The Ongoye Forest in southern Zululand is one of the gems along the Zululand Birding Route, especially due to the presence of the highly localised Green Barbet, Stactolaema olivacea, a highly sought after species by most birders.
The forest is also recognised as the number one site in terms of bio diversity conservation in KwaZulu-Natal, home to the endemic Ongoye Red Squirrel; Paraxerus palliates ornatus and numerous special plants and invertebrates. The forest has remained largely underutilised by tourists and until recently only accessible to a select few tourists who own a 4x4. To add to this, the most common use for the forest reserve is for cattle grazing, collecting medicinal plants, fuel wood and timber for construction of houses and kraals.
This is changing as a joint venture between the SappiWWF TreeRoutes Partnership, BirdLife South Africa’s Zululand Birding Route, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Uthungulu District Municipality and the Manzimela Tribal Authority has established an upgraded access road to the forest, developing a small self contained birders lodge, campsite and day visitor facilities.
The co-operation between business, government and the non-government organisations aims to improve people’s lives and conserve our heritage.
There has been some concern raised by members of the public regarding “changing the sense of place” by facilitating broader access to the forest and the feeling out there is that the forest will cease to be the magic place it is once the “average Joe Bloggs” can get there in his sedan and could become a conservation threat in itself. These concerns were shared by the Ongoye Forest Development Committee, of which BirdLife South Africa and the Zululand Birding Route are members and the overwhelming feeling is that these developments will ultimately make a significant positive impact on the area for the following reasons:
The forest is surrounded by a very rural and poor community, many of which use the forest as their main natural resource. For the forest to be recognised as an asset it is essential that the forest plays a role in the socio-economic development of the people who live around the forest and who are ultimately the most important stakeholders in terms of protecting this wonderful area. The road upgrade alone has provided over 100 jobs which favour single parent families and households without any other income sources. The birders camp is expected to create additional jobs for camp staff and guides. This creates a mechanism where the community are benefiting in a sustainable manner from the forest and will become partners in the forests management rather than unhappy, marginalised neighbours.
The road and camp in the forest adds a very important “control” mechanism for the reserve, currently some of the 4x4 fraternity use the area in an uncontrolled and damaging manner, quad bikes in the grasslands pose a serious threat to threatened cycads and plant collectors have relatively free reign, in fact the last wild Encephalartos woodii (Wood’s Cycad) was collected from Ongoye and is now unknown in the wild, perhaps if there had been better control and a “watchful eye” at the forest back then, this cycad would still survive at Ongoye today?
The project has also opened the doors for future conservation measures such as the fencing of the reserve, removal of alien weeds and broad community awareness and environmental education projects – all of which will ultimately ensure long term survival of the Ongoye Forest as one of South Africa’s most spectacular natural assets.
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Two new bird guides have recently been trained at the SappiWWF Wakkerstroom Bird Guide Training Centre and will be available at the forest to help birders find those elusive “specials” and share the wonders of this amazing forest. Guides can be booked by phoning +27 (35) 753 5644 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The birders Camp perched on a hill overlooking an endless blanket of forest will provide self-catering accommodation and facilities for 8 people and limited camping opportunities. The site is simply breathtaking and would be quite feasible to hear Green Barbet or watch Crowned Eagles soaring over the forest from your bed.
Special thanks for images
BirdLife SA / Zululand Birding Route
Eco-tourism = Community + Environment