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The forest of the Rain Queen

Learn and Teach visits the Modjadji Cycad Forest in the Northern Transvaal

Not so many years ago, South Africa was a very different place. Our coastal land and mountains were covered with big forests, and huge herds of wild animals walked freely on the veld. For hundreds of thousands of years, people lived peacefully with the animals and plants around them.

But today, most of the forests have been destroyed and only a few animals survive in game reserves. And because of apartheid laws, millions of people are crowded onto small areas of land where there is hardly a tree and not enough grass for animals to graze. This is the price our land has paid for Urbanisation and industrialisation.

But far away in the Northern Transvaal, about 50 kilometres from Tzaneen, there is a very special forest. It is called the Modjadji Cycad Forest and it is special because it has been growing for more than 65 million years and it is one of the few forests that has not been destroyed by progress. How has this ancient forest been saved when so many others have been destroyed?


Part of the answer to this question comes from the Lobedu people. These people came to South Africa from Zimbabwe about 400 years ago. The Lobedu people have always valued the cycad forest. They understand that there is a connection between trees and rain. If you destroy the forests, there will be less rain. And without rain, people cannot survive.

The Lobedu people even recognise the importance of plants and rain in their system of government. The Lobedu people are a kingdom — or, to be more correct, a queendom. Since the 1800s, the Lobedu people have been ruled by a queen, the Modjadji or Rain Queen. The people believe that their queen has the power to make rain and even today she is thought to be one of the most powerful rain makers in Southern Africa.

The Modjadji Cycad forest plays a big part in the rain making ceremonies of the Lobedu people. Because of this, the queen and her people carefully protect the forest. When the queen makes rain, she goes to the forest to pray to the gods. No one knows exactly what she does there, but everyone is sure that her prayers are answered and that rain always falls. Even Bassy Selowa.


Bassy Selowa is a *nature conservation officer in the Modjadji Nature Reserve. The reserve was started in 1979 to protect the cycad forest and the animals that live in the reserve. Why, you might ask, does the forest need to be protected when it is already protected by the rain queen? “The answer,” Bassy explained, “is that not everyone respects the rain queen and the forest like the Lobedu people.

“At one time there were many more cycads growing in the area. But they were stolen by people who dug them out and sold them at very high prices on the “black market”. Because they are the oldest plants on the earth and because there are so few of them, some rich people are prepared to pay a lot of money just to get them. A small seven year old cycad sells for R100 in the city, and the big ones — some of which are 5 000 years old — sell for many thousands of rands.”

In 1936 the area was made a national monument but this was not enough to protect the cycads from thieves. So in 1979 the Lebowa Department of Agriculture and Conservation established the forest and mountain as a nature reserve and put a fence around the whole area. Now it is a crime to take anything from the reserve — even a small stone. Thieves can be jailed or fined for stealing.



We asked Bassy why he decided to become a nature conservation officer. “I always wanted to work with nature, even as a small child,” he told us. “I wanted to learn and to teach other people about it. Water is very important to our people, for example. But many people do not understand how easy it is to pollute the water with things like soap. I wanted to teach them these things. I also wanted to make sure that tomorrow’s children will be able to see the cycads of Modjadji just as I am lucky enough to see them now.”

When Bassy finished his Junior Certificate at Masalanabo High School, he applied to the Department of Education and Conservation to train as a nature conservation officer. He passed the entrance test and was sent to College at Dombiseleka in Chuenespoort. He spent nine months there learning about water conservation and the protection of animals and plants. After his training, he went back to the Modjadji Reserve to learn how to patrol the reserve and receive the many visitors who come there. Now that he has finished his training, he lives at the reserve with his wife, Hildah.


Bassy’s biggest job is to protect the cycads from thieves and the animals from poachers who try to trap them. He patrols the reserve every day with his gun. Usually there are no problems but sometimes he runs into trouble, like one night in June last year.

“I was on patrol with my assistant late at night and we heard a noise, like someone digging. We went to look and saw that five men were digging up the cycads. When we called out to them, they ran away. We chased them but they got into two cars and drove off into the village. Luckily, one of the cars broke down in the village and the police managed to arrest three of the thieves. They had thrown the cycads away and damaged them but we managed to plant them and make them healthy again. The thieves were sentenced to jail.

“About 150 cycads have been stolen since 1988,” Bassy said, “which is much fewer than before the reserve was established. At Modjadji, we are winning the battle to conserve nature.”

Luckily, most of Bassy’s work is not cops and robbers stuff. About 500 visitors come to the reserve every month, many of them people from overseas countries who have heard about the famous Modjadji cycads. It is Bassy’s job to welcome them and make sure that they enjoy their visit.

He also sells cycads which have been specially grown in the cycad nursery in the nearby village of Khetlhakane. Only specially licensed sellers are allowed to sell cycads.

The *nursery in Khetlhakane is growing over 40 000 cycads and has many benefits for the local people. The nursery gives jobs to the villagers and the community gets some of the money that comes from selling the cycads.


Bassy also works with the children in the community. In 1989 two nature conservation clubs were established in the area — the Modibe Nature Conservation Club and the Femani Nature Conservation Club. The children from the clubs come to the Modjadji Reserve often and Bassy teaches them about the cycads as well as about the other plants and animals and about soil and water conservation. He also shows videos and gives talks in the schools.

In the community, the club members *monitor the environment. They look out for people chopping trees and they make sure that the water is clean and pure. If they see that there is a problem, they tell the conservation department. “In this way,” Bassy explained, “all the people in the community are helping to make sure that we pass on a healthy planet to future generations.”

Modjadji is a good example of how South Africans — young and old — are taking action to stop people from destroying our world. “The protection of our animals, plants, water and soil is important,” Bassy said. “Unless we take this seriously, we will not be able to continue to live on earth.”


The Modjadji cycads belong to a family of cycad trees which are found in Africa, South and North America, South East Asia and Australia. Cycads are some of the oldest plants in the world, dating back to over 65 million years. In fact, there were cycads long before there were human beings.

The Modjadji cycads are one of the tallest in the world. They can grow up to 13 metres high. They grow very slowly and live to be very old. Some of the cycads at the Modjadji reserve are over five thousand years old.

If you want more information about the Modjadji Forest, write to: Department of the Chief Minister Division Land Matters and Tourism Private Bag X27 Chuenespoort 0705 or phone: (01529) 35529


urbanisation — when people leave the farms and the rural lands to live in the cities, it is called urbanisation nature conservation officer — a person who is specially trained to look after plants or animals is a nature conservation officer nursery — a plant nursery is a place where plants are grown and then sold monitor — when you monitor something, you keep an eye on what is happening


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