Forestry in South Africa
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January : Foresters turned into conservationists

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18 January, 2016

Foresters turned into conservationists

An innovative approach to conservation of wildlife in forests owned by PG Bison is aiding the survival of the blue crane - South Africa's endangered national bird - by turning foresters into informal conservation agents.

According to Mr Gerhard Victor, CEO of leading diversified timber company PG Bison, the decision to locate conservation with the people who manage the company's forests around Ugie in the Eastern Cape - and not in a specialised unit that has to contend for scarce resources - is part of a ten-year environmental strategy.

"We are mid-way through the planned ten years, and so far it has worked really well. The best people to guard our natural resources are the very people who deal with the intersection between human-made forests, and indigenous forests every day.

"We have made conservation the concern of every employee. Our foresters understand that the well-being of natural resources directly impact the health of the company and the jobs that it sustains."

Management, wildebeest-style

PG Bison co-facilitated investments of R2.1 billion in Ugie / Maclear when it built a world-class board plant in the area in 2008. The plant is surrounded and supplied by managed forests that contain important wetlands, patches of indigenous forests and a variety of endemic wildlife species.

In compiling its environmental strategy, the company has literally taken its cue from the wildebeest, a variety of antelope species and three crane species breeding in the area, namely the blue crane, wattled crane and crown crane.

No fences are erected without consulting the animals' migration patterns, explains Amanda Sithole, Risk Manager for PG Bison's forests. Under the watchful eyes of ordinary foresters, cattle from local communities and wildlife control grassland growth.

"Over-grazing leads to erosion, but under-grazing allows weeds and the grass itself to become so thick that it creates other hazards. Wildfires that burn hotter than they should, for example, change the soil composition and cause weeds to sprout, making it impossible for indigenous growth to return - or for the cranes to breed in their natural habitat," says Sithole.

"Unhealthy wetlands jeopardise our forests. The type of tree and the density of planting are determined by soil and water conditions, which are in turn naturally regulated in wetland systems. It is therefore in our interest to conserve natural habitats."

Sithole says PG Bison has done its homework, so foresters know where cranes spend their days and where they breed. The company's response has been to create special dry and wet management zones in plantations.

In the zones where the birds are, operations are limited during crucial times in their life cycle. Intense operations such as harvesting are therefore done in winter when it is dry, and suspended during the wet breeding season.

PG Bison plants also plants forests outside of wetlands as per legislation, where it can choose a suitable time of the year to harvest.

"It is a win-win agreement between our forests and their ecological context."

Conservation management on-the-run

Careful monitoring of cattle and wildlife numbers and locations is necessary to keep grass- and wetlands healthy. In the past PG Bison made specific people responsible to fulfil this function.

"We have, however, decided to make conservation part of our daily operations, turning the people who spend most time between the trees and on the grasslands into conservation officers, so to speak," explains Sithole.

Foresters and security guards are trained to report back on the numbers and localities of indigenous wildlife like wildebeest and various antelope species. Every second year, a headcount of every single animal is done from an aircraft.

"In this way we keep track of where wildlife is impacting on the health of our grass- and wetlands.

"The same goes for cattle that graze between our managed forests. The forestry staff alternate their presence in grazing camps in the grasslands and wetlands. It is built into their daily practices."

The harvesting foresters' target is not just to produce a certain volume of timber. They also have a target in terms of how it is produced. Internal audits are regularly performed to ensure the company sticks to its strategies.

"We are responsible to ensure that we do not negatively impact on the natural resources we have left. It is a priority to ensure that we sustainably manage our operations and the environment."

Source: PG Bison