Grassland Guardians


In its work with willing land reform communities in some of South Africa’s most biodiverse landscapes, WWF employs a holistic approach that helps to build trust and address community needs.

The undulating grasslands in the northern Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal are an iconic part of the South African landscape that often features in glossy tourism brochures.

These mountainous areas are the source of rivers that supply urban dwellers downstream with fresh water, and are havens for wildlife – from tiny plants to iconic bird species like the grey-crowned crane.

It is here, too, that many rural communities eke out a living, often under difficult circumstances.

The Mgundeni community

A 50-kilometre journey from Newcastle towards the town of Utrecht, and then another 60 kilometres beyond, will bring you to the rural Mgundeni community, which owns 1 472 hectares they successfully claimed in 1999.

This community has long had a deep association with WWF.

In 2009, their leader iNkosi Mabaso first signed a voluntary biodiversity stewardship agreement covering 124 hectares. This agreement has since been expanded to 455 hectares, a third of the land, to be incorporated into a protected environment.

And it is a two-way street.

South Africa’s grasslands are rich in unique plant and bird species
South Africa’s grasslands are rich in unique plant and bird species

As the Mgundeni community is largely reliant on cattle farming, WWF has been working on a sustainable cattle-farming initiative, including the development of grazing plans, animal husbandry training, and accessing funds for vaccination and supplementary feed for their cattle. Other capacity-building initiatives have included invasive weed control and fire training.

By joining hands with WWF and others, the Mgundeni community is learning not only to farm responsibly and protect biodiversity, but is moving from subsistence to semi-commercial cattle farming. A landmark moment was when they sold 150 cattle for the first time at an auction in 2018.

Meanwhile down the road…

If you drive another 60 kilometres northeast of the Mgundeni community across more of these rolling hills, you will cross many rivers and wetlands to arrive at the community of Thekwane, whose traditional leader is a woman – iNkosi Shabalala.

This is another of WWF’s more recent land reform and biodiversity stewardship sites. The 755 people who live here, successfully claimed their 875 hectares in 2002.

In 2014, WWF started its first engagement in the area, and arranged a learning exchange with Mgundeni to show what could be done. Last year, the Thekwane community signed a biodiversity agreement with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife which covers more than half of the land they own.

This community too has a vision for conserving the biological diversity on their property while farming sustainably.

High-lying grasslands are important for water security as they give rise to the rivers that supply many of our towns and cities.
High-lying grasslands are important for water security as they give rise to the rivers that supply many of our towns and cities.

Stewardship and Visionary Leadership 

Here, the dream is to produce healthy, nutritious food, and cultivate indigenous medicinal plants and trees, while also harvesting the grasses for thatch to help support households.

They plan to implement sustainable veld management with correct burning regimes and alien-plant control.

What WWF has learnt through these projects, is that community development and biodiversity stewardship are inextricably linked. And what the Mgundeni and Thekwane communities have shown, is that almost anything is possible when stewardship and visionary leadership come together.

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