SappiWWF Tree Routes Partnership builds on growing ecotourism trend

Ecotourism – often defined as low-impact, ecologically and culturally sensitive travel that benefits local communities and host countries – is considered the fastest growing market in the tourism industry. According to the World Tourism Organisation, a specialised United Nations agency, this branch of tourism is growing annually at a rate of 5% and represents 6% of global gross domestic product (GDP).

Sappi pre-empted the eco-tourism trend as far back as 1998, when we gave WWF SA a grant of R10 million and set up the SappiWWF TreeRoutes Partnership. The Partnership was based on the understanding that environmentally sensitive areas or areas suited to ecotourism are often situated in remote parts of South Africa where there is little formal employment and levels of education are low. That means people are sometimes forced to make decisions that damage the environment in order to feed themselves or because they simply don’t understand the long-term consequences of their actions.

The aim of the Partnership is to promote eco-tourism and to give rural communities and understanding of the natural environment as well as a sense of involvement in the environment.

The grant funding was entrusted to WWF SA, which has since been responsible for identifying suitable projects for the Partnership, according to carefully-defined criteria. The on-site development and operational management of each project has then, in turn, been contracted to the Wildlands Conservation Trust.

A primary condition of funding in terms of the SappiWWF TreeRoutes Partnership is that all projects supported should be community-based and inclusive, be economically sustainable and be catalysts for further eco-friendly development. All members of the involved communities should benefit in the broadest sense through direct and indirect employment, skills acquisition and training, as well as through the benefits of community ownership and infrastructure.

Most SappiWWF TreeRoutes Partnership projects are situated on land bordering the indigenous forests and wetlands of KwaZulu Natal, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape, broadly in the areas where Sappi has operating units. These are home to many unique and engendered species, such as the Karkloof Butterfly, the Blue Swallow and the Oribi. In some instances, the land also encompasses rare habitats, such as the Coastal Dune Forests of Maputaland.

The projects involve the creation of unique eco-tourism destination that showcase South Africa’s beautiful forests and wetlands, many of which are endangered.

The creation of the Wakkerstroom Wetland Reserve was the first SappiWWF TreeRoutes Partnership project. It was chosen as Wakkerstroom is home to one of the largest populations of threatened bird species in South Africa. The property is managed by BirdLife South Africa (BLSA) who train bird guides at the SappiWWF BirdLife SA Training Centre. Some of these guides, all of whom are drawn from local communities, are now employed at the Partnership’s other projects while others are successfully self-employed bird guides.

There are six other projects, including the 250 hectare Dlinza Forest and Aerial Boardwalk, which boasts rare bird species such as the Spotted Ground Thrush and Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon, as well 85 butterfly species. The Marutswa Forest Trail also incorporates a boardwalk
as well as lookout jetties, decks and view points, allowing visitors to view the various layers of the forest, including the canopy. Here birders look out for Cape Parrots, the Orange Ground-thrush, the Green Twinspot and shy KwaZulu-Natal mist-belt forest bird species. Managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Ongonye Forest Reserve comprises over 3,000ha of rolling grasslands and Coastal Scarp Forest, recognized for its high biodiversity value. Until the Partnership opened the Ongonye Forest Birders’ Camp, the forest was largely underutilized by tourists.

Opened in 2007, the Southern KwaZulu-Natal Birding Route takes visitors from the golden beaches and dense lush forests of the North and South coasts through the beautiful Lowveld and up to the spectacular heights of the Drakensberg Mountains. Apart from the spectacular scenery, a bird list of 500 species along the route including many rare and endemic species such as Blue Swallow, Cape Parrot, Drakensberg Rock-jumper, Eurasian Bittern, all three of Southern Africa’s Crane species and Bearded Vulture make this an unforgettable tourist destination.

All three of South Africa’s species: the Blue Crane, South Africa’s national bird; the Grey-Crowned Crane and the Wattled Crane can be seen in the Karkloof Valley in the Natal midlands. Visitors to the Karkloof Crane and Conservation Centre established by the Partnership can learn more about the valleys natural beauty and assets, and also wander through the farmlands to two strategically positioned bird hides that provide visitors with intimate insight into the lives of the many bird species that frequent the valley.

The Greater St Lucia Wetlands Reserve World Heritage Site is situated on the breathtaking Zululand north coast. The Partnership was involved in the establishment of the 24-bed luxury Thonga Beach Lodge – the first tourism concession in the reserve. The Lodge is tucked into the dune forest right on the Beach at Mabibi, just north of the world-famous Sodwana dive site. The Mabibi Development Trust, comprising the Mabibi community, 68% of the development, which was financed through grant funding from the Partnership and low-interest loan funding from the Wildlands Conservation Trust and Ithala Development Finance Corporation Ltd.

“It was natural for Sappi, a company that is synonymous with sustainable forestry management in South Africa, to focus on a project that would protect endangered indigenous forests,” says Andre Oberholzer, Sappi’s Group Head, Corporate Affairs. “The projects show that ecotourism can be a key driver of sustainable development. The community-owned and community-run eco-tourism projects developed under the auspices of the Partnership have demonstrated tangible conservation benefits and created long-term socio-economic benefits for the communities in which they are situated.”

About eco-tourism
Does ecotourism really benefit the environment and the people or live in or near environmentally sensitive areas? A 2007 report, Nature’s Investment Bank, co-sponsored by WWF Indonesia, reviewed four recently protected marine zones in Fiji, Indonesia, the Philippines and the Solomon Islands showed that it does.

When poverty increases, fish stocks are depleted. Fishers are often driven to use destructive methods to catch what little is left, damaging the reefs and fish habitat that produce the food local communities depend upon for survival. With every five percent loss of coral reefs, 250,000-500,000 tons of fish are lost as well, threatening food security for millions.

In every case, the conservation schemes and related eco-tourism had boosted fish catches and helped create new jobs. In some sites, the scale of improvement was dramatic," says Leisher. "In Fiji, for example, local incomes doubled over five years following introduction of a protected fishery.

Note: Nature's Investment Bank was co-funded by the Nature Conservancy, Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, the Australian government and WWF-Indonesia, and was completed in collaboration with local NGOs and universities in each of the four study sites.