MK West

Melville Koppies Nature Reserve

Johannesburg, South Africa

Friends of Melville Koppies:              Phone: +27 11 482 4797                      Email:

Melville Koppies: Conservation

In the period between 1959 and 1993 the conservation of Melville Koppies was overseen by the Johannesburg Council for Natural History which acted in an advisory capacity to the City Council.

The focus was only on what is now called Melville Koppies Central, and there was not always a harmonious relationship with the City. The JCNH did pioneering work in producing a guide book, establishing a "nature trail", and starting a policy of "open days". The guide book is still in print, the nature trail still exists, and we have continued and extended the policy of open days.

In 1993 the situation changed when the City initiated a joint venture scheme, and the Melville Koppies Management Committee was established.

Suddenly the whole approach changed. The Koppies were not managed remotely through the City Council. Richard Hall and David Hirsch, representing the Botanical Society, took a very "hands on" way of managing the Koppies.

There was a de facto incorporation of the "Louw Geldenhuys Viewsite" (which we now call MK East) and the ridges behind Westpark Cemetery (now called MK West) into the managed area. This immediately increased the managed area from 50 to 160 hectares.

Richard Hall does not like being photographed but we have taken the liberty of cropping this picture from a group picture on the Koppies. We hope he will forgive us.
Photo: Maria Cabaço

Richard Hall devoted the next 25 years to the Koppies. He combined a passion for nature with a certain cussedness (a word which would horrify him) which amounted to a driving force without which not much would have been done.

The immediate issues were many. There was a huge problem of alien invasive plants. There were about 70 active or abandoned squatter sites on MK West. Paths on all three sections were erosion nightmares. MK East was little more than a rubbish dump for the neighbours.

Richard spent almost all his time working on the Koppies, with the assistance of David Mpilo, a Council worker. He also began monthly volunteer work parties which he organised and passed on to Norman Baines until they ended in 2006.

One of the first tasks was to get rid of Australian black wattles (Acacia mearnsii) and conifers. Both these invasive aliens leave a desolation behind them, so once they were felled hundreds of hours had to be spent by Richard himself and by the monthly volunteer work parties in rehabilitating those areas. On MK West there were three major black wattle sites which took years to get under control. In these areas there was annual regrowth of the wattles and an invasion of pioneer species - also aliens like blackjacks and khaki weed - which have been eradicated and are now being replaced by South African grasses.

"Pioneer" species are tough plants which move in to begin soil regeneration. Although alien plants are eager pioneers, we have plenty of our own indigenous grasses and forbs which fill this niche in the process scientists call "succession".

In the years immediately following 1993 the squatter problem was fraught. A welcome new political situation brought with it hard choices for conservationists. People squatting on the Koppies quite rightly asked "where else can I live?" - a question hard to answer in those years, and even now when housing for the poor is a huge issue for government.

For volunteers clearing up the debris of a squatter camp was appalling. Norman Baines had a one ton bakkie (in the USA a "pickup truck") in those days, and every volunteer weekend it would be loaded with debris like old mattresses, bottles, abandoned clothes, and offloaded at one or other municipal dump site. Eventually the problem came under control. Squatting still happens, but it is dealt with quickly with the help of the Metro Police and Johannesburg City Parks. The intractable problem of compassion remains, but that is another issue altogether.

Those were the "legacy" issues. There are other issues which will never go away. Trying to maintain a completely indigenous nature reserve in the middle of a suburban area is hard. There are weeds. They are brought into the nature reserve by the wind, by birds, and sometimes by humans.

Photo: Wendy Carstens

There are two categories of weeds. There are transformers and indicators. Transformers are trees like the Bugweed - Solanum mauritianum - which if not controlled can take over and transform a landscape, as it has done in parts of Kwazulu-Natal and Mpumalanga. The seeds are spread by birds, and since there is a very low public awareness of these things, bugweed grows illegally in many gardens, and even on Council property. So the birds bring them in and we pull them out. In the early days they were so large that we had to tackle them with a saw, with herbicide, or a pick axe. Now there may be some large ones lurking - 160 hectares is a large area - but mostly the new ones can be pulled out by hand.

Another threat is the "mothcatcher" creeper which if uncontrolled flourishes in the forested areas and can completely take over the trees. In the summer of 2008/2009 over 1 500 pods of the mothcatcher were removed from the Koppies. This again is an alien invader, illegal to have on your property, largely unrecognised by the public, and brought into the nature reserve by wind-borne seeds.

The "indicator" species are alien invaders like blackjack and khakiweed. These plants flourish in disturbed soil. One view is that you can just leave them to do their work as pioneer species, and they will slowly be succeeded by other species - hopefully indigenous ones. Another approach is that life is too short, and to get rid of them. This is our approach. In the early days we used herbicide. Now we find that hand weeding is more effective.

The overall effect is that we increase biodiversity. Where the aliens go the indigenous species move in: sedges, grasses, and the Leonotis species especially has emerged as a pioneer.

Wendy Carstens began to work with Richard Hall quite early on. From 1997 she worked with him for two days a week. Richard was not an easy mentor, or taskmaster. But Wendy has a certain cussedness to match his.

Wendy and the axe

From left to right, Wendy Carstens, Lucky Mdluli, Joseph Kasonga, and Clement Ndlovu, armed with traditional weapons. Lucky and Clement are the permanent conservation team members.
Photo: Norman Baines

In 2001 Wendy became chairperson. She took over Richard's work, and carried it further. Because there were more visitors there were more donations, and it was possible to think about employing conservation workers. The volunteer conservation work parties at weekends were losing support and were not managing to keep up with the conservation challenges.

By 2003 Wendy was managing to employ casual workers for conservation. In the years since then she has built up a conservation team, in steady employment, and paid through donations. Wendy works with them and directs them every week day. The guys on the team are now assured of an income, breakfast, lunch, clothes and equipment, and all are now on a year's contract. They also have a really good knowledge of conservation and its challenges. In addition they have been given officially recognised security training, and change roles when we have visitors.

This is a big step forward from when Richard Hall was working alone on the Central Section with one City Parks employee until 2005.

The conservation team spends the summers fighting off the invader plants. In winter there is more time to focus on the maintenance of paths. Clearing litter on Melville Koppies West is a year-long occupation. Maintaining paths is important on the areas where there is free public access. Paths made by people also tend to be the routes followed by runoff water, and become erosion gullies if not controlled. The only thing to do is build and maintain "stone bars". These are low barriers of stone and earth, carefully angled to divert water off the path and into the veld. They are disturbed by pedestrians, and destroyed by unwelcome intruders like mountain bikers, so they are a continual concern.

Another conservation challenge is the Westdene spruit which runs through Melville Koppies West and Central. It rises in the Westdene Dam, about a kilometre south of the Koppies, runs in concrete channels for much of its length, and is fed by municipal storm water drains. As a result it brings into the Koppies suburban debris, so that it has to be cleared of plastic and other rubbish regularly. The suburban runoff has increased over the years due to weather change and the "hardening" of the surfaces in the suburbs - more paving and less lawn - and the banks are being eroded. This problem is beyond our control, and we can only watch as the banks become undermined, roots are exposed, and trees collapse.

Clement Ndlovu and Lucky Mdluli.
Photo: Wendy Carstens

The three permanent workers, Lucky Mdluli, Clement Ndlovu, and Best Ndlovu are also members of the African Independent Churches. They have worked with us long enough to get a thorough understanding of the flora and the conservation practices we follow. They are a real asset to the Koppies community. Because we have the capacity to work on the Koppies every day the whole 160 hectares is continuously monitored.

Including security costs, the monthly maintainenance of the Koppies costs around R 22,000. All this is derived from donations.

We depend greatly on the income we get from school groups and other group visits. The open days on Sundays are a 50 year old tradition which is valuable and we will not abandon, ever. But we pay for security on those days and usually the donations do not cover our costs. The guides are volunteers.

So that is the situation at the moment - a small island of conserved land, teetering on solvency.