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Friday Jan 18, 2013

Landmark nature reserve's future in doubt

South Africa's oldest wildlife conservation group is thinking of selling its 600-hectare nature reserve outside Pietermaritzburg because it can no longer afford the cost of protecting and maintaining it.

The uMngeni Valley Nature Reserve near Howick was set up in the early 1970s after a major fund-raising drive by members of the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa). It also serves as the 85-year-old society's national head office and education centre.

The reserve was set up with the intention of preserving the valley bushveld and establishing a national environmental education centre.

However, Wessa said this week that it was seeking investment participation or advice about the future of the reserve "as we can no longer afford to maintain it on a sustainable basis".

Pieter Burger, the society's KZN chairman, said: "Wessa seeks advice, ideas and proposals from experts, including... hospitality and tourism specialists and property developers, in relation to the economic utilisation of uMngeni Valley for the benefit of Wessa and the successful proposer."

Burger said that Wessa would also consider selling the reserve, saying that in recent years it had become increasingly clear that the financial burdens of ownership of the reserve might "jeopardise the financial health of the whole of Wessa".

He emphasised, however, that the preservation of uMngeni Valley for conservation remained the prime objective.

The annual operating costs of the reserve were far in excess of the income it generated, Burger said.

"The bottom line is that if Wessa were to include more than mere preventive maintenance - such as the much-needed road construction and repairs, the replacement of game fencing, the refurbishment of camps, the purchase of vehicles and equipment, the employment of game guards and additional staff to manage the reserve and combat poaching - the costs would be three to four times the minimum amount we are currently spending.

"The financial strain is far too onerous.

"To this end, Wessa seeks outline conceptual proposals with a view to realising the potential of uMngeni Valley, both environmentally and economically," he said.

Burger added that hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren and adults from all over the world had benefited from environmental education programmes conducted in the reserve - and from the tranquillity and diversity of the natural environment.

In a previous open letter to members posted on the Wessa website, Burger said no final decisions had been taken, but that the available options included the sale of all or part of the reserve, a partnership with a property developer, or seeking financial assistance from a major donor.

Burger may be reached at For a request for proposals document, contact Wessa through

The Mercury

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