Community-based ecotourism starting to take root in Wakkerstroom, South Africa
Wakkerstoom, South Africa, 15 May 2009 - Big things are happening in the small town of Wakkerstroom these days. This well-known birding hotspot hosts very important wetlands and its high altitude grasslands are home to some 300 species of birds and more than 100 endemic plants.
The area is also well-endowed with a wealth of rare species, such as the globally threatened blue crane (Anthropoides paradisea), rare bush blackcaps, White-winged Flufftail, yellow-breasted pipits and more than 85 per cent of the world's Rudd's larks population.
It’s no wonder that more than 80% of bird-watching trips in South Africa include Wakkerstroom in their schedule. Bed & Breakfast have sprung up around the town offering over 350 beds to cater for the growing influx of tourists. The tourism sector however, albeit a vital mainstay of the local economy, has not benefitted everyone.
As you approach the town of Wakkerstroom you immediately wonder what ordinary people do to survive. There are no industries and the majority of the people depend on subsistence agriculture or animal husbandry. The majority of the active population is swallowed by urban centres like Johannesburg for employment opportunities, while others are employed in the farming sector surrounding Wakkerstroom.
This is the reason why the Community Based Conservation Division of BirdLife South Africa has initiated support of income generating activities, hoping that these interventions will improve the socio-economic status of the more disadvantaged Wakkerstroom community. To date, 7 income generating activities have been nurtured and supported by BirdLife South Africa, via the Wings Over Wetlands Project. These include community bird guides, grass and reed cutting, beadwork, a community-run vegetable garden, medicinal plants harvesters, bird carving and traditional dancers’ projects. Most of the community projects now have business plans, constitutions and bank accounts.
Run by an expert management team, The Sappi / WWF BirdLife Centre, situated about 3km out of town, is fast becoming the hub of tourism development in Wakkerstroom. It is currently being completely renovated and developed into a multi-functional site, offering visitors a choice of self catering accommodation, camping and day services. The Centre is also being developed to cater to broader tourism needs, and is assisting the community development projects take off. “BirdLife South Africa has an obligation to play a role in reducing poverty levels through conservation.” says Hansco Banda, who is the Wakkerstroom Project Site Manager for the Community Based Conservation Division. Working tirelessly in what can be sometimes a very challenging environment, the local site team is making significant progress to engage local stakeholders and to develop neutral platforms where people can speak and begin sharing common goals.