Conservation beyond fences

Why South Africa’s path foretells the world’s

© Trond Larsen

Editor’s note: This story is the final part of the feature series “South Africa side by side with nature,” which explores two South African landscapes where doing right by nature and doing right by people are the same. Text by Jamey Anderson. See the whole series here.


A microcosm of inequality and promise

Twenty-three years after the fall of apartheid, luxury sedans line the streets outside black churches in Johannesburg’s ritzy neighborhoods, a small sign of the desegregation of South Africa’s wealthy elite.

But grinding poverty — the kind seen widely in the country’s urban townships and rural villages — remains the reality for many. For these South Africans, segregation based on race has simply been replaced by segregation based on wealth.

Today, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries on Earth. On the Gini index of wealth inequality, South Africa scores ahead of every other nation but one — its wholly contained neighbor Lesotho. In many ways, South Africa remains a developed nation within a developing nation, a society whose struggles reflect those of global development more broadly.

“South Africa is almost a microcosm of the combined countries of the world,” said Sarah Frazee, chief executive officer of Conservation South Africa, a member of the Conservation International network. “We have excellent infrastructure, sophisticated finance systems and a growing consumer population,” she said. “But we also have the majority of our population living in poverty, and we are degrading our natural resource base at alarming rates.”

Meanwhile, a population wave is building on the continent of Africa. Even as growth is expected to slow in India, Southeast Asia and the Americas, Africa’s population is expected to double by 2050.

For the third richest country on the world’s fastest growing continent, finding ways to provide livelihoods in concert with nature is a matter of urgent importance.

According to Frazee, meeting the demands of this rapidly growing population will require adding new tools in the conservation toolbox that go beyond the traditional strategy of establishing protected areas and keeping people out.

“The challenges of population growth and their need for natural resources will place huge pressure on areas currently set aside for nature and wilderness,” she said. “Finding ways to restore and maintain healthy ecosystems where people currently live — cities, farms, communities adjacent to protected areas — will be crucial for the future of both people and nature.”

Frazee sees the work of Conservation South Africa as building models of successful development that can be applied elsewhere.

“Finding solutions that promote restoration and conservation of healthy ecosystems whilst addressing societal inequities here in South Africa can be a model not only for the continent, but for the world,” she said.

Global problems, African solutions

Already, African nations are working together to create sustainable development solutions. One such effort is the Gaborone Declaration for Sustainability in Africa, an African-led initiative for meeting international development and conservation goals.

Conservation International serves as secretariat for the Gaborone Declaration, a partnership launched by Botswana and signed by South Africa and nine other nations. As secretariat, Conservation International facilitates learning and communication among the member states and with partner governments and nonprofit groups.

As part of the Gaborone Declaration, African nations are working to identify their critical natural capital — the stock of natural resources that combine to provide benefits to people — and to better incorporate this knowledge into decisions on infrastructure and investment. Governments are also sharing data to better inform planning for agriculture and conservation, and are organizing under the declaration to promote renewable energy investments in wind and solar.

African nations have also led in responding to the crisis of poaching and wildlife crime. One effort, the African-led Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI) — of which Conservation International and Stop Ivory serve as co-secretariat — aims to rally likeminded countries to close domestic ivory markets and forego future international sales of ivory until elephant populations rebound.

Last year, the 14 nations of the EPI successfully lobbied the U.N. body in charge of wildlife trade to recommend closure of domestic ivory markets worldwide. In their own countries, EPI member states are implementing action plans to better conserve elephants and crack down on wildlife crime.

“This is an African stand for African elephants,” said Keith Roberts, Conservation International executive director for wildlife trafficking. “The voluntary closure of these markets highlights that countries the world over recognize that we are facing an elephant poaching crisis.”

As the economies of the continent continue to develop, strong African leadership will be essential to secure future prosperity. Even more than elsewhere, achieving steady growth in concert with nature will require leadership and new ideas from the next generation.

Leading a millennial continent

With a median age of just under 20 years old, Africa is the world’s youngest continent, and the first where a majority of its citizens are of the millennial generation or younger.

In South Africa, young leaders are working to build promising futures for their communities, starting with progress at the local level. In the villages outside Kruger National Park, Conservation South Africa is working with local youth to rebuild a lost connection to nature.

Monica Mthibane, a community outreach coordinator for Conservation South Africa in Utah and Dixie villages, organizes local youth into a scouting program, roughly analogous to boy scouts and girl scouts in the United States. Her sessions teach HIV/AIDS prevention, environmental literacy and self-sufficiency — all run in English to build proficiency for her Shangaan-speaking students.

According to school leaders, the program has improved student attitudes and even classroom performance. The scouts have also been a catalyst for community change. During last year’s drought, Monica taught her scouts how to conserve drinking water by taking simple actions such as bathing away from water sources.

On another occasion, the scouts led an effort in the village to preserve marula trees, an important source of food. In both of these occasions, the practices adopted by the scouts soon become commonplace in the community, as the children shared their knowledge with their parents and grandparents.

After decades of estrangement from the neighboring wildlife reserves, Monica is also working to restore an appreciation for conservation. The tourist lodges have come around to help, donating free safari tours for the students and their families — a previously unknown experience for these villages.

For Monica, restoring her community’s connection to nature all comes back to building a brighter future. “What I love most is bringing good to my community,” Monica said. “That is so important to me.”

Photo gallery: South Africa’s new conservation leaders

Cliff Nkuna, a herd monitor for Conservation South Africa and lifelong resident of Dixie village, gives voice to the renewed conservation ethic taking hold outside Kruger’s fences.

“Growing up here, my life depends on nature,” he said.

“Nature is my life.”

For Sarah Frazee, leaders like Cliff bring hope to her work.

“Conservation is about nature and the benefits it provides to people,” said Frazee. “I believe the youth and people living closest to nature will be the ones to figure this out.”


A leopard cub with kill in Kruger National Park, South Africa.
© Trond Larsen

There's more to discover in South Africa

In this five-part series, “South Africa side by side with nature,” writer Jamey Anderson and photographer Trond Larsen explore two South African landscapes where doing right by nature and doing right by people are the same.

Read the full series