is a thriving port on the east coast of South Africa. The largest
city of the country's second most populace province, KwaZulu-Natal,
it is a microcosm of South Africa - a society in transition. Environmental
conservation in this urban setting presents an enormous challenge.
As more and more homeless people move to the city in search of
work, the few remaining open spaces come under increasing pressure.
Conservation is simply not an issue for a man who cannot afford
to clothe and feed his family. To those who are more fortunate
and privileged, conservation means, at best, the rhino and the
elephant. Most have never even thought of conservation in the
urban area. In their quest for development and "improvement"
these "eco-vandals" continue, as they have for many
years, to bulldoze the "bush" and replace it with neatly
trimmed and manicured gardens full of exotic plants. To ensure
that these alien plants survive and bloom, they are regularly
sprayed with pesticides. Some of these plants are actually alien
invaders, which, in the absence of the natural enemies of their
countries of origin, are rapidly replacing what little remains
of our natural biodiversity.
is against this backdrop that the Durban campus of the University
of Natal, which is located on a ridge between the first and third
world areas of the city, faces the challenge of providing environmental
leadership in the year 2000 and beyond. This article focuses primarily
on efforts to protect university land, both in terms of long-term
conservation and environmentally conscious new construction.
Looking back 70 years, aerial photographs from 1931 show Howard
College, which was the first building of the Durban campus, surrounded
by pristine grassland, looking over a huge coastal forest to the
sea beyond. This would have been an environmental paradise. However,
its value went unrecognized as the area gradually became built
up. It is interesting that 50 years were to elapse before there
is any record of a "Campus Conservation Committee."
This group of four people held its first meeting in April 1981.
the next decade this Committee, later to become the Durban Campus
Environment Committee (DCEC), was largely concerned with the natural,
undeveloped environment and landscaping. The resident horticulturist
did much to promote the use of, and thus increase awareness of,
South African plants, although these were not always indigenous
to the Durban area.
The idea of setting aside a portion of the Durban campus as a
natural area emerged soon after the formation of the conservation
committee. An appropriate area, initially called the Western Valley
Reserve, was identified. Over the ensuing years, while the resident
horticulturist and his staff battled to keep alien invader plants
under control in the reserve, consideration was given to such
issues as an appropriate name, defining the boundaries, and how
the area should be managed. However, it was only in 1993, after
the existence of the reserve was threatened by the development
of tennis courts, that the University Council was approached to
declare the area a nature reserve in perpetuity. The boundaries
were finally formalized, a map and information board was erected,
and the name "Msinsi" was chosen, after uMsinsi, the
Zulu name for the beautiful Coral Tree (Erythrina lysistemon),
which is found in the reserve.
conservation of these seven hectares of grassland and regenerating
forest has certainly been one of the environmental success stories
on the Durban campus. It is home to a variety of birds (over 100
species have been recorded to date), as well as to other wildlife
such as the banded mongoose (Mungos mungo). It is an educational
resource for our students and local school children and is used
as a recreational area (e.g. for walking and bird-watching) by
residents in the area. Most of the maintenance work, such as the
ongoing removal of alien invader plants, is done by a volunteer
group - the Friends of Msinsi Reserve. This voluntary group, which
has worked regularly every month for nearly ten years, is a joint
initiative between members of the DCEC and of the Wildlife and
Environment Society of South Africa, a non-governmental conservation
maintenance of Msinsi Reserve's grassland is particularly important,
as there is very little natural grassland left around Durban.
Fire is essential to prevent this area from being gradually encroached
by bush clumps and turned into forest. The regular burn initially
presented a major management problem. All the safety issues were
dealt with, but local residents complained about smoke and blackened
laundry. This was turned into an educational opportunity when
the children of the local school were brought in to learn about
It was during the late 1980s that a group of visionary conservationists
developed the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System (D-MOSS).
Recognizing that a few small, isolated natural areas in the city
would not be sustainable, they proposed a plan of open areas linked
across the city so as to provide corridors for seed dispersal
and the movement of wildlife. A post-graduate student of the University
of Natal, who was later to chair the DCEC, became involved in
this process. Her research highlighted the important position
of the University within the D-MOSS.
from Msinsi Nature Reserve, other remaining natural areas of the
campus are also an integral part of the D-MOSS link. Accordingly,
in June 1997, the entire Durban Campus applied to be registered
as a Conservancy with the KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Services.
landscaping has now been refined to the almost exclusive use of
locally indigenous plants, i.e. those occurring naturally in the
Durban area. This, together with limiting the use of poisons to
the essential (such as on sports fields), obviously creates the
type of habitat optimal for our local birds and other wildlife.
This frequently draws favourable comment from visitors, who come
to the University to view the harbour and city from the raised
vantage point of the campus. Likewise, many staff recognize that
they are privileged to work in an environment where the secretive
Natal Robin (Cossypha natalensis) still sings! As the coastal
region of KwaZulu-Natal is naturally forest and grassland, the
effect created is not that of bright, garish exotic gardens. To
satisfy those in search of something less "green", colourful
indigenous plants are used in the landscaping where possible.
In addition, an exciting new architectural initiative is the decoration
of buildings using bright, but tasteful and well-chosen, colours
to offset the natural vegetation.
existence of the campus Conservancy provides the platform for
encouraging residents and land-owners in all the areas adjoining
the University to pursue environmentally-friendly approaches.
Some neighbours have already joined the initiative and are eradicating
alien invader plants and using appropriate vegetation.
western part of the campus is much less developed than the eastern,
sea-facing land. Various areas here, particularly a wetland area,
have been identified as important links in the D-MOSS and it will
be important that we ensure their conservation during future development.
Currently a pond is being constructed in this area to accommodate
amphibians needing relocation during the construction of a road
to the west.
It was towards the end of 1996 that the DCEC was to face its first
real challenge. We discovered, about six months before the work
began, that a new student residence was to be built on a piece
of self-generating forest on the eastern part of the campus. Our
concern, that no environmental planning preceded any developments
on the campus, was conveyed to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor. He
agreed to the appointment of a consultant to carry out an urgent
Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The assessment contended
that the area in question was "a significant habitat in the
urban context." It was also part of an important corridor
in the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System. The Impact Assessment
concluded that the proposed development should take place elsewhere.
Despite this, the University's developers stood firm, indicating
that it was impossible to make modifications to the site plans
and still meet the required deadlines. The DCEC did not give up.
We pointed out that the University's Mission Statement declares
that "The University is committed to the preservation and
conservation of the environment and the natural resources of the
region." We researched previous planning documents for proposed
alternative sites. We enlisted the help of the KwaZulu-Natal Nature
Conservation Services, the parent body of our Conservancy and
the environmental manager of the city.
the residence was built on an alternative site: an adjacent, old
and under-used students' parking lot. Not only were all the environmentally
sensitive areas left intact, but the important trees within the
actual building area were saved. A construction protocol was put
in place to ensure protection of the environment. It detailed,
for example, that the exact building area had to be demarcated
and no access, nor dumping of rubbish, was allowed in adjoining
areas. An environmental consultant monitored the entire process
and the resulting residence was a landmark in terms of conservation
of the surrounding natural environment. It epitomized a completely
new mind set. It is fitting that this residence has just been
named the Pius Langa Residence after the University's first black
Chancellor. In the future we will, in addition to protecting the
natural environment, need to suggest other environmentally friendly
approaches to developers, such as water-saving devices and energy-efficient
lighting within the buildings themselves.
positive results flowed from this experience. A University of
Natal Open Space System was proposed by the DCEC to overlay the
Guide Plan that had been drawn up in 1991. Policy documents were
changed to include a requirement for EIAs to be done before future
developments. Coincidentally, the University's Environmental Policy,
which had been conceived by the DCEC eight years earlier, was
finally accepted as University policy early in 1998.
these were watershed events, representing major progress, the
challenges are by no means over. The possibility of new developments
is ever present. Even though EIAs are now required, there is still
a need for an overall assessment of the entire campus environment
in relation to the opportunities and constraints regarding new
construction. To this end, the DCEC recently commissioned a Strategic
Environmental Assessment (SEA). To lower costs and to involve
students in their own campus, this was conducted by post-graduate
students from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences. The
SEA identified four strategic issues that should be featured in
future University plans; these are conservation and D-MOSS links,
integrated catchment management, transparency in planning and
aesthetics. Although there is now an Open Space Plan, it is too
broad and needs to be refined to pinpoint areas of no development
versus those requiring careful development. To assist in this,
audits of the campus, which record vegetation on a GIS system,
are currently underway.
Conservation of the campus environment is the work of a small,
dedicated group comprising the DCEC. Interestingly enough, currently
all but two members are drawn from professions other than environmental
science - an architect, a geologist, a physiologist, a pharmacologist
and an administrator. The University's horticulturist continues
to play an invaluable role. Unfortunately, there are still members
of the wider university community, both staff and students, who
remain unaware of campus environmental issues. Attempts are being
made to address this and to involve a wider group of people. Annually,
everyone is invited to participate in Arbor Week celebrations.
This may take the form of tree planting, removing alien invader
plants, clearing litter, or guided walks in the Msinsi Nature
Reserve. A recent major boost in awareness and interest has been
the labeling of many large trees across the campus. Funds generated
from paper recycling were used to purchase the labels which, in
addition to the botanical name, give the plant name in English
and Zulu. Outdoor furniture, made from recycled plastic, is also
in use in the campus gardens.
Over many years there have been efforts to promote an ethos of
"Reduce, Reuse, Recycle." These have met with variable
success. The paper recycling programme, in the University's newly-named
Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, has been a great achievement.
Here sufficient funds are generated to provide small, short-term
loans to needy students; the money is literally "recycled!"
other areas of the University, recycling programs have not been
sustainable in the long term. This has led to a new initiative
by the University Administration to transfer their waste disposal
contract to a company that will sort all waste. This company will
reuse or recycle whatever they can and only the remaining rubbish
will go into the city's landfill. While this makes good sense
in terms of environmentally friendly waste management, it will
remain a challenge to encourage staff and students to separate
waste at source to assist the process. Few South Africans have
ever considered the possibility that they have some personal responsibility
for their own waste. There is limited public awareness of, and
even less public participation in, such activities as separation
of waste at source and recycling.
FOR THE FUTURE
There have been many successes to date. A viable nature reserve
on the University of Natal campus has been one of these. It has
been said, however, that in conservation, "any success is
temporary and any defeat is permanent." We will have to ensure
that all the people benefit from, and recognize the value of,
such an area.
battle with University developers has been hard won with the placement
of the new residence. But the struggle to ensure that future developments
are environmentally friendly is by no means over. By virtue of
its very position at the top of a ridge, the campus is the interface
between some of the most expensive real estate in the city on
one side, and a burgeoning third world community on the other.
The key to preserving what little is left of our natural heritage
is the education of these very diverse peoples. Whatever their
background and education, most Durban residents remain environmentally
illiterate. We need to educate the larger community in which the
University sits, as well as our own students and staff. There
is much work to be done. The struggle continues.
Julia Botha is Professor and Head of the Department of Pharmacology
at the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine. With a deep interest
in conservation, she has chaired the Durban Campus Environment
Committee for the last five years. She has also co-authored "Bring
Nature Back to your Garden" (eastern and western editions)
which encourage people in South Africa to plant local species
and to avoid using pesticides. Professor Botha can be reached
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