Protecting a rare woodland in Kathu

April 30, 2011

The arid Northern Cape Province has two so-called 'forests', one being the Aloe dichotoma (Quiver tree) 'forest' at Kenhardt and the Kathu Forest. Kathu Forest consists of approximately 4 000 hectares of Acacia erioloba (Camel thorn) trees of exceptional size and density. The uniqueness of the Kathu Forest was recognised as early as 1921, when it was declared a State Forest. In 1956, this State Forest was de-proclaimed to allow for the establishment of the town of Kathu near the site where the Sishen mine was about to start operations. In 2009, the Kathu Forest was declared as the first Protected Woodland in the country in terms of Section 12 (1) (c) of the National Forests Act, Act 84 of 1998 as amended.

Story and photos by Jacoline Mans, Chief Forester: NFA Regulation

Kathu indigenous trees to be removed Kathu guesthouse
Acacia erioloba trees in the Kathu Forest. Camel thorn trees incorporated into the design of the Mongoose Guesthouse in Kathu.


Kathu trees damaging pavements
Camel thorn tree damaging the pavement and a tree that was damaged during a windstorm became a safety hazard.


 The effect of this declaration is that all trees occurring in one of the three demarcated woodland classes are now protected, irrespective of the species. The latest demarcation of the Kathu forest is not according to farm boundaries, but according to the distribution, density and size of the Camel thorn trees occurring in this woodland. The 'forest' is spread over different farms and land ownership is private. Existing land-use activities may continue, but new developments are guided by the land-use guidelines published in the Government Gazette. The area with high density, mature Camel thorn trees or Class 1 woodland is a no-go area for development. The medium-density area or Class 2 woodland allows for low-impact eco-tourism development such as hiking trails and picnic sites. In Class 3 woodland, low density residential development is allowed, but on condition that a biodiversity off-set agreement is reached to compensate for the loss of protected trees caused by such developments.

Town under the trees

The town of Kathu is located south of the 'forest', although initially it formed part of it. Kathu became known as the 'town under the trees' and is one of the fastest growing towns in the Northern Cape. Unfortunately, the protected Camel thorn trees are paying the price for this economic boom.

Numerous trees in and around Kathu are dying, not only mature trees, but even some juvenile ones. At this stage, it is not clear what is causing the tree mortality. In a few isolated cases, poisoning has been mentioned as a possible cause, but in the majority of cases, trees with die-back were found to have insect tunnels in the bark. Samples were sent to the Agricultural Research Council who suggested that the damage might be caused by Buprestidae larvae. However, these insects are known to attack dying rather than dead wood.

Vigorous, healthy trees are often removed to make space for buildings and houses. Since 1 April 2006, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) has issued a staggering 133 licenses in Kathu for the removal of protected Acacia erioloba. A total of 1 657 trees were removed 'legally', of which only 64 trees were dead. This number excludes the A. erioloba 'legally' removed by Sishen Iron Ore for mining purposes or any other mining and commercial firewood harvesting in the vicinity of Kathu. It is unknown how many trees were removed illegally, but there is no doubt that illegal activities took place.

Over the last two years, fewer licenses were issued in Kathu and there was a decline in the number of trees allowed to be removed 'legally'. Since 1 April 2006, DAFF has refused 25 licenses in Kathu and in doing so, has saved at least 358 trees.

Initially, licenses were also issued for the pruning of trees, but since the publication of exemptions in terms of Sections 7(1) and 15(1) of the NFA, few such licenses were issued. According to the exemptions, pruning of protected trees on private property in established urban areas and around homesteads are exempted from licensing subject to the condition that a maximum of 25% of the crown is removed. Also, trees may not be mutilated and topping of tree crowns is not allowed.

A few people in Kathu really go the extra mile to try and conserve protected Camel Thorn trees. In some cases, metal brackets or steel cables are used to stabilise trees that are splitting. Sometimes fences and walls are built around the trees.

Some people in Kathu complain about the trees, calling them 'problem' trees. Vehicles parked under Camel thorns are often punctured by the thorns; tree roots are allegedly blocking drain pipes and damaging paving, and branches scratching on the roofs of houses deprive owners from sleep. One motivation in a license application was that the owner could not dry her washing, because of the shade of a Camel thorn tree in her yard. Forestry officials are often verbally insulted and threatened by angry homeowners, who make it explicitly clear that they will hold the Department liable in case of damages caused by protected trees. Officials always try to act reasonably when making such difficult decisions as to whether a license should be issued or refused.

It is a challenge to change people's perceptions about the value of trees. The recently developed South African Tree Appraisal Method (SATAM) valuated a mature Camel thorn tree in pristine condition between R15 000 to R30 000 depending on the site and other factors. People in Kathu are encouraged to live in harmony with the trees as far as possible.

In a few extraordinary cases, houses are re-designed to incorporate existing trees into the building plans, usually after DAFF refused to issue a license for the removal of the trees. One such an example is the Mongoose Guesthouse at Kalahari Golf en Jag Estate.

The purpose of licensing is not to prohibit the removal or utilisation of protected trees, but rather to regulate its use. This will ensure long-term sustainability in order to comply with the principles set out in the National Forests Act (NFA). Camel thorn is very popular as 'braaiwood' and as such was under pressure due to previously uncontrolled harvesting. Nowadays, there is better control over the commercial harvesting of firewood derived from protected trees. According to the NFA, natural forests, woodlands and trees must not be destroyed, save in exceptional circumstances where the proposed new land use is preferable in terms of economic, social and environmental benefits. Furthermore, a minimum area of each woodland type must be conserved and forests must be managed so as to conserve biological diversity, ecosystems and habitats.

Kathu is a built-up area and the trees in town are no longer in a 'natural' state. DAFF has developed guidelines to be used when considering license applications for the removal of protected trees in terms of which a license should only be issued in urban areas if a tree endangers life or property. Typically, the plots set out in Kathu for residential development contain anything between 0 to 10 or more Camel thorn trees. With careful planning, three to four trees can be retained, whilst the rest are usually removed to enable the landowner to build a house.

Limited regeneration

Natural regeneration is severely limited in Kathu. Pods are collected and removed from properties and in some cases it is even sold as fodder. This recruitment failure is resulting in a decline of mature trees which might have serious implications for the long-term survival of Kathu Forest. The lowering of the groundwater table is also a concern since the underground aquifer is the life blood of the Kathu forest ecosystem. In the drier parts of its range, the tree establishes itself in rare periods of rainfall when the seed germinates, after passing through the digestive tract of herbivores, and uses the transient surface moisture to send a taproot deep down to permanent water supply after which it is independent of annual rainfall and can live for hundreds of years.

The remainder of the Kathu Forest is only moderate in terms of biodiversity richness and Red Data Species, but its conservation value has been recognised long ago. It is worth conserving this unique woodland ecosystem in a semi-desert region and it can also serve to promote tourism in the area. Trees occupy a very special place in nature and human culture, and hopefully the people of Kathu will realise their value and develop a deep appreciation for these living organisms, which are usually much older than us.

Published in April 2011

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Birgit Edmayr
Birgit Edmayr
3 years ago

Can we have an update on the tees condition now please . The article was written in 2011

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