Attraction: With streams that feed into dams, the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve contains some of the purest water in SA. Efforts to create a tourism route for the reserve will help to market the area as a destination for the benefit of the many people working there, create jobs and make the reserve more secure. Picture: SUPPLIED
Attraction: With streams that feed into dams, the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve contains some of the purest water in SA. Efforts to create a tourism route for the reserve will help to market the area as a destination for the benefit of the many people working there, create jobs and make the reserve more secure. Picture: SUPPLIED

Residents of the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve are beginning to feel the benefits after being accepted into the fold of biosphere reserves of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) two years ago.

This is, after all, an elite club of the world’s most pristine and protected zones, so living or operating a business inside the reserve has kudos.

Gerry Comninos, who owns a game farm in the area, sits on a board that manages the region. "The residents take special pride in their mountain," he says.

"They hadn’t realised what was under their feet. And tourists want to know more about the reserve because, with climate change, ‘biosphere’ has become a buzzword."

Getting buy-in from all interested parties including local government, could take some doing for the small but vociferous group that initiated the project. Comninos says education is a vital part of the solution, and they are taking a roadshow to neighbouring settlements.

They also keep an eye on developers trying to build within the reserve’s transitional zone separating it from surrounding urban areas, where only approved development is allowed.

Hermien van Schalkwyk, board member in charge of tourism, is trying to establish a proper Magaliesberg Biosphere Tourism Route.

"This will help market the area as a destination and a brand that we can take to major tourism shows to really bring the benefit of the biosphere to the many people working in the area, create jobs and make it more secure," she says.

"But, of course, we need the buy-in of the local, provincial and other state entities, as well as sponsorship from private enterprise. This would really put the Magaliesberg biosphere on the map."

Unesco initiated the Man and the Biosphere programme in 1971 and now there are 669 biosphere reserves in 120 countries. SA has eight: three each in the Western Cape and Limpopo, one in Mpumalanga, as well as the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve, shared between Gauteng and North West.

The aims are to conserve the landscape and heritage; develop a sustainable economy by relieving poverty and developing human activity; and to conduct research and share it.

The 360ha Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve contains the Cradle of Humankind — which was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999 — and encompasses Pretoria, Rustenburg and Mogale City, as well as the Witwatersberg and Skurweberg.

The cradle is in the reserve’s core, which is protected by an act of Parliament, with a buffer zone surrounding it.

The biosphere is all the air, land and water that makes life sustainable, and the notion of preserving it in designated parts of the globe was new to SA, isolated during apartheid from the Unesco initiative

However, unlike a national park, there are no fences. Rather, principles of "reconciliation ecology" are used, which take into account people’s needs and the need to sustain vital natural resources.

The Magaliesberg is a significant region that is worthy of protection, says Vincent Carruthers, whose seminal book The Magaliesberg is now in its fourth edition.

What Carruthers calls "the fight" for recognition as a biosphere reserve began in 2006 with a group of concerned residents banding together, as the area was under pressure as a result of inappropriate development as well as bureaucratic neglect and corruption.

The Mountain Club of SA, involved in the protection of the area for about 40 years, and the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa) supported the campaign to raise funds, create awareness and recruit members.

The biosphere is all the air, land and water that makes life sustainable, and the notion of preserving it in designated parts of the globe was new to SA, isolated during apartheid from the Unesco initiative.

"The first challenge was to get the government to see the merits of the project. It was a new idea to SA, and as the area fell in two provinces, we had to get them, and the eight different municipalities involved, to collaborate," Carruthers says.

The application to Unesco in 2013 required much research into social, biological, geological and historical details of the area. It took the scientists involved — 20 experts at a cost of R2m — three years to complete the sizeable document.

The first application was rejected because Pelindaba, which had been linked to the manufacturing of nuclear arms, was included. "We argued that it now produced benign nuclear power used in cancer treatment but it had to be excised from the map," he says.

"A subsequent application was rejected because there had not been sufficient acceptance by the communities involved. We held public meetings and got signed endorsements from traditional leaders and in 2015, on our third application, we got it."

Residents enthusiastically came on board and much of the buffer zone is made up of conservancies, where landowners have dropped their fences and co-operate to run eco-friendly, sustainable enterprises and conserve the fauna and flora.

The area is where the first land mass rose out of the sea, and where life on Earth began 3.1-billion years ago. The Magaliesberg was formed a billion years later when an underground volcano erupted, spurting lava into a basin known as the Bushveld Complex. The mountain range formed on the southern side of the complex, which has rich reserves of platinum, manganese and chrome.

The seismic activity coupled with the effects of water and weathering led to the formation of the strange mushroom rock formations in the Magaliesberg; and the caves where early hominid fossils have been found, and where soldiers hid during the South African War.

As Carruthers points out, it is rare to find evidence of humanity dating from the present right back to the Stone Age in one place. The spear tips and hand axes made of chert (a form of silica) found in the area has drawn many paleontologists.

With beautiful waterfalls and streams, the area also contains some of the purest water in SA.

The area’s location at the interface of grassland and bushveld savannah produces a huge abundance and variety of plants and animals. Jackals and steenbok as well as bird species such as blue crane and guinea fowl live in the southern grassland zone of the reserve. The yellow-billed hornbill seldom ventures beyond the northern bushveld savannah, where impala and marula trees abound. The grassland burns in the hot season, regenerating itself with herbs, gorgeous wild flowers and the grass varieties.

The region contains about 10 habitats including mountain grassland, woodland and scenic kloofs, where wildlife ranging from baboons and monkeys to shrews, bushbabies, porcupines, warthogs and leopard make their homes.

When Unesco launched the Man and the Biosphere programme, it intended these regions to be "living laboratories". The fascinating Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve lives up to that promise.

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