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The other side of the fence

For hundreds of thousands of years, Africans roamed the area now known as the Kruger National Park. The National Park is scattered with rock art from the Sans (bushman) people, and early human remains have been found all over Kruger. It seems that throughout this period of time, black Africans lived a harmonious life with the wildlife around them. Taking just what they need, not what they want.

But the settlement of European explorers, colonialism and, later, the Apartheid regime drastically changed the relationship between black Africans and the flora and fauna that surrounded them. In August 1902 when James Stevenson-Hamilton became the first warden of the then Sabi Game Reserve, there were between 2,000-3,000 Africans living within its borders. By August 1903 he had forcibly removed all Africans from within the park, earning him the name Skakuza (the destroyer.) In 1927 Sabi Game Reserve was merged with Shinwedzi Game Reserve and Kruger National Park was born, rapidly attracting tourists from across the globe.

However, for decades black Africans were banned from the park under the Nationalist party’s regime of Apartheid. Ripped apart from their wildlife heritage by a series of oppressive acts that led to “white only areas.” But we are not talking about the history of hundreds of years ago. It was in 1993 that black people were first invited to stay overnight at the park - just 28 years ago!

Thankfully, the horrors of the Apartheid regime are behind us and South Africa has made huge strides since Nelson Mandela’s ANC came to power in 1994. However, the disconnect between communities of black Africans and the wildlife on the other side of the fence line continues to live on long after the days of racial segregation.

For many Africans in the rural communities that surround the Kruger National Park, it is not law that now stops them from entering the park, but financial restraint. It is simply not economically possible for them to afford the entrance fees into the park to explore the wonders that are there, in some cases just a matter of kilometres away.

It is rare to see a black African on an open top safari vehicle, unless they are the guide. A substantially low proportion of visitors to Kruger are black; despite them making up the majority of the population in South Africa. Of those black Africans visiting Kruger, very few if - if any - will be from the surrounding townships and villages.

It’s hard for most of us to imagine what crippling poverty feels like. Most of us will never face a day in our lives when we have no running water or electricity; or face the uncertainty of where our next proper meal will come from. It’s hard to comprehend what life is like living on the “other side.”

A lack of basic amenities, education and employment opportunities - twinned with some of the highest rates of HIV in the world (15.4%) - have created a hopeless situation for many stuck in the grip of poverty in Mpumalanga; a province that encompasses Kruger National Park. The levels of poverty have been heartbreakingly exacerbated by the Covid-19 outbreak, resulting in unemployment levels hitting 42.4% in 2020. Much of the employment in the province is within the tourism industry; working at lodges in maintenance or hospitality. The shutdown of international travel meant the sector too shut down, practically overnight.

It’s a sad fact of life that desperation and hopelessness lead good people to make bad decisions. It’s easy to vehemently oppose the killing of innocent animals when we are sitting in a warm house, with cupboards packed with food and large TVs. The situation changes drastically if you have 3 small children to feed; no chance of a job; and no security of when the next meal will come.

This is the part of the rhino poaching crisis that is as equally heart-breaking as the loss of gentle, majestic beasts that peacefully roam the bush; killed for nothing more than the Keratin horn on their head. The ever-rising demand in rhino horn in the far East - mixed with destructive levels of poverty in South Africa - is the perfect storm when it comes to the decimation of an animal that has roamed earth for millions of years.

Well-equipped and well-funded poaching syndicates know this and prey on the hopelessness of the poor. Life changing sums of money are the prize for killing an animal that they have no connection to whatsoever. In fact, for many poachers, the first time they lay eyes on a rhino will be the time that they put a bullet in its back and brutally chop away at its face in a desperate act to dislodge its horn. A horn that can be worth up to $70,000 per kilo.

So, it is little surprise to know that poaching of rhino within Kruger National Park has led to a population decline of 70% in the last decade. Just ten years ago roughly 10,621 white rhinos roamed the bush within the gates of the park, and around 415 black rhinos. Today, those numbers sit at around 3,549 and 268.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if those trends continue, we could see the extinction of rhino within the park within a decade. A devastating reality for the largest population of wild rhino left on the planet.

As important as Anti-Poaching measures are, they are merely firefighting. Simply putting a towel down to stop a leak. Many poachers are killed whilst on the hunt for rhino. Either shot in altercations with Anti-Poaching Units or taken at the mercy of the Bush’s many dangerous animals. Potentially leaving behind a hungry family now battling life without a father. But for every poacher killed, there are many more young, unemployed men wanting a better life. For many, poaching is their only way.

While supporting frontline Anti-Poaching efforts within Kruger National Park, I witnessed the worst of this poaching horror story. The devastation of seeing three innocent carcasses on one short helicopter ride stirred up an anger inside me that I couldn’t help but aim the way of the poachers. It wasn’t until I encountered a detained poacher for the first time that I saw the desperation and the poverty that came with it. I was still angry at the time of seeing him until I got back to base to reflect. Reflect on how dire this situation really is.

It took me several years to understand what conservation truly entailed. To understand that it is not as simple as putting up fences and sending out Anti-Poaching Units. The complexities of conservation are clear to see and what I have come to realise is that if you don’t involve the communities that live alongside the wild areas you are seeking to protect, then you are setting yourself up to fail.

But where does this begin? By reconnecting these communities to their wildlife heritage is an invaluable start. By trying to reverse the pain and suffering of colonialism and apartheid and by bringing people closer to the natural world around them.

We cannot expect people to protect what they do not know.

If the first time a young man from a village neighboring Kruger National Park, sees a rhino is when he kills it, then we have failed them - and by them, I mean both the person and the rhino.

The first time I saw this connection being built firsthand was when Phoebe, Harris (our boy) and I visited Nourish Eco Village. A community conservation charity based in Akornhoek, on the edge of the Greater Kruger National Park.

Nourish pride themselves on looking for sustainable ways to fight poverty in the local area, and they focus on building resilient communities, so that they have a chance to say no when the lure of poaching is in front of them. Their projects teach sustainable farming and economic empowerment. It is not a matter of charity handouts; it is about teaching a community to survive through life’s hardships.

They also run an extensive environmental education programme designed to teach young people about the natural world around them.

They show children a world they have never seen before by taking them on trips into the Kruger National Park and introducing them to the wonders on the other side of the fence. By exploring Kruger’s spectacular wildlife and by teaching them the importance of protecting it. In the words of Senegalese scientist Baba Dioum “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

We know firsthand from our visit, that you cannot place a value on the look on a child’s face when they see an elephant or a giraffe for the first time, and if I look back on my first magical encounters with wild animals it is something that I will never forget. At Connected Planet Foundation we want every child to have those experiences and build that love for the natural world. We want them to feel the amazement of driving through the Bush. The sights, the smells and the magic of what is in front of them. It’s for this reason we have partnered with Nourish to support the amazing work they do.

We are currently fundraising for Nourish to buy their own minibus so that they can take many more children on these immersive wildlife experiences and build a connection that will last a lifetime. Your donation will go along way towards making this happen.

Supporting not only the conservation of keystone species like rhino but also supporting some of the world’s poorest communities and giving them a chance to feel connected.

In the true spirit of Ubuntu, we are all in this together. Covid has taught us this and climate change is continuing to do so.

Our very survival depends on the biodiversity of the planet from the rainforests of the Amazon through to the bushveld of South Africa. We must look after each other and we must look after our planet.

There is hope to save our planet but first we must love it and feel connected to it and that means all of us.

Please make a donation today. It means the world to us. Thank you.

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