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A Plan to Mine Coal in the Birthplace of Rhino Conservation

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 21, 2015

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(Photo: Richard Conniff)

My latest for Takepart:

A few years ago, I was reporting a story about South Africa’s war on rhinos. I suppose you could call it “Vietnam’s war” or “Asia’s war,” since that’s where most of the rhino horn ends up, to supply a bogus medicinal trade. But let’s face it: South Africa’s own political and financial elite tolerate the poaching of more than 1,000 rhinos in the nation every year, probably because they profit from it.

In any case, the obvious place to start my reporting was the birthplace of rhino conservation: Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, in the coastal state of Kwazulu-Natal. This is where an earlier generation of South Africans saved the white rhino from certain extinction, carefully breeding the species back from just 20 animals in the world at the end of the 19th century to a population of 20,000 today.

In 1895, they also designated Hluhluwe-iMfolozi (pronounced “shluh-shloo-ee”) Africa’s first nature preserve.

This should be a great national heritage, and also a source of cultural pride: The broad river valleys and rolling highlands of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi were once the favorite hunting ground of Shaka, the storied Zulu warrior king. The park is home not just to white rhinos but also to critically endangered black rhinos, as well as elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo, and 340 species of birds.

But now Ibutho Coal, a little-known mining company rumored to have important political connections, wants to build an open-pit coal mine a few hundred feet from the edge of the park. You would think rejecting this proposal would be an open-and-shut case—and if it was happening anywhere but South Africa, it probably would.

While the mine would be outside the protected area, it would be close enough to wreak hydrological havoc on the park, according to Roger Porter, an ecologist with Global Environmental Trust, which is running a campaign to stop the mine. Extracting anywhere from 37 million to 318 million tons of anthracite from the proposed 56-square-mile concession—an area half again as big as Manhattan—could cause the local water table to drop, Porter said. The soil would dry out, and “that would affect the vegetation, and therefore the food supply of animals.”

Local groundwater could also end up contaminated by the mine, affecting the water supply for people living downstream.

In any case, said Kirsten Youens, a lawyer for Global Environmental Trust, “there is really no viable source for water” for the mine’s operations.

Ibutho Coal has suggested damming one of the tributaries to the Umfolozi River, “which is completely insane,” said Youens. The Umfolozi River is already water-stressed and ran dry in last year’s drought.

The mine would likely bring other problems as well. Coal dust contaminated with heavy metals would  land on vegetation, making it less appealing to herbivorous animals and reducing the ability of the plants to photosynthesize. The coal dust could also hurt aquatic biodiversity in the park, according to Porter.

While the use of drones in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi has stopped rhino poaching over the past six months, the proposed mine could vastly increase the poaching threat. Low-paid mining workers in new settlements almost inevitably turn to poaching to supplement their diet.

And there would be blasting, “24-7, night and day,” said Porter, that could disrupt the low-pitch “infrasound” language with which elephants communicate. Rhinos also depend on their excellent hearing, not least because their eyesight is lousy.

For visitors, it’s also hard to enjoy a wilderness if it sounds like a war zone.

On top of the issues within the park, people currently live where Ibutho Coal wants to mine. They would have to be relocated, along with schools, clinics, and other infrastructure in their villages.

The mine proposal has already been rejected once, last September. In a letter, the South African Department of Economic Development, Tourism, and Environmental Affairs reprimanded Ibutho Coal for failing to engage directly with people living in the area. It also voiced concerns over the size of the buffer zone between the park and the mine.

But the fight is far from over: Earlier this month, Ibutho Coal submitted a revised application.

The suspicion reported last year is that larger corporate interests are backing the proposal while staying in the shadows. In the local Fuleni community, people suspect that government officials, all the way up to the family of President Jacob Zuma, will benefit from the project. But so far, these rumors are unsubstantiated, and Ibutho declined TakePart’s request for an interview.

To help cover the legal costs of fighting the proposed mine, Global Environmental Trust has launched a Kickstarter-style crowdfunding campaign.

Here’s a glimpse of what’s at stake:

During that trip I took to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, I hiked out into the bush with a wildlife researcher. We climbed a tree to watch a couple of black rhinos resting in the distance. Then a horn tip and two ears rose above the seed heads of the grass and swung in our direction like a periscope: One of them had heard us.

Rhinos are curious animals, so she ambled over to investigate. Her flanks were more blue than gray, glistening with patches of dark mud, and she was visibly pregnant. She stopped when she was about eight feet from our perch, eyeing us sideways, curious but also skittish. Her nostrils quivered and the folds of flesh above them seemed to arch like eyebrows, inquiringly. I held my breath. Then suddenly her head pitched up as she caught our alien scent. She turned and ran off, huffing like a steam engine.

That’s the natural and cultural heritage South Africa should be fighting to protect. Stay tuned to see if short-term profits will prevail instead.

Geoffrey Giller contributed reporting to this column.

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