Improving Management Effectiveness of the Protected Area Network

The GEF-5 PA Project

The project is funded by the Global Environment Fund (GEF) through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) South Africa Country Office and is implemented by South African National Parks (SANParks). The GEF-5 PA Project is supporting the Government of South Africa through the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE, formerly Department of Environmental Affairs, DEA) to overcome barriers to expand the national Protected Area (PA) estate.

The project started in 2015 and was initially planned until 2020. A no-cost extension was granted until June 2021. The project document was signed by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, SANParks and UNDP in 2015.

Protecting the biodiversity of South Africa from existing and emerging threats.


The objective is to protect the biodiversity of South Africa from existing and emerging threats through the development of a financially sustainable, effective and representative national protected area (PA) network, cost effective PA expansion in biodiversity priority areas and improved land use practices in buffers around parks with a focus on community benefits and partnerships. It consist of three components:

Establishment of new protected areas

Improve management effectiveness of existing and new protected areas.

Improving financial sustainability of the PA network

The project document provides important context for the three components: It is important to note that with a land surface area of 1,2 million km2 – representing just 1% of the earth’s total land surface – South Africa contains almost 10% of the world’s total known bird, fish and plant species, and over 6% of the world’s mammal and reptile species. This diversity is highly threatened by development and poor land management, with 34% of South Africa’s 440 terrestrial ecosystems being threatened. Of these, 5% are critically endangered (mostly in the forest and fynbos biomes), 13% are endangered (mostly in the grassland and savanna biomes), and 16% are vulnerable (mostly in the fynbos, grassland and succulent karoo biomes). The combination of high levels of diversity and high threat has resulted in the delineation of three internationally recognised biodiversity hotspots in South Africa: Succulent Karoo, the Cape Floral Kingdom and the Maputaland Pondoland Albany Hotspot.

Protected Area Network: Current Status and Coverage

South Africa has a substantial network of formal land-based protected areas (PA) that collectively cover just over 7.9 million hectares or 6.5% of the country. These protected areas, which are mostly state owned and managed, generally enjoy legal protection and are typically category II reserves according to the IUCN Protected Are Categories System. In addition to the state protected areas, private nature reserves, game farms, mixed farming and ecotourism operations protect an additional 20.5 million ha or 16.8% of the terrestrial area, 2.6 times the formal protected area estate. These areas are often well managed and contribute significantly to biodiversity conservation objectives, but they generally have no formal legal protection and are subject to land use changes and activities such as mining and prospecting. Oversight for formal protected areas lies with the Department of Environment, Fisheries and Forestry (DEFF). Management is undertaken at three levels: nationally by South African National Parks (SANParks); provincially by Provincial Park Boards or Provincial Government Agencies; and within district and local municipalities. SANParks manage 19 national parks that make up just over half of the protected area network; provincial conservation agencies manage approximately 390 protected areas that comprise 44% of the protected area network, with the remaining protected areas are managed by municipal authorities.

Protected Area Management Effectiveness

South Africa has already exceeded the target relating to assessing the management of 60% of its protected area estate. The country also provides international leadership in conservation, particularly in the fields of planning and of adaptive management in PAs. Challenges in this regard relate to sustaining this lead into the future over a larger area with more diverse governance, and ensuring that the best practice ideas are shared and implemented across the PA network. It is also important that the results of management effectiveness assessments are used to improve management. In addition, it is particularly important that assessment of PA outcomes is boosted across the country, given the high biodiversity significance and the high level of threats facing the PAs.

While there is a relatively encouraging picture of South Africa’s ability to effectively manage its state owned PA network, the GEF support addressed critical institutional and capacity development requirements at the national, agency and PA levels. The primary need was around the development of consistent and aligned management planning, monitoring and evaluation systems to be understood and implemented by all the conservation agencies, while also achieving best practice standards. In addition to this the disparate approaches that are applied by the country’s PA management agencies were harmonised.

Central to this process of a nationally accepted and implemented PA management system, was the integration of a management effectiveness tracking tool into these systems to deliver the required management guidance to the PA agencies as well as reports needed for the National Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

ith the focus of this project being on low-cost PA expansion using innovative mechanisms to secure priority areas on private and communal land, it is necessary to note that the management planning and effectiveness standards set for the country’s state PAs are proving too onerous for private and communal land owners. In addition, the current PA planning and tracking tools have not been adapted to or applied in the managed landscape mosaics anticipated in some low costs expansion types (i.e. Protected Environments). Where low cost reserve expansion mechanisms are used adjacent to more traditional state PAs, the interaction and support processes are often not clearly defined or effectively in place. It was thus necessary to translate these requirements to a level that still achieved the required standards, and yet was user-friendly and not inhibitive to low cost expansion strategies. This created the enabling environment required to bring private and communal land owners into the national and provincial PA expansion and management effectiveness processes.

However, given the institutional and capacity development requirements it was essential that management effectiveness of South Africa’s state PAs is sufficient so that they will be able to accommodate and effectively support adjacent expansion areas. While the 2010 and subsequent Monitoring Effectiveness Tracking Tool (METT) assessments have provided a generally positive picture of PA management capacity in South Africa, it must be noted one critical review of the 2010 national process has revealed potentially serious inadequacies in terms of how the assessment process was managed. Hence attention was given to ensure that PA management agencies fully understand the value of a robust METT assessment process and have the capacity to ensure that assessments are carried out to the necessary standard.

In addition to the aspects of PA management effectiveness and low cost PA expansion is the establishment of buffer zones, especially around National Parks, many of which were still to be delineated. Thereafter it was ensuring that the delineation process is in sync with the systematic biodiversity conservation planning of the relevant provincial agencies, and that there is a joint effort to have the buffer zones and the relevant land use planning controls integrated into the relevant local municipal planning processes, mechanisms and outputs.

Protected Area Financial Sustainability

Traditionally, PAs are being managed by conservation agencies whose primary task is biodiversity conservation and the management of PAs, and whilst financial management and income generation is often a board mandate, its execution is not at the level required. Cost-effectiveness is not generally considered. However, the urgent need to expand the PA network within a resource-constrained context issue of cost-effectiveness is very important as agencies have to (i) do more with their current resources, and ii) demonstrate good financial acumen and management to attract funding from NGOs to supplement the traditional income streams of state budgets and tourism incomes. Generally, the broader and more diverse an organisation’s income generation streams are, the more robust and financially resilient it will be in the face of financial turbulence. Most agencies’ funding streams are related to conventional activities such as tourism, hunting and game sales, implying that:

  1. there is very little diversification among the agencies, leaving the entire PA system vulnerable to financial turbulence,
  2. they compete with each other for the same pot of money whereas they are seeking to achieve the same objectives only in different regions,
  3. there is limited scope to increase incomes as these income streams have a real limit,
  4. that agencies are financially vulnerable to the inherent vagaries of the tourism and related sectors.

Income streams were to be diversified to include aspects such as investment in ecological infrastructure, environmental offsets, sustainable natural resource exploitation, residential property development, energy production, livestock/commodity breeding and livestock trading, etc.

Project Sites

The project includes interventions that support critical protected area system-wide improvements at three levels: site, conservation agency and national. The Protected Areas (PAs) network under this project consists of seven sites. PAs can include large areas consisting of national parks or reserves aimed at conserving a range of species and flora, as well as communities surrounding or living in the areas themselves. The sites include

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