Original Research

Adaptive and transformative learning in environmental water management: Implementing the Crocodile River’s Ecological Reserve in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Craig A. McLoughlin, Eddie S. Riddell, Robin M. Petersen, Jacques Venter
Koedoe | Vol 63, No 1 | a1663 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/koedoe.v63i1.1663 | © 2021 Craig A. McLoughlin, Eddie S. Riddell, Robin M. Petersen, Jacques Venter | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 13 November 2020 | Published: 20 April 2021

About the author(s)

Craig A. McLoughlin, Centre for Ecosystem Science, Faculty of Science, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia; and Riverine Landscapes Research Laboratory, University of New England, Armidale, Australia
Eddie S. Riddell, Conservation Management, South African National Parks (SANParks), Skukuza, South Africa; and Centre for Water Resources Research, Faculty of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
Robin M. Petersen, Scientific Services, South African National Parks (SANParks), Skukuza, South Africa
Jacques Venter, Scientific Services, South African National Parks (SANParks), Phalaborwa, South Africa


Freshwater biodiversity loss in the Anthropocene escalates the need for successful environmental water management to sustain human benefitting ecosystem services. Of the world’s river basins, one-third are now severely water depleted, rendering the quality and quantity of water to maintain or restore freshwater ecosystem integrity increasingly urgent. However, managing environmental water is intricate because of complexity and uncertainty in interacting social and biophysical system components, and trade-offs between costs and benefits of implementing environmental flows. Learning enabled adaptive management – embracing the uncertainty – is essential; however, practising adaptive management (worldwide) is challenging; single-, double- and triple-loop learning is required, along with social learning, to tackle complex problems. There is progressive realisation of environmental flows (Ecological Reserve) in the Crocodile River, South Africa, linked to the Kruger National Park, using Strategic Adaptive Management (SAM). In this research article, we reflected on adaptive (single- and double-loop) learning and transformative (triple-loop) learning capacity emergent in SAM between 2009 and 2019 whilst also considering social learning potentials. We found evidence of preconditions (e.g. transparency) for social learning within a burgeoning stakeholder ‘community-of-practice’, likely fostering capacities (e.g. information sharing) for sustained social learning. Adaptive and transformative learning is enabled by social learning, underpinned by ongoing nested feedbacks supporting assessment and reflection, which facilitates single-, double- and triple-loop learning. Champions exist and are vital for sustaining the adaptive management system. Executing adaptive and transformative learning aids in positive change across the range of ecological, social and economic outcomes that are essential for success in environmental water programmes, worldwide.

Conservation implications: Crocodile River Ecological Reserve implementation, associated with Kruger National Park, provided an important national precedent (lessons) for protecting the ecological integrity of river systems – obligatory under the National Water Act (Act No 36 of 1998). We demonstrated the importance of ongoing stakeholder learning for successful management of the Ecological Reserve.


adaptive management; Ecological Reserve; environmental flows; feedbacks; Kruger National Park; single-, double-, triple-loop learning; social learning.


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