A survey of conservation attitudes of the rural communities around Thathe forest, Northern Province.
Indigenous forests are an integral part of rural communities in Africa, and they are socio-ecologically managed and conserved by customary laws. Most of these forests are important reserves of cultural and ecological values, although they are threatened by modern economic and political developments and often by foreign religious intrusion. Based on this background the Thathe sacred forest in the Zoutpansberg mountains of the Northern Province, in South Africa, was chosen for investigation. The perceptions and conservation attitudes of the rural communities living around the forest were investigated. In addition, the contribution of the traditional ethics of the local people to forest biodiversity management were also assessed. The extent to which the rural communities attach consumptive and/or non-consumptive values to the Thathe forest was examined for insight to the survival of the forest into the future. Data collection included a field survey, interviews with key informants, structured and semi-structured interviews, and a documentary survey (documents or records such as monthly or annual reports of an institution like the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) about its activities, and government gazettes). Responses of 201 interviewees from around the Thathe forest were analysed. Data was arranged by age, sex, educational background and area of residence. The majority of the respondents (76.6%) across the gender categories regarded the forest as sacred, while 20.4% felt it is an area of conservation importance. A strong cultural link between the local people and the forest is inferred from these positive attitudes! in spite of a history of forced removals of the surrounding communities from the Thathe-Vondo forest area. The attitudes of the people around the forest are wide-spread and consistent across the tribal areas. Nevertheless, cultural usage of the forest has waned in recent years (a consequence of restrictions on access to the forest) and few people (13.4%) actively use it for cultural rituals. Based on the research findings it is imperative that an attempt is made to reconcile the local people and the government institution managing indigenous forests and policing forestry in general (DWAF). The relevance of conventional conservation principles must be brought to the attention of the local people! and these ought to be integrated with cultural methods of forest resource management and conservation. This will serve as a foundation for sustainable indigenous forest resource management in Thathe forest.