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Mobilising communities to become the first lines of defence against poaching is a vital component of strategic collaborative efforts in rhino conservation, writes WWF’s Nomonde Mxhalisa.
I’m an unapologetic city girl firmly attached to my concrete conveniences but also deeply in love with nature. And while I have a theoretical understanding of the vastly different reality that countless rural South Africans are living, it was my experience of visiting Somkhanda that put it all into perspective.
Somkhanda Game Reserve, which is in the little town of Mkuze, approximately 350km from Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, was created out of a portion of land returned to the Gumbi community through a land restitution claim. My work as communications and marketing co-ordinator for the WWF Nedbank Green Trust took me to the reserve where the Green Trust, in partnership with WWF South Africa and the Southern African Wildlife College (SAWC), is funding a practical community-based approach to supporting wildlife conservation and our rhinos called RISE, the Rural Initiative for a Sustainable Environment in South Africa.
RISE works to empower rural communities and allows them to benefit from protected areas by developing management, governance and financial skills. Over time, communities realise long-term sustainable benefits, while continuing to be custodians of rhinos for future generations.
My first, slightly nervous, inkling that the rural experience was going to prove challenging was when we had three flat tyres in one day. The next tummy-clenching moment was when I truly took in the vast distances involved in getting anything done in the area. Our first community meeting, for instance, took place under a tree on a hill overlooking the community leader’s farm. That same day water was being delivered to the different villages as many do not have access to running water. As the truck carrying water was delayed, however, it also meant our meeting had to wait. When the committee members were finally able to join us they walked a great distance to the gathering tree and by their actions their commitment to the process and to the prosperity of Somkhanda was absolutely clear.
The struggles of the people in Somkhanda are hard. Poverty, poor infrastructure, lack of public transport, lack of running water and reliable electricity and unemployment make this beautiful part of South Africa a difficult and painful place to live in. And so the work of RISE and the Somkhanda Game Reserve become incredibly important in this setting – linking communities to the benefits that can be gained from surrounding wildlife.
Nkosinathi Mbele, Somkhanda Game Reserve’s Trainee Manager, summed up the hopes of the community: “My dream is to see Somkhanda developed, to see it grow and help even more of the community. At present we employ 60 local people on the reserve and I’m happy that since I came to Somkhanda in 2012 we have created and seen improvements and development in the reserve and in the local community. We are facing some challenges, especially with regards to rhino poaching, but we continue to fight poaching to ensure the prosperity of Somkhanda.”
Environmental conservation has a blemished history of pitting local and indigenous people against nature, but the only way that true prosperity for people and nature can be achieved is by conservation organisations working with the human custodians of endangered species and habitats. This is why the work of RISE is so incredibly important. We will only be able to preserve our wild places and help our people if our vision is holistic and sustainable. The challenges are immense but the rewards will be many and sustainable.
Give our rhinos a RISE!