are heavily reliant on savanna wild foods and even those located in the more urbanized environments dependent on safari tourism, grants and remittances from migrant labor, local biodiversity, and dwindling fuelwood supplies as their primary energy resource (Shackleton 2000; Shackleton and Shackleton 2000; Shackleton 2004; Twine 2005; Giannecchini et al. 2007). While these settlements are typically associated with environmental degradation and resource depletion, positive associates with species richness have been observed (Shackleton 2000; Smart et al. 2005).


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