Expert calls for '4x4-free' game parks
WEIGHTY QUESTION: A 4x4 game viewer loaded with 10 bags of sand to simulate a load of tourists was used by soil scientist Gerhard Nortjé to study the effects of such a vehicle on the environment. Image: GERHARD NORTJE
FANIE VAN ROOYEN and ALWYN VILJOEN
PIETERMARITZBURG, KZN - A soil scientist has called for the strict regulation of 4x4 vehicles in conservation areas because he believes they cause long-term and largely irreparable damage to eco-systems.
Soil scientist Dr Gerhard Nortjé said that while 4x4 enthusiasts loved the outdoors their drivers often did not realise that their tyre tracks caused irreparable damage to plant growth - something he discovered during research for a doctoral thesis for the Centre for Wildlife Management at the University of Pretoria.
Nortjé said strict new laws were needed to regulate 4x4 use in protected areas and very sensitive areas, such as wetlands, should be zoned “4x4-free”.
Nortjé explained: "Although people don’t think a 4x4 has a negative effect on the environment p - especially the soil and plant growth - the risk of irreparable damage is very real."
He stressed that bundu-bashing trips, often sold as “eco-tourist activity”, were not ecologically sustainable and “must not be allowed in conservation areas".
A 4x4 enthusiast himself, Nortjé used a Land Rover game-viewer loaded with 10 bags weighing 70kg each to see how the tyres affected the soil. His findings showed that even a slow and careful “bundu bash” would accelerate erosion, damage plants and destroy habitats.
Nortjé did his research in the northern part of the Pafuri area of the Kruger Park and said SANParks. He concluded that SANParks should consider a total revision of current management strategies for game viewing trips in conservation areas. Current guidelines already acknowledged the potential negative effect of 4x4 trips but underestimated the full effect on soil erosion.
MORE STUDY NEEDED
He said one SANPark guideline in particular — that 4x4-vehicles should not follow another's track — was contrary to the findings of his research. About 90% of the damage was caused when a vehicle crossed a section of bush for the first time: following vehicles would cause a lot less damage that if each were to blaze its own trail.
SANParks spokesperson Rey Thakhuli said the organisation would study the thesis before commenting.
Nortjé said many game reserves allowed 4x4 vehicles to create new tracks over untravelled areas while tracking game for tourists.
Andre Karrim, an off-road driving instructor and assessor based in Durban, said that ultimately there had to be a balance on land conservation and the income derived from driving through such sensitive areas. “This is where 4x4 driver training (tyre pressure knowledge) is vital but ultimately it is the attitude of the drivers that plays the biggest role.
"A blanket ban is not the answer. The National Off-Rroad Workgroup has been told to find the best solution."
Karrim also believed 4x4-enthusiasts should limit themselves to existing tracks.
Greg van der Reis, chairman of the 4x4 Adventure Club with members in Cape Town and Johannebsurg, said it could take as long as 40 years for a track to become overgrown again once a 4x4 vehicle had driven over it.
“Our guides stick to the tracks,” Van der Reis said. “We are quite strict about it and do not tolerate hooligans.”