Biodiversity conservation does not appear anywhere in either its mandate or mission but the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) as one of the largest land users in the country puts a premium on the fauna and flora it has temporary custodianship of.
This has seen a specialist environmental services sub-department in the Logistics Division take on environmental management, both at bases and in training areas via training area management programmes, The New Age newspaper reports. The military is also aware of and gives consideration to animal habitat and sites of cultural and historical significance on the 420 000 ha of land it uses.
“Overall our approach to biodiversity conservation and environmental management is best summed up in what the SANDF has officially termed military integrated environmental management (MIEM)”, said Captain (SAN) Adri Liebenberg, SANDF Environmental Services senior staff officer.
She is assisted in her task by 35 environment and conservation officers, known throughout the force as “bokkiewagters”. This all encompassing term includes men and women keeping cheetah at AFB Hoedspruit and AFB Makhado to keep warthog populations down and out of the way of multimillion Rand jet fighters through to those ensuring threatened fynbos species do not fall prey to plant poachers.
The SANDF conservation corps is also entrusted with, among others, the protection of the largest southernmost colony of Cape Griffons at AFB Bredasdorp as well as keeping leopard tortoises on the SA Army Combat Training Centre in Northern Cape as viable a population as possible. As both these military areas are live ammunition training areas it is not always the easiest of tasks. Another live range where the conservation corps is stretched is the SA Air Force’s Rooiwal range in Limpopo. This is where the fourth generation Saab Gripen jet, BAE Systems Hawk Mk120 jet trainer and Denel Rooivalk Mk Icombat support helicopter crews hone their weapons skills. “Luckily we have the support of other arms of service and at places like Rooiwal, Lohatla and Bredasdorp regular pre-live firing exercise patrols are done to move wildlife away from target areas,” Liebenberg said.
While not listing them as assets the SANDF uses wildlife to perform tasks which would otherwise deplete an already tight budget. In this regard antelope and buck assist in keeping growth to acceptable levels, especially welcome during the fire season, exacerbated by the use of live ammunition and flares. The warthog preyed on by cheetah are another example of utilising wildlife.
When populations grow and exceed the carrying capacity of specific areas, scientific surveys are done and extraneous animals removed to ensure a harmony of growth and wildlife. “Overall, when it comes to conservation we do more than our bit,” Liebenberg said.
The environmental services aspect goes further than pure conservation. In base management it also extends to water and power savings measures with trophies up for grabs annually in various competitions. “Bases and units are supportive and over the years there have been a number of innovations that have led to, for example, significant savings in water consumption,” she said.
Many of the on-base “bokkiewagters” have taken on environmental education projects involving not only soldiers and their families but also neighbouring communities. A good example of this is Naval Base Simon’s town which regularly adopts a school to spread the environment message. This has seen any number of beach clean-ups and environmentally themed competitions rewarded by, for example, visits to either a frigate or a submarine.
Environmental services has also worked with a US Army team compiling a management manual for particularly live fire training areas. Liebenberg sees this as a compliment to the SANDF’s environmental expertise. “We are only a small cog in the overall military machine but that fact that we are still operational is tribute to those in overall command who recognise the need for effective environmental management,” Liebenberg said.