#05 2021

Working with a rural community for improved management of natural resources – the Mthimkhulu LTSER site

By Dr Tony Swemmer, Manager, SAEON Ndlovu Node

The Mthimkhulu people of north-eastern Limpopo have rights to considerable natural resources, including over 5 000 ha of rangeland and a 6 600 ha ‘Big 5’ game reserve adjacent to the Kruger National Park. Improved management of these lands provides an opportunity to reduce the high levels of unemployment and poverty that are prevalent within this community, in the villages of Phalaubeni and Mbaula in the Giyani District of Limpopo. The Mthimkhulu lands also present a great opportunity for socio-ecological research of semi-arid savanna ecosystems.

Long-term research platform 

In 2016, SAEON began working with the Mthimkhulu Tribal Authority to develop a long-term research platform in the area. Research has been designed not only to further our understanding of the ecology of savanna ecosystems, but also to test and showcase viable management actions that could be used to improve the goods and services that rural communities derive from their lands. Such actions include bush-clearing to improve eco-tourism in the game reserve and rotational grazing to improve the productivity of the rangelands.

Tangible, short-term benefits of the establishment of the site have been the creation of employment for local residents – as research assistants and to do the hard work involved in setting up long-term ecological research, such as bush-clearing, livestock monitoring, anti-poaching and road and fence repairs.

SAEON has facilitated sweeps to remove snares from Mthimkhulu Game Reserve, with volunteers from the private conservation sector working alongside the Tribal Authority and volunteers from the Mthimkhulu community.

The initial ecological research at the site has focused on the establishment of experimental plots that vary in vegetation cover, to study the effects of trees, shrubs and grasses on the biodiversity and hydrology of semi-arid Mopaneveld.

To date, eight bush-cleared plots (of either 60m x 60m or 120m x 120m) have been created, both within the reserve and in the rangelands. These are all paired with control plots. In each pair, vegetation composition, the productivity of the grass layer and the abundance of large herbivores are being sampled regularly by SAEON staff and partners, while soil moisture is recorded continuously in three of the paired plots.

One pair of plots is currently being used to estimate the effect of Mopane shrub cover on evapotranspiration for a PhD project by Tiffany Aldworth, which in turns forms part of a larger National Research Foundation Earth System Science project that aims to model the effect of woody plant cover on evapotranspiration across South Africa.

To date the site has attracted researchers from Kansas State University, the Central European University, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of Limpopo.

Mthimkhulu livestock owners lost hundreds of cattle to starvation during the recent drought, which paved the way for conversations about how to improve rangeland management and prevent similar mortality during future droughts. Climate change is likely to make droughts in this area more severe and novel management strategies need to be implemented to avoid similar losses in the future.

Dr Tony Swemmer, manager of SAEON’s Ndlovu Node, engages with Phalaubeni livestock owners with the help of a local translator, Mr Peace Nkuna from the Kruger-to-Canyons Biosphere Non-profit Organization.

Youth from the village are employed as temporary research assistants whenever SAEON staff or partners conduct ecological research in the rangelands and game reserve.

Through a collaboration between SAEON and the Kruger-to-Canyons Biosphere NPO, six residents of Phalaubeni have been employed to patrol the rangeland on bicycles. These ‘rangeland monitors’ record locations of livestock as well as other relevant data, including grass species composition, the occurrence of alien plants and incidents of cattle killed by predators from the game reserve. They are funded by an Expanded Public Works programme implemented by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment.

The abundance of the most common large herbivores in plots within Mthimkhulu, as indicated by the abundance of dung piles recorded by Kruger-to-Canyons Biosphere environmental monitors six times a year since 2016. Red bars show average values for plots which have been cleared of Mopane shrubs (“Cleared”); blue bars show averages for uncleared plots (“Control”).

An example of differences in soil water resulting from clearing of Mopane shrubs. Lines show data recorded by sensors buried at three depths in a cleared plot (blue line) and adjacent control plot (red line). Fewer shrubs resulting in greater soil water availability and corresponding increases in the productivity of the grass layer have been recorded for all the paired plots.

A map showing GPS tracks of the rangeland monitors who keep track of the distribution of livestock around Phalaubeni village (January to July 2021). Red lines are routes patrolled most frequently, and blue lines least frequently.

Dr Phesheya Dlamini and colleagues from the University of Limpopo – Mr Vusi Mbanjwa (soil scientist) and final year student, Ms Tebogo Ratabana (on right) – recently collected soil samples from the site. These will be used by Honours students to investigate the effect of land use (rangeland versus protected area) and vegetation cover on soil carbon dynamics.