A coal mine project in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi reserve in South Africa has raised concern that illegal killing of endangered rhinos could increase, while also affecting other species and the environment.
Conservationists fear that the mine, managed by Ibutho Coal Ltd, could disturb wildlife, cause habitat loss and eventually favour the activity of poacher groups that profit from removing rhinos’ horns.
Some have noted that the plans, including an environmental assessment, are being dealt by the Mineral Resources Department, rather than the Environmental Affairs Department, raising further concern that the delicate ecosystem of the park is not being carefully considered.
The reserve, in the KwaZulu-Natal province, has been an important wildlife sanctuary since 1895, hosting lions, leopards, elephants and a large community of threatened white and black rhinos.
White rhinos in particular were subject to a breeding conservation programme and thousands of individuals now live in the park. However, the recent rise in illegal killing of rhinos to supply horns to the Asian market has caused poachers to enter the reserve and kill the animals.
Since the beginning of 2014 558 rhinos have been killed in South Africa, with last year’s figures reporting on more than 725 rhino deaths.
Conservationists said that the coal mine project is likely to make it easier for outsiders to access the park.
Dr Ian Player, a senior conservationist who worked on the rhino reintroduction programme in the 1950s and 60s, said, “There is no doubt in my mind that if that mine went ahead it would destroy the wilderness.
“If we don’t save wilderness, I am afraid humanity is on one long path towards destruction. And what a tragic world it would be if your children and your grandchildren couldn’t see a rhino in the wild.”
The reserve is also an important tourism destination, with people coming from all over to enjoy safaris and the wilderness. It is feared that the mine would also increase pollution and affect the lives of locals.
Player added, “Here we have people coming from all over the world to experience the peace and tranquillity of the African wilderness and what they get instead is loud blasting noises that completely destroy the fundamental solitude of wilderness.”
Ibutho Coal said the assessment is still at an early stage but ensured the firm is committed to ‘responsible mining practices’.
Photo: Sascha Wenninger via flickr