Conservation for the people

2010-07-12 00:00

“COMMUNITIES must become part of what we do,” says Bandile Mkhize, chief executive officer of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW). “We do conservation for the benefit of people.”

A statement that might sound strange to some: isn’t conservation for the benefit of animals? “If we want to be taken seriously, we have got to get everyone on board,” says Mkhize. “We have to get them to see the importance of the thing we do. For conservation to gain respectability it must address people’s needs. If we want to be allowed to do our core business — biodiversity conservation — we can’t do it in an impoverished community.

“In the past, conservation was inward-looking. There was a conservative conservation philosophy: conservation was about the inside not the outside. Barriers were created between who was inside and who was outside.”

Mkhize cites what happened at Ndumo Game Reserve, where in 2008, local communities pulled down the fence that kept them outside the reserve, as a consequence of the failure to communicate with and involve the local community in the life of the reserve. Negotiations are continuing and Mkhize is confident the issue can be resolved.

He is no stranger to such tensions, having encountered them in his previous job heading up the Kruger National Park. “Local people didn’t like the Kruger Park,” he says. “They saw it as land that had been taken from them, then declared out of bounds. They couldn’t collect firewood and they couldn’t collect traditional medicines.”

Mkhize set about creating connections and interactions with the surrounding communities. “There is a big nursery at Skukuza. We said ‘come here and get trees to plant’. We encouraged them to create a forest outside the park.”

He also used sport to bring people on board. “Black people like football. So we had football in the park and we invited people to watch and play. People came to the park for a sporting event — then they came back again to see the park.”

It’s a strategy Mkhize believes can work for EKZNW, particularly with regard to the showcase Hluhluwe- Imfolozi reserves situated amid 10 tribal areas. “We organised the Ezemvelo Cup and each area entered a team. We had Clive Barker come and coach the team coaches. This is about creating conservation awareness through sport — now the local people are our ambassadors and allies.”

This is something that, according to Mkhize, has helped reduce poaching. “This year the numbers of poached rhino on our reserves have dwindled,” he says. “In the first six months of this year the Kruger Park lost 55 rhino, we lost 10. When it comes to stopping poachers, intelligence is the most important thing. We need intelligence and we get it from the local communities.”

If Mkhize thinks outside the traditional conservation box maybe its because he is a geographer by training. He did his Masters at the University of Carolina in the United States, choosing as his topic the geography of tourism. “I looked at why people visit specific places, why they choose certain destinations and not others.”

His doctorate, done through the then University of Durban-Westville, extended this inquiry by exploring the experience of urban blacks in South Africa. “I defined urban blacks as those who live in the townships, I wasn’t interested in those who have moved to the suburbs. I looked at where they went on holiday, if they went on holiday at all.”

Mkhize found that very few people even knew about conservation areas let alone visited them. Why was this? “Because they come from rural areas and for them to look at a lion or an elephant simply didn’t make sense, it’s like going backwards.

“In contrast urban areas are seen as ‘good’. They are associated with jobs and employment — people aspired to be like white people. So it’s clear here at Ezemvelo that we need to be creating an awareness of why these places are being conserved. If you don’t give access and educate, you defeat the ends of conservation. To be relevant, conservation must get involved with things people understand to get the message across.”

After a few years lecturing in geography at the University of Zululand, Mkhize went to Mpumalanga in 1995 after being appointed the province’s first director of tourism. This inevitably brought him into almost daily contact with the province’s showpiece, the Kruger National Park and in 2004 he succeeded David Mabunda as managing executive of the park. “I came to conservation via tourism,” he says.

Mkhize’s tenure at Kruger saw black tourism increase from four percent to 30%. “This was because we became outward-looking not inward-looking. We developed partnerships: we invited groups of influential black people, as well as journalists and broadcasters. We established Kruger as a tourist destination but of a different kind — one that’s all about eco-tourism.

“Prior to this Kruger had been a closed book,” says Mkhize. “Among the white community it was well known and there were many repeat visitors. But we made a concerted effort to tell people what it was all about. And it worked, it worked so well it gave us a headache when on some occasions, such as long weekends, so many people came we had to turn some away. But it was a good headache to have.”

Since taking up his post at EKZNW in December 2008, Mkhize has been applying the lessons he learnt at the Kruger National Park. “When I joined, I found a similar situation to Kruger. Yes, it’s a conservation organisation with those rhino signs all over the province. But only the more privileged know what they mean and where the reserves are.”

Mkhize wants to spread the message that EKZNW offers a tourism experience but it’s a different tourist experience. “One based on nature, something that is tranquil, something you won’t experience on Durban beaches for example.”

While recognising biodiversity conservation as EKZNW’s core business, Mkhize sees it as dependent on other factors. “It’s like a three-legged pot; conserving bioversity cannot survive unless the other legs are in place, and the three legs we stand on are biodiversity conservation, partnerships and eco-tourism. These are not mutually exclusive. If you are not good at biodiversity conservation — if you don’t have the species people want to see — no one is going to visit.”

That the number of black visitors to the EKZNW reserves is rising is indicative of a strategy that is working, as well as reflecting a rising urban black middle class. “They come from several generations of urban dwellers, so for them to go to a rural area from an urban area is something new,” says Mkhize. “For those who grew up in an urban area it’s a marvel to see an elephant.”

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