Conserving biodiversity and protecting rare, endemic and endangered species of fauna and flora is very much a founding pillar of Babanango Game Reserve. Located in the malaria-free beautiful rolling hills of the Zululand heartland in northern KwaZulu-Natal, some 50km from the town of Vryheid, the 20,000ha reserve is the result of a unique partnership between conservationists, private investors and local communities to care for the ecologically sensitive mistveld grasslands, thornveld and riverine thicket that also includes a 23km stretch of the White Umfolozi River.
It is a priority area in terms of the KwaZulu-Natal Systematic Conservation Plan and the provincial Protected Area Expansion Strategy. Most of Babanango Game Reserve is considered “Critical Biodiversity Area: 1” according to the classifications of the plan, which means that it is considered irreplaceable from a biodiversity perspective. This makes it a unique and invaluable biodiversity asset for both the province and South Africa as a whole and means that it makes a significant contribution to the country’s system of protected areas.
As part of the KZN Biodiversity Stewardship Programme, Babanango is considered essential for biodiversity conservation, thanks to its size, threatened vegetation types and animal species, high levels of endemism and habitat diversity.
The reserve is also set to become the third highest scoring site in the province following its recent assessment by the KZN Biodiversity Stewardship Programme to determine the category of protected area it qualifies as, scoring an impressive 17/20.
The assessment was undertaken by a team consisting of landowners, site managers and representatives (including ecologists and conservation officers) from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, a representative from the KZN Department of Agriculture and NGO partners. Babanango comfortably qualified to be declared as a nature reserve – the highest form of protection for a biodiversity stewardship site in KZN and the score that it achieved was one of the highest ever for a site in KZN.
The assessment team findings were that Babanango offers high biodiversity value, unique characteristics and landscape features and protects the only known viable population of two endemic species of aloes – Aloe gerstneri and Aloe vanrooyenii. Babanango also provides the potential for linkages to other, existing protected areas, contains three natural heritage sites and will contribute significantly to tourism in the region, contributing to sustainable job creation in the conservation sector.
It’s this approach to restoring and improving the levels of biodiversity on Babanango that has seen it soar with the help of the KZN Biodiversity Stewardship Programme. According to Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the programme helps landowners and custodians to actively participate in the conservation process, becoming better informed about the natural habitat and helping to secure its long-term sustainability.
Of course, restoring a landscape and building a protected area of such importance also includes the reintroduction of species. However, it’s not just about bringing back the big, charismatic animals which have become Africa’s iconic flagships. It also involves the smaller, often overlooked species.
“Each plant and animal plays a role in these restorative processes,” says Chris Galliers of Conservation Outcomes, the conservation partner at Babanango Game Reserve. “We recently reintroduced a locally extinct antelope – the humble steenbok – to the reserve. These small herbivores used to occur on the reserve but were poached out. We’ve released seven onto the reserve, so we’re looking forward to seeing their population grow,” says Galliers.