Written by: Melissa Reitz for the Conservation Action Trust
The Cango Caves are caught in the crossfire of political upheaval and corruption, a lack of sound management and financial security which could lead to the permanent closure of the Cango Caves and heavy financial losses for a large portion of the Little Karoo’s community, which is reliant on the yearly generation of R20 million in tourism revenue from the caves.
The questionable removal of R16 million from the caves investment fund by the Oudtshoorn Municipality last year, an unapproved management plan, the disbanding of its scientific committee, a pending court case on a botched tender process and unpaid supplier accounts have left the Cango Caves in a dire situation that according to staff will mean closure to the public within the year if corrective measures are not instituted.
Oudtshoorn’s May by-elections have replaced the ANC dominated council with that of the DA, however the ANC refuses to step down. Allegations from Oudtshoorn’s business and tourism sector are that the millions syphoned from the Cango Caves account have been used on legal fees by the ANC to keep themselves in power.
Mayor Gordon April denies allegations, stating that the money was withdrawn for upgrading the Cango Caves’ amenities. However, a year later the cave’s buildings are begging for attention, from broken toilets and peeling paintwork to leaking roofs.
And more importantly, two vital conservation projects cannot be completed due to financial constraints, including a new one-way entrance for visitors that will reduce human impact on the caves by 50%, and the completion of a lighting upgrade. Both of which are essential for prolonging the life of the caves.
In a recent statement issued by the Ministry of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, an urgent intervention into Oudtshoorn’s failing municipality was announced, with a list of issues to be addressed. Tellingly, the Cango Caves was not mentioned.
Dating back to pre-Cambian times, the Cango Caves is a significant heritage site and one of South Africa’s most notable tourist destinations. But it is clear that the municipality and its official custodian, provincial government, are failing to meet its responsibility to properly protect them from irreparable damage.
In 2006 the caves’ scientific advisory committee was disbanded by the municipality, which deemed it an unnecessary expense. The Western Cape government made no inquiry into this decision and the Cango Caves has since operated without a monitoring committee, leaving scientific decisions up to the municipality – a contravention of the National Heritage Resources Act.
Too much carbon dioxide in the caves’ environment prohibits the growth of calcite deposits (speleothems), meaning every visitor has an impact. The job of maintaining show caves is a highly scientific process of constantly monitoring and adjusting carbon dioxide and other influences, thus scientific input is imperative to conservation.
In 2007 a Cango Caves management plan was drawn up, but this is still to be approved and the only official document available is an outdated ordinance from 1975 which makes no provision for future conservation and has been described as more of a financial agreement between the Oudtshoorn Municipality and provincial administration.
“It’s a disaster waiting to happen, because should the caves close down – and it’s a real possibility – the entire region will suffer a great loss as tourism is the number one employer in our area,” says Head of Oudthoorn Tourism, Niel Els.