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Systems thinking is an integral part of ecology, nature conservation and wildlife/natural resource management. It can be defined as the inter-connectedness of events, processes and functions. The sum of the whole is often greater than the sum of the parts. Amplification and intensification of events down and processes down the line are often part and parcel of such thinking. It is similar to the concept of holism espoused by Jan Smuts over seventy years ago. Smuts was already aware of the interconnectedness of water, soil and general conservation issues which were threatening the country’s food supply prior to the Second World War.


On a recent visit to the lowveld and adjacent escarpment, it dawned on me just how susceptible Kruger and the adjacent game reserves are to environmental degradation. Employing systems thinking it became obvious just how serious the situation had become. Standing on top of God’s Window on a clear day, an image of massive human impact was immediately noticeable in the lowveld. Kilometers and kilometers of rural dwellings, most of them haphazardly planned (if planned at all), seemed to fill the distant plains. An alarming change in the texture of the land was apparent. These rural developments have enveloped huge tracts of land, reaching right up to the very boundary of the Kruger and its adjacent reserves. They are now contiguous with the lowvelds’ wildlife areas. Buffer sectors, so important in conservation, have been all but eliminated.


Further investigation on Google Earth corroborated such findings. The boundary of Kruger is clearly visible. The textural differences of Kruger compared to the rural settlements, are significant. Evidence of overgrazing, unchecked and unplanned development are obvious.


Kruger and the adjacent reserves are in an extremely precarious position. Their river systems emanate outside the park, on the escarpment (except for the Olifants which bisects the escarpment). This means that any adverse land and water management practices will have a far-reaching and debilitating effect on the ecosystems downstream. Rivers which were perennial in the past, have ceased to flow, or had their flow reduced. Some having become seasonal. Soil erosion and increased sedimentation of the lowveld’s rivers are increasing, owing to inadequate protection of the catchment regions, coupled with poor grassland and plantation forestry management practices. It is not just rural development and poor catchment policies that bear the blame, but also the large impact created by mining (often unauthorised), massive commercial agricultural schemes, mushrooming towns and accompanying industrial development.


The very existence of Kruger and its adjacent game reserves is thus in question. However, it is not only the wildlife reserves themselves that are under threat but the neighbouring inhabitants and settlements as well. The continual degradation will affect their livelihoods and at an increasing rate. Simply put, if these current trends continue, massive economic devastation could result. Problems such as soil erosion, siltation and sedimentation, declining productivity of the land, reduced and contaminated water flows will become the order of the day. The lowveld’s world-renowned ecotourism industry could be severely undermined. The economic ramifications of such a scenario would be staggering.


This brings us back to the Systems Thinking Concept. Where to from here? Now more than ever, systems thinking needs to be applied, and become an integrated part of management in the region. The ‘inter-connectedness of things’ has to become part of our thinking and decision-making. The realization that decisions and actions have serious and often deleterious knock –on effects far down the line needs to be entrenched in management principles and practices.


By Ivan Ginsberg.


Last Update: 2011/05/28 / Author: admin
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