The Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park lies 20 km north-west of Mtubatuba, at the junction of the coastal plain and the foothills of the KwaZulu-Natal interior. The landscape is undulating to hilly, with a gradual drop in altitude – from 580 to 90 m a.s.l. – from west to east along the Natal Monocline. The Hluhluwe River and its tributary, the Nzimane, dissect the northern section of the park. A dam outside the park's boundary has pushed an artificial lake back along the lower reaches of the Hluhluwe River. In the south, the Black uMfolozi and White uMfolozi rivers meander widely before uniting at the south-eastern corner of the park. All these rivers flow permanently. There are many other seasonal streams and ephemeral rivers.
Soils on higher ground are stony and shallow, being largely derived from Ecca and Beaufort Sandstones. Lower down, the soils are often deep and fertile; some are derived from lava flows. Alongside the Black uMfolozi and White uMfolozi rivers are recent alluvial deposits. The area has a subtropical climate. The temperature ranges from an average minimum of 13 °C to an average maximum of 33 °C. It seldom falls to zero, and frost is rare. Rainfall varies from 600 mm p.a. in the south of the iMfolozi section to 1 250 mm p.a. at Hilltop in Hluhluwe. Most rain falls in summer (October–March); winters are mild and dry.
The park's vegetation is classified as Zululand Lowveld and Northern Zululand Thornveld. Accounts from the early 1800s described grassland with very few trees; another from 1921 described Hluhluwe as mainly thornveld. The decimation of the large game that drove the regeneration of the open grassveld accelerated bushveld encroachment and today the bushing-up process and spread of closed-canopy forest are fairly rapid. Grassland composition varies with altitude and soil. The transition of grassland to parkland can be seen in the Corridor (which links the Hluhluwe and iMfolozi sections), while well-developed woodlands occur over much of the reserve. Thickets are also spreading. Grasslands and woodlands are regularly burnt, in principle in a mosaic pattern. Closed evergreen forest occurs in the higher-rainfall areas of the north. Riverine forest used to line large stretches of the major rivers until Cyclone Demoina swept nearly all of it away in 1984. Regeneration has been slow, and this habitat will not be restored to its former glory for some years.
Hluhluwe–iMfolozi is known to support more than 400 bird species, about 46% of the species found in the southern African sub-region. The bird diversity within the park can be attributed to the variety of habitats in this area. This diversity includes a number of important populations of large, widespread birds that have suffered outside extensive protected areas. The riverine thickets constitute forest corridors that are used by some altitudinal migrant forest species of the Drakensberg escarpment to the west, which move down to the lowveld to escape the severe escarpment winters. Large riverine trees also provide habitat for many of the more secretive river-dependent species, such as White-backed Night Heron Gorsachius leuconotus and African Finfoot Podica senegalensis. The taller riverine trees provide nesting sites for other species, particularly raptors such as Bat Hawk Macheiramphus alcinus.
The rivers, floodplains, pans, dams and vleis are important for many wetland-dependent and -associated birds, including Black Stork Ciconia nigra, which breeds in gorges in the nearby mountains. Woolly-necked Stork C. episcopus, African Openbill Anastomus lamelligerus and Saddle-billed Stork Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis occur in small numbers. When conditions are suitable, Pink-backed Pelican Pelecanus rufescens, Great White Pelican P. onocrotalus, Lesser Moorhen Gallinula angulata, Allen's Gallinule Porphyrio alleni and African Marsh Harrier Circus ranivorus occur in small numbers. Several pairs of Southern Bald Ibis Geronticus calvus are known to breed within the complex, but they forage mostly outside the area.
Several large species that are rare outside South Africa's large parks are locally common here and Hluhluwe–iMfolozi is the most important site in KwaZulu-Natal for the conservation of these species. They include White-backed Vulture Gyps africanus, Lappet-faced Vulture Torgos tracheliotos, White-headed Vulture Aegypius occipitalis, Martial Eagle Polemaetus bellicosus, Bateleur Terathopius ecaudatus and Tawny Eagle Aquila rapax. Southern Ground-Hornbill Bucorvus leadbeateri, Denham's Bustard Neotis denhami, Pallid Harrier Circus macrourus and African Grass Owl Tyto capensis occur in smaller numbers. The varied woodland communities support several typical bushveld species, including Brown-headed Parrot Poicephalus cryptoxanthus, White-throated Robin-Chat Cossypha humeralis, Gorgeous Bush-Shrike Chlorophoneus viridis and Grey Sunbird Cyanomitra veroxii.
Globally threatened species are Southern Bald Ibis, Southern Ground-Hornbill (three groups), White-backed Vulture (300–340 breeding pairs and up to 1 000 individuals), Lappet-faced Vulture (11–15 breeding pairs and 30–50 individuals), White-headed Vulture (3–5 breeding pairs and 9–15 individuals), Martial Eagle (4–6 breeding pairs and 10–18 individuals), Bateleur and Crowned Eagle Stephanoaetus coronatus. Regionally threatened species are White-backed Night Heron, Tawny Eagle (2–3 breeding pairs and 6–9 individuals), African Marsh Harrier, African Finfoot, African Pygmy Goose Nettapus auritus, Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus and Half-collared Kingfisher Alcedo semitorquata. Common restricted-range and biome-restricted species include Kurrichane Thrush Turdus libonyanus, Chorister Robin-Chat Cossypha dichroa, Rudd's Apalis, Gorgeous Bush-Shrike, White-bellied Sunbird Cinnyris talatala and Pink-throated Twinspot Hypargos margaritatus.
As one of the last havens for large numbers of ungulates and the predators they support, this area is one of the most important conservation areas in South Africa. Many threatened species occur throughout the park, including white rhinoceros Ceratotherium simum, black rhinoceros Diceros bicornis, African wild dog Lycaon pictus, spotted hyaena Crocuta crocuta, Cape buffalo Syncerus caffer, nyala Tragelaphus angasi, African elephant Loxodonta africana, hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius, cheetah Acinonyx jubatus, lion Panthera leo, leopard P. pardus, African wild cat Felis lybica, serval F. serval, aardvark Orycteropus afer, aardwolf Proteles cristatus, suni Neotragus moschatus, red duiker Cephalophus natalensis, blue duiker Philantomba monticola and honey badger Mellivora capensis.
Endangered reptiles include African rock python Python sebae natalensis and Nile crocodile Crocodylus niloticus. Rare trees include Celtis mildbraedii, Albizia suluensis, Warburgia salutaris and Buxus natalensis.
The main threats to Hluhluwe–iMfolozi are invasive alien plants, mainly parthenium weed Parthenium hysterophorus, prickly pear Opuntia species and triffid weed Chromolaena odorata. Parthenium is a new and emerging threat to the area and ways to eradicate the species have yet to be properly tested. Management needs to carefully monitor the spread of this weed.
An increase in the woody component of the reserve is an ongoing threat. As bush encroachment occurs, a number of grassland-dependent bird species may be displaced. The encroachment is largely prevented by the combined action of fire (specifically hot burns) and elephants, which slows the process to a certain extent.
Cases of poisoning are rare in the park, although a single incident has been reported in which vultures were poisoned and their heads removed, probably for use in the muti trade. The park is surrounded by a large number of communities and future poaching and poisoning incidents are a possibility.
Human population growth in the area is a cause for concern and the reserves that remain in Zululand should be seen in this context. As the population rises, it is likely to put increased pressure on the natural areas that remain and many habitat types (such as sand forest) are being lost and degraded. Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park and other reserves are becoming islands surrounded by transformed landscapes.
Two coal mines are adjacent to the park and a third, an open-cast coal mine, is proposed for its south-western boundary. There are major concerns regarding the impacts this new mine will have on the park and the St Lucia wetlands further downstream.
Hluhluwe–iMfolozi is a site of considerable historical significance. Stone Age archaeological sites are present, as are San rock paintings. Bantu people first established themselves here by about AD 1500, and until 1818 the area was the home of the Mtetwa clan. From 1818 to 1828 Hluhluwe–iMfolozi was King Shaka's hunting preserve. The area was then vacated because of the impact of malaria on humans and nagana (carried by tsetse flies) on cattle. Subsequently, humans reoccupied the area sporadically until 1875. Both Hluhluwe and iMfolozi – but not the intervening land – were proclaimed reserves, first in 1895 and again in 1897. However, the tsetse flies remained a source of nagana for surrounding cattle farms, and wild antelopes – considered an eternal reservoir for the disease – were heavily culled in the reserves between 1920 and 1945. In addition, much of the thick bush that constituted habitat for the flies was cut down in 1942. The reserves were deproclaimed in 1945 and nearly all the large animals were slaughtered. Only in 1952 was the area returned to the Natal Parks Board (now Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife), to be administered in the style we see today. The corridor linking Hluhluwe and iMfolozi was formally incorporated into the park in 1982.
By the late 19th century most of the large mammal populations in South Africa had been severely decimated by uncontrolled hunting. Some species, such as white rhino, became locally extinct. It was the survival of the two rhino species in the area between the two uMfolozi rivers that led to the initial protection of the reserve, and even today it remains the most important place in Africa for the species.
The park's main contribution to bird conservation is in providing space and habitat for larger birds of prey. Although none of the species has a viable-in-isolation population, Hluhluwe–iMfolozi provides an adequate focus for such populations. One of its strengths is that it is a well-established tourist destination, and as such its birds of prey are very much in the public eye. Its long history as a conservation area, in the broadest sense, gives it great credibility, and there are unlikely to be any further attempts by neighbours to erode its boundaries or functions.
Hluhluwe–iMfolozi is formally protected and managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Aerial censuses are undertaken each year to count raptor and vulture numbers in the park.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife www.kznwildlife.com
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