Conservation parks: wastelands or legitimately protected areas?

South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa recently declared the South Atlantic Oceans of Prince Edward Island and Marion Island would become Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

These become South Africa’s and Africa’s first MPAs. Prince Edward and Marion were previously best known for an alleged Vela nuclear test conducted in 1979 by the Israeli and South African military. The incident was never proven. This declaration is a landmark for South Africa’s oceanic conservation. The islands form part of the 180,000km2 MPA, which is the combined size of Swaziland, the Free State and Lesotho.

The islands once hosted a settlement that shipwrecked crews, sealers and guano hunters used as a temporary base. The introduction and rapid reproduction of cats on the islands midway through the 20th century had devastating consequences for native bird species. Researchers eliminated the cats during the 1990s and today the island acts as a research station for the local bird, ocean and plant life such as albatrosses, penguins, killer whales and Patagonian toothfish stocks. Unsustainable fishing practices affect the islands fauna and resulted in significant economic and ecological losses to South Africa.

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The islands are uninhabited today, hence the ease of making it a MPA. Yet just declaring uninhabited land a conservation area is not necessary a step forward in dealing with human-wildlife conflict. This is because most conflict occurs where animals are in some kind of competition for a particular resource – in most cases this is living space.

Two examples stand out. Namibia’s Dorob National Park, the world’s first conservation area that stretched a nation’s entire coastline was declared in 2011. At the same time, massive uranium finds occurred within the boundaries of the new park. Subsequent development around uranium mining in the coastal towns Swakopmund and Walvis Bay has put pressure on local wildlife and plants. There is also concern some desert landscapes will become destroyed, unusable or uninhabitable. Additionally, the growth of commercial interest in the towns has led to mooted construction of a chemical plant; also, the much-publicised environmental damage caused by the filming of Mad Max on the desert’s fragile gravel plains have undermined the parks existence as a conservation area.

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Above: A chameleon, while a small and relatively common animal, plays an important role in fragile ecosystems such as the Namib Desert. This one just avoided getting squashed by one of Mad Max‘s outlandish vehicles. Source: http://mongabay-images.s3.amazonaws.com/13/0411namib-chameleon.jpg

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Above: The vehicle tracks have scarred the the gravel plains and can take decades to disappear. Source: Namibian Sun

But it is definitely a stride in the direction. Bikini Atoll is a World Heritage site – a destroyed remnant of the dawn and decay of the nuclear age. It forms part of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean and endured 23 American controlled nuclear explosions during the Cold War cowboy-days of weapons testing. Today, almost 70 years after the first native people from Bikini Atoll were relocated so safer areas outside the blast and radioactivity range, the islands are still uninhabitable for lengthy periods due to the radioactive poisoning of the plants, animals and land. The explosions permanently destroyed coral reefs, obliterated the islands and radioactivity spread to neighbouring inhabited islands, leading to pregnancy miscarriages for women and increased levels of cancer among people. Islands such as Bikini Atoll were far from civilisation and thus places where irreparable environmental damaged caused by the enormous blasts could be forgotten and ignored.

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Above: The explosion of a hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll. The paradisiacal foreground contrasts markedly from the destruction waiting when the dust settles. Source: National Geographic 

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Above: Bikini Atoll today – with a massive crater in the middle of the lagoon, along with radioactive waters. Source: www.nuclearclaimstribunal.com

Another example that has emerged recently is the USA’s federal approval to allow uranium mining to go ahead under 10 kilometres from the Grand Canyon National Park in 2014. This is despite a ban on new hard rock mining imposed by the Obama Administration during 2013. Conservationists as well as Native American groups have filed lawsuits against the Canadian uranium mining company. Many old uranium mines are scattered in the vicinity and were abandoned after the end of the Cold War during the 1990s as the the price for uranium plummeted. In the last 5 years however, the uranium industry is booming again and has led to many companies reopening mines. It appears that this particularly harmful form of mining will threaten a member of the 7 Wonders of the Natural World in terms of radioactivity poisoning.

While the declaration of the MPA on the Prince Edward Islands looks good on South Africa’s conservation credits, a similar government-endorsed declaration in areas where humans and nature have a vested interest would be much more meaningful. Declaring land uninhabited by either animals or humans is reminiscent of the San and Khoi people being forced to live in the unproductive desert regions of the Kalahari by late 19th century colonists. Governments thus need to consider the needs of the endangered fauna and flora when choosing potential conservation areas if their intentions are really to maintain and protect natural biodiversity.