Following my blog Good, bad or ugly? Riverbed Cycle Challenge, Kgalagadi, and a posting on the SANParks Forum about the proposed event, things got well and truly riled up. Many regular visitors to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park couldn’t believe that the proposed 155km cycle event down the riverbed from Union’s End to Nossob wasn’t just a late April fool’s joke.
In what many are hailing as a PR disaster, there has been a lack of transparency in the way this event has been handled. Regular conservation-minded visitors to the Kgalagadi voiced their negative perception of what they considered a bad idea. They asked valid questions and gave various alternative suggestions, yet they were either ignored or fobbed off as irrelevant. Two replies – from Louis Lemmer (head of the Honorary Rangers) and Gabrielle Venter (SANParks Manager: Media & Stakeholder Relations) were largely puffery that deftly avoided answering the hard questions.
Finally on 1 November, Reynold Thakhuli, SANParks’ General Manager: Media, Events & Stakeholder Relations, said that objections to the event were being considered and that ‘a more informed decision on the matter will be communicated in due course’. That was ten days ago and there’s been no further communication from SANParks.
I encapsulated the main questions in an email to SANParks CEO David Mabunda on 2 November, eliciting an immediate acknowledgement saying he wasn't the right person to handle my queries but he would pass them on to the ‘technical committee to handle and respond to accordingly’.
I'm still waiting.
And I still want answers. I believe I’m entitled to them in terms of section 32 of our Constitution, which states my right of access to any information held by any organ of the State, which SANParks is. Here are some of my as yet unanswered questions. [15 Nov: some questions or parts of questions have been rendered redundant by SANParks' announcement on 13 November that the event is being moved to existing roads in the south of the park - see Comments at the bottom of this page. Where this applies, I've added a note to that effect. All the other questions still apply as before.]
2. Although the final Draft Basic Assessment report from Delron Consulting for the building developments at Nossob, Gharagab and Craig Lockhart (see Kgalagadi development update for more about this issue) doesn’t deal with the cycle event itself, its relevance is clear in this sentence: ‘The river habitat is sensitive for disturbance and it is suggested that the disturbance should be kept to the minimum.’ And that's from a firm hired by SANParks to do an environmental impact study in the KTP, albeit for a different purpose. Isn’t this a clear indicator that if the cycle event has to be held inside the park (which I don’t think it does) it should be anywhere except in the pristine fossilised riverbed? Why can it not be held, as forumites have suggested, on already degraded areas such as roads inside the park or, better still, outside the park where the local community can get involved and benefit from it (given the current drive towards responsible tourism, of which I’m sure SANParks is aware)? [15 Nov: this question has been rendered redundant by SANParks moving the event to the existing road in the south of the park - see Comments]
3. Where the event diverts off the road into a no-go zone (in terms of the zonation maps that are attached to the KTP management plan), why was no EIA carried out? [15 Nov: this question is redundant for the new course because existing roads are being used]
4. Given that a reconnaissance ride was undertaken in June 2011, and a promotional video advertising the event was posted on Facebook in July 2011, why was no management plan drawn up 18 months ago, before the decision was taken to proceed?
5. Why, according to the reply on the forum from Gabrielle Venter, is there still no Environmental Management Plan (EMP), a whole 17 months after the reconnaissance trip? [15 Nov: according to SANParks an EMP is now being drawn up by 'an independent consultant', which is great, but it raises another question of who that consultant will be (and how independent)]
6. Why were SANParks staff only sent out into the northern part of the riverbed two or three weeks ago to see if there were still any visible effects of the reconnaissance trail 17 months ago? Was it only because forumites were raising all sorts of questions and kicking up a fuss? [15 Nov: this question is redundant for the new course because existing roads are now being used, though the handling of the original proposed riverbed course has damaged confidence]
7. How many vehicles will be needed to transport participants, support staff, medics and spectators and all their required camping gear, food & drink, toilets, showers, water, medical supplies? If we’re talking of a minimum of 80–100 vehicles, how will the sand road be affected, as well as traffic flow given that the park will be full with other visitors during the school holidays?
9. I believe that the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) has provisionally given their support to this event provided nesting raptors are not disturbed. If the route has to give a wide berth around a known bateleur nest, for example, what proof do we have that it will not disturb another bateleur nest that EWT does not already know about? [15 Nov: I believe there are fewer raptor nests in the area where the event will now take place]
10. If the organisers consulted with the EWT regarding raptors, why not consult other experts about possible effects on other creatures, particularly those that live in the soil of the riverbed? And if such experts were consulted, why have the organisers been so keen to trumpet the EWT’s approval but remained silent on any other experts that were consulted? [15 Nov: will such experts be consulted for the current EMP?]
12. Exactly how do the organisers plan to avoid inconvenience to normal visitors? As I mentioned above, we’re talking of at least 80-100 extra vehicles, spectators/supporters. I fail to see how existing campers at Polentswa won't be affected on the second night when this circus arrives at Polentswa, and all visitors to Nossob on the third night. Then there’s the issue of all the extra vehicles clogging up the road between Twee Rivieren and Union’s End during school holidays. [15 Nov: the affected area is now in the south from Twee Rivieren and Kielie Krankie, and Twee Rivieren and Kij Kij, but the central question still applies]
13. Where is the detailed financial analysis for this event? Exactly how much profit will accrue to SANParks’ conservation efforts from this event? And if such an analysis isn't available, why not, given that Honorary Rangers are saying the reason for it is to raise money? When on 23 October 2012, my husband emailed Peter Zietsman of the West Rand Honorary Rangers organising this event to ask some relevant questions about this aspect, the reply was that Zietsman was still ‘drilling down into the logistics of the event’ and that the Honorary Rangers ‘will be [my emphasis] having many workshops to consider and reconsider issues’. Surely these are the sort of things that should be ironed out to the last detail before an event is launched, announced and marketed in a cycle magazine, and before money is taken from potential participants? Shouldn’t this have been part of the viability plan?
14. Are SANParks or the Honorary Rangers ploughing money into this ‘first event’ to subsidise it? I consulted the organisers of two cycle events in the Cape and they estimated that at least an additional R500 000 would have to be invested in this event, over and above the income from participants/supporters fees. How will a profit be made, given that the entry fee from 50 cyclists appears to cover only a fraction of the costs and isn’t even enough to cover the costs of mobile toilets, not to mention fuel, water containers, food, trucks, marshals, catering equipment, etc?
15. If SANParks is subsidising this first event, is the hope that subsequent events could be made bigger in order to bring in a small profit? And what effect will such bigger, regular events have on the environment?
16. People are so against this event that they are prepared to pay out of their own pockets to get it stopped. Suggestions have been made that if the Honorary Rangers can present a detailed financial breakdown of income, costs and projected profit, and it can be independently verified, people will raise the amount of the profit to put a stop to the event in the riverbed. If this event is truly being held to make money for conservation, why isn’t this suggestion being taken
seriously? [15 Nov: Although many people would have liked the event to be moved out of the park, most can probably make peace with the compromise to move it out of the riverbed, though some are still expressing concerns about 'opening the door' to other such events they consider out of character for a wilderness area]
17. Is insurance being taken out for any possible mishap or accident or animal-human interaction? And is this being included in a detailed financial analysis (which, as in point 13 above, doesn’t seem to have been done yet)?
18. Where will all the vehicles be parked overnight?
19. What arrangements will be made for toilet facilities (and sewage removal) and refuse removal?
20. It’s been said that cyclists will leave at intervals in groups of ten and that an advance group of rangers will go ahead of each group to sweep the area for dangerous animals in the riverbed. How many people will be in each of these advance groups? Will they be on bicycles? Quadbikes? Will they also be driving/riding along the riverbed? (Obviously, they can’t use the road because in places the road between Nossob and Union’s End is not along the riverbed.) [15 Nov: This question is no longer relevant for the new course, though obviously any offroad impact - e.g. at the overnight stops - is still of concern]
22. Every cyclist usually has at least one second to look after his/her need for food, drinks, etc, when needed. Will these seconds be allowed to drive in the riverbed? If not, how will they be able to connect with the cyclists they are seconding? [15 Nov: The riverbed part of the equation is no longer relevant for the new course.]
23. What about medical attention? Will medics be allowed to drive in the riverbed if a cyclist is incapacitated either by heat, other physical condition or injury, bicycle breakdown, animal attack or other problem? [15 Nov: The riverbed part of the equation is no longer relevant for the new course.]
24. Will a medical helicopter be on standby, given that it’s about a 10-hour journey from Union’s End to the nearest hospital in Upington? Was any thought given to how noisy and intrusive this might be, scaring game away from the area so that game viewing for other visitors in the area (which is why they’re paying a lot of money to be there) will be poor? [15 Nov: Gemsbokplein and Kij Kij are closer at about a 3.5-hour drive to the nearest hospital, but the question about the helicopter and its effects remain]
25. How many Honorary Rangers or SANParks staff or members of their families have signed up for the event? Is it possible to share a list of the participants? I ask because one of the stated objectives is apparently to market the Kgalagadi to a wider circle of people. If most of those signed up are Honorary Rangers or SANParks staff, as many people suspect, how is that widening the circle? [15 Nov: we have been told that not one of the participants is a SANParks employee or Honorary Ranger, but we still have no evidence]
26. Is this ‘an opportunity [cyclists] will never get to have again in their life’, a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’, as it says more than once on the promotional video? Or, as suggested by a later comment on the video that ‘one day we hope this will be the premier cycle event of the calendar’, is the plan to make it an annual event?
27. One defence of this event has been to point to similar events in Kruger or other parks. Isn't it ingenuous to compare developed parks like Kruger, Table Mountain, Garden Route, etc, with KTP which, in the words of ex KTP park manager Nico van der Walt himself, has an ‘amazing sense of wilderness’?
28. Another comment mentioned in defence of this event was that it was being used as a marketing tool to open up the park to different/new visitors. Firstly, how badly does this park really need to be marketed? Every month a clutch of South Africa’s travel and outdoor magazines run at least one if not more articles about the wonders of the Kgalagadi, so is a cycle race really needed as a marketing tool? Secondly, does it send the right message in any case? It would seem to be drawing on an elitist, well-to-do white section of the community, whereas a better alternative might be, in my opinion, be to get sponsorship to bring less privileged adults and children of other race groups into the park to experience it and learn what conservation is about and how important it is for our combined future.
And now we still wait for answers, a month after many of them were first posed on the SANParks Forum and ten days after the CEO was made aware of them ...
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