A decade into democracy in South Africa, visitor figures for the country’s national parks still reflect a legacy of racial exclusion.
Government officials say up to 18 months ago, less than 4% of visitors were black. Although statistics for November show this figure rising to 15%, perceptions remain of conservation as an elitist pastime confined to a white minority.
Education is seen as central to attracting a bigger percentage of the black population to parks. Despite a sluggish start, initiatives by both government departments and the private sector show real promise of fostering environmental awareness in a future generation of nature lovers from poorer communities — especially those living in or near conservancies.
Since the mid-1990s, South African National Parks (SANParks), the parastatal that manages and administers the country’s 17 national parks, has increasingly focused on environmental education among black schoolchildren.
According to a study conducted by the Johannesburg-based University of the Witwatersrand, efforts kicked off in earnest in 1997 with environmental officials conducting workshops at 51 schools — many of which formed conservation youth clubs.
This culminated in a youth summit held in the Kruger National Park in September 1998. During the summit, hundreds of participants signed a charter in which they pledged to conserve the country’s natural and cultural treasures. This document was later sent to former president Nelson Mandela.
However, critics claim that efforts to involve black youth in conservation have been sporadic and largely ineffectual.
“The children here are taken to Augrabies [National Park] once in six months,” says John Simon, leader of the Riemvasmaak community in the Northern Cape province. Earlier this year, the community celebrated the deproclamation of thousands of hectares of ancestral land from the park, which it plans to use for eco-tourism joint ventures.
Livingstone Makuleke of the Makuleke community, which became the first group to win back its ancestral land in a protected area — the Kruger park — and which continues to use it for conservation, is more upbeat.
“The education programme is going well in our area,” he says. “The children are taken to the park [Kruger] regularly. They come back very excited and want to share their knowledge, even with their parents.”
Makuleke says this year alone, eight schools in his district in the northern Limpopo province have benefited from the programme. But other schools further afield appear to have been overlooked.
“We need an information campaign to make more schools aware of the programme,” he adds.
Wildlife tourism operator Wilderness Safaris, which plans to convert an old hospital in Nkambati in south-eastern KwaZulu-Natal into a conservation school for children from impoverished communities, points out that SANParks’ day trips are too short to transform attitudes among learners.
“We feel you need at least five or six days,” project leader Heather Wilson said in an interview.
The initiative, which is expected to be operational by the middle of next year once an environmental impact assessment is completed, will initially cater for 1Â 560 children.
“With sponsorship we could double that figure,” adds Wilson.
The project is modelled on Wilderness Safaris’ Children in the Wilderness programme, which was launched with the help of American actor Paul Newman in 2001 — and which currently operates in a number of Southern African countries.
“In Maun [northern Botswana] we took in street children. Along with life skills we taught them more about the wildlife on their doorstep and the economic opportunities they represent,” Wilderness managing director Colin Bell says. “The results were fantastic — 12 out of 16 children were back at school the following year.”
Parks officials concede these criticisms are valid, but say foundations have nonetheless been laid for more extensive programmes in the future.
“One-day trips are useless — it’s just show and tell,” says Razeena Wagiet, director of SANParks’ people and conservation directorate. “It’s our policy to phase in longer trips to parks as resources become available.”
She says SANParks signed an agreement last month with the Department of Education to allow for longer field trips — and the involvement of more schools. Environmental education already forms part of the school curriculum.
Last month, SANParks launched its flagship programme, Kids in Parks, which will have a budget of almost R22-million over the next three years. It involves taking 50 pupils from selected schools on a three-day trip to a park.
Five parks will be visited every year, with 10 schools being given access to each park. Students will also learn about park management skills and the gathering of scientific data. The initiative is funded in part by the sale of environmentally friendly shopping bags by Pick ‘n Pay.
SANParks has also assigned a unit to run a programme to be launched next year by the Presidency, which will target unemployed youths. Universities and community forums will nominate suitable candidates to be schooled in wildlife and conservation management, with field training planned in 10 parks over the next three years.
In addition, Wagiet says existing programmes such as Inbewu, which focuses on traditional knowledge, are being expanded.
“Village elders are employed by SANParks to impart indigenous knowledge of the environment,” she says. “It is currently operative in four parks, to be extended by one park a year.”
SANParks hopes to facilitate the establishment of 10 new youth clubs a year, and runs a national competition — with groups of up to 10 learners submitting environmentally themed art works. Six winning groups are taken on a five-day educational park visit during school holidays.
For the government, budget constraints remain a constant challenge in fostering enthusiasm about conservation on the part of the youth. SANParks has up to about R3,9-million a year to spend on its education programmes, and relies heavily on the private sector and conservation groups to pitch in.
“There are 32Â 000 schools in South Africa, so we need all the partners we can get,” says Wagiet. “But our goal — my dream — is that every kid in every school in this country must have a first-hand experience of our magnificent parks. If we pull together, we can achieve great things.” — IPS