IUCN SA Karst Working Group

IUCN (SA) Karst Working Group

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The Cave Research Organisation of South Africa (C.R.O.S.A.) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature South Africa Country Office (IUCN SA) established the Karst Working Group. The first meeting, with Saliem Fakir and Mike Buchanan present, was held at The IUCN SA in Pretoria on Wednesday 9 July 2003.

The first founder meeting was held at The IUCN SA Pretoria. Thursday 5 February 2004. Present: were Melinda Swift (GDACE), Saliem Fakir (IUCN), Murray McGregor (independent karst consultant), Melissa Fourie (IUCN SA), Leintjie Cohen (Mpumalanga Parks Board). Garfield Krige (Land Owner), Neil Norquay (Wild Cave Adventures), Mike Buchanan (C.R.O.S.A.). Nigel Fernsby (GNORBIG) Bat interest Group.


A Karst Working Group (KWG) was created to caution, document, advise and to help monitor and reverse the degradation of karst systems in the old “Transvaal” South Africa; now Gauteng, Northwest Province, Limpopo Province and Mpumalanga. This working group was to oversee direction on the rehabilitation and remediation of South Africa's Neoachaean dolomite palaeokarst basin - the South African Aquifer (SAA), of which 75% resides under the Bush Veld Igneous Complex (BIC) - a vastly dynamic Karst groundwater system, that has taken 2300 million years to evolve. This huge basin has its central point at an altitude of 3300 ft above mean sea level (amsl), where effluxes from ancient hydrothermal springs/vents are evident. It has a perimeter altitude in the south of 5000ft amsl (Sterkfontein Caves environs) and a northerly perimeter of 4000 ft amsl (Makapan Valley).
The disparity has been created by the geological shifting/tilting of this basin due to historical occurrence's, i.e. tectonics, volcanic action and /or meteorite impact which created the Vreedefort Dome astrobleme. The latter possibly being the most likely cause.


In the mid 1990’s much debate and concerns were leveled at the new Government around delays in management of natural places and State Reserves. This was seen to be a low priority for our fledgling democracy. Conservation was deemed an apartheid word and connected to land dispossession of previously disadvantaged people.

Early days – 1994/5

During this time, the seeds of the KWG were sown. The original concept started small, with the start of an organization called The Friends of Wolkberg. This conservation concept started around campfires outside the Wolkberg Caves in Limpopo Province during monitoring visits. The primary originators were: -
Chris Wynn, a concerned CROSA member, Stanley Rodgers, an Environmental Officer with the Department of Environment and Tourism (DEAT), Polokwane, Mike Buchanan. Chairperson for The Cave Research Organization of South Africa, Cornelius and Mrs. Van Den Berg, both environmental managers with the Department of Environment and Tourism (DEAT), Polokwane. Cornelius was the manager in charge of the Wolkberg Wilderness Area, Wolkberg Caves Nature Reserve and Legalametsie Nature Reserve.


At first, it was noted that the Government was not going to pass any form of budget to protect The Wolkberg Caves Nature reserve. We believed then that this site warranted world wilderness recognition as a protected water farm or equivalent.

The Wolkberg caves were being subjected to theft and general neglect. Many local folk and politicians called for the opening of Wolkberg Caves to the public. This included the heritage farmhouses on the government owned adjacent farm Mimosa. We embarked on an awareness campaign, introducing many knowledgeable and interested people to the area and they agreed with the urgent need for conservation or environmental protection of the area. The caves were also known to be Histoplasma capsulatum (caves disease) prevalent. This discouraged tourism to the cave, but not to the farm or established reserves. We embarked on more fund raising initiatives and at about that time DEAT stepped in and informed us that if we wanted to go forward, we should include all the established reserves, including those that were owned privately, namely. Des Saco - Ashmoledales, Thabina & Legalametsi Nature Reserves and the Wolkberg Wilderness Area. This was to be called The Drakensburg Escarpment Biosphere Reserve Program (DEBR); a multi-stakeholder initiative. Unfortunately this was a bad decision because it left DEAT Limpopo with far to unwieldy program to manage.
All the private stakeholders were told to pull out due to the initial size of the project. This sound advice came from Advocate François Junod, a master of conservation areas private conservation programs. François was the creator of The Magalisberg Nature Reserve and the new Water Act for our new South Africa. François had continually cautioned about going to big too fast. Typically these projects had the makings of a failure due to the old analogy of biting of more than you can chew! The DEBR is still ongoing and no progressive changes have been made at any of the reserves the project was intended to conserve.


Mike Buchanan has made allegations of bad management of the dynamic karst system supporting The Cradle of Human Kind World Heritage Site, including the rest of The SAA. These have been directed at to both Dept Water affairs and Forestry (DWAF) and GDACE. Multifarious abusers exist; most unaware of induced damage, and they all need to be encouraged to comply with international karst best practice for a reversal of the situation. Mike then joined the international IUCN, WCPA, Task force on cave and karst, which is under the leadership of Professor Elery Hamilton Smith, Australia; an international leader in karst management and world karst matters. Elery is well informed around new and existing karst concerns. It was Elery that encouraged Mike to approach The IUCN SA for assistance on the creation of a multi-stakeholder Karst Working Group (KWG).

Both Elery and Mike have developed a sound working relationship within the IUCN WCPA Task force on Cave and Karst and they maintain constant contact with the exchange of local and international developments.


Mr Saliem Fakir, from the IUCN South Africa, was approached by Mike Buchanan (then chairperson for CROSA) around concerns relating to a deficit in "impact assessment" around the tourism potential of The Cradle of Human Kind and the rest of The SAA. This site was declared a World Heritage Site (CHK WHS) by UNESCO in 1999 because of the paleao & cultural significance of the area. Many other issues around karst misuse were starting to come to fruition around the huge South African Aquifer basin.

The original intended focus of the creation of this working group was to invite all stakeholders on karst matters to attend and contribute, thus enabling the dissemination of international best practice information pertaining to karst use and conservation. This came about as a result of extensive research by Mike on the impacts facing caves and groundwater supporting the CHKWHS. Many mining, agricultural and development impacts were becoming increasingly concerning. Urbanization on the Pretoria karst near Irene and Verwoerdburg were getting out of hand. Not to mention that of Johannesburg and Mogale City on The CHKWHS. The Authorities had all failed to identify the imminent threats and were not perturbed by them at the time, even though many of these problems had been brought to the following departments attention; namely DACE, DWAF and DEAT as early as 1998.

Both Saliem and Mike felt that the establishment of a multi-stakeholder Karst Working Group was essential. It was decided that the working group should be called The IUCN SA Karst Working Group. Mike set about drawing up a list of stakeholders. This led to a founder meeting, where a way forward was planned.

Mike and others then set out to raise finance by approaching GDACE, SASOL, ALPHA Cement, Goldfields and other well known corporate companies. We also attempted to bring the biggest impactors on board; i.e. the mines. This was achieved by inviting Goldfields Dr Andries Leuschner to join and a turning point was attained.

The rest of the progress of the KWG has been well documented in it's own annals. 2005 saw quite a number of changes. Mike Buchanan had felt some were commercialising the KWG to attain funding, rather than getting down to drawing up codes of conduct for karst users and researchers, which was seen as a pre-requisite. Mike then started a more intensive campaign, to create interdepartmental Government awareness. Saliem resigned from the IUCN SA in late 2005. It is important to point out that the three originators are still on the mailing list, namely Stan Rodgers, Cor Van den Berg and Mike Buchanan.


The current direction of the KWG is cautiously slow. Stakeholders representation is very weak and funding is what is needed right now in order to maintain momentum and attract research interest. This should be provided by the departments responsible for the tasking of Conservation on/in Karst Wetland Systems. DWAF should be leading the way on this topic, as the rest of the world is currently registering Karst as wetlands under the RAMSAR convention. The GDACE have had good representation on the KWG with very little funding in support of the project. This has primarily come in the form of paid publications from Blue IQ and the Water Research Commission, who has kept the KWG afloat. However, funding has been scant for the amount of awareness that this voluntary working group has achieved to date. It is in the interest and the responsibility of these departments, along with the Department of Minerals & Energy Affairs, to provide funding. If theses departments had heeded the advice given to them in the 1990’s (N.B. many paid government papers) we would not have required the KWG in the first place. In effect the government is currently shifting responsibility onto a voluntary, under-funded KWG to provide the functions that is, without doubt, a government responsibility, namely Karst and groundwater management.. Perhaps a Karst Institute or commission is what is required as an independent overarching governmental body, financed by the tax payer.

It would be a disastrous mistake not to adopt an independent, unbiased Governmental Karst Commission or similar, to curtail the current ignorance around the multifarious issues pertaining to South African Karst and the associated groundwater.

2 April 2006

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