COVID-19 is just one of many ongoing challenges communities living in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga face.  A recent community leadership development programme run near conservation sites in both provinces has highlighted that developing agility and self-belief leads to more empowered, resilient and invested stakeholders – which is vital for the long-term sustainability of conservation in these areas.

This has been a key learning from a year’s worth of community engagements through the African Intergenerational Leadership Hub’s community leadership programme. Funded by the MAVA Foundation, the project is designed to deliver leadership training to South African community and conservation leaders across the boundaries of generation, discipline and sector.

Community leaders have felt empowered through their participation on the programme, with participants from October’s contact sessions with the Kwa-Ximba community, who own the Mayibuye Game Reserve, sharing how the programme has impacted them. “When we started, I was a bit lost, because I thought, not all of us are born to be leaders, but once the facilitators began to work with us, I realised, I am a leader,” said Wiseman Mondi Ndlovu.

His sentiments were echoed by several participants, who, as a result of their involvement in this programme, experienced a mind shift in how they perceived themselves, and the power of communication, coupled with the need to collaborate to resolve complex local issues linked to the environment.

The hope is, that out of these engagements, the leaders – both young and old – will find innovative approaches to saving wildlife in their habitats, communities will be empowered as resilient, invested stakeholders in the conservation landscape, and threats to human and animal health created by poaching and the trade in high-risk species will lessen.

“There are no easy answers for conservationists, or people living and working in and around protected areas. They have seen incomes dwindle as global travel bans have dried up tourism revenues, and watched as new threats emerge as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the reality is, the pandemic is just one of many ongoing challenges they face,” says Environmental Sustainability Agency’s Clive Poultney.

ESA has been working with leadership training NPO Common Purpose, and the Southern African Wildlife College, to implement the two-year programme, which has continued through a combination of blended learning with  adaptations to accommodate social distancing requirements at workshops. “What we’ve learnt over a year of working with community and conservation leaders, is how necessary it is to truly empower leaders at different levels. Helping people and wildlife to weather the COVID-19 storm, and prepare for an uncertain future is important, but empowering them as resilient invested stakeholders is even more so,” he says.

While it’s not clear what next year will bring for the conservation sector, 2020 has been about mitigating the impacts of the pandemic. As the AIGLH completes its final engagements for the year, there is no doubt that in many protected areas in Africa, security has been negatively impacted, either due to reduced anti-poaching resources, or a decreased ranger presence on the ground.

At the same time, conservationists have had to confront the reality of links between poaching and the illegal trade in wildlife species that are at high risk of spreading zoonotic diseases. Communities that rely on income from conversation have also been severely impacted as job losses from reduced tourism revenues take their toll on food security and further destabilize already vulnerable livelihoods.

A common theme from engagements with community leaders and conservation leaders during the course of the year has been that social change very often begins with opportunities for self-development in individuals with leadership potential.

“Leadership is not something that just exists. It has to be nurtured and grown, and leaders need support in their roles. What’s become very clear through our engagements with both communities and conservation entities over the last six months is that the kinds of conversations we’ve been having are critical to the future of conservation, and sustainability in the true sense of the word,” says Elsbeth Dixon from Common Purpose.

“I think the programme has encouraged open dialogue, introspection and engagement over its various platforms, and has certainly triggered internal change. In addition, the changes I see in my junior colleague as she walks this journey have made me proud and amazed. She is blossoming, and this is one of the most beautiful perks of this programme,” said Sarah Dawn Bergs, Founder & Director, Nourish, an NPO that’s played a pivotal role in helping communities around Kruger access food parcels and support in recent months.

The goal of Nourish has always been to link conservation needs, issues and ideals with community issues and ideals, while “finding integrated sustainable solutions to conservation issues such as poverty, low education standards, lack of food security, and unemployment.” This year, they’ve had to adapt their team and responses to the evolving needs of the local community, especially around the need for food security and stability for children in the community where they work near the Kruger National Park. 

Kirsten Oliver, Deputy Director: Conservation Programmes, Wildlands Wildtrust, noted that “the programme has made me reassess my role as a leader in my own organisation and helped me see where I could contribute and be a little braver outside my organisation. Sometimes you don’t realise the opportunities you have to lead beyond your given authority until you are forced to look at it from a different angle.”

The team is looking forward to continuing its work in 2021, when workshops will be rolled out at sites in the North West Province, using an adapted format based on this year’s learning.

“The evident value participants have gained from the course in 2020 was motivation enough to work around the challenges we faced as facilitators, by shifting to online and blended learning approaches where possible, and we’re looking forward to extending our impact going into 2021” says Mabule Mokhine from Common Purpose.

This collaboration between the Southern African Wildlife College, Common Purpose, and the Environmental Sustainability Agency, funded by the MAVA Foundation and facilitated by Peace Parks Foundation, has enabled all partners to leverage their various strengths in support of better conservation practices and outcomes. The College has a more than two-decade long history of equipping people with the qualifications, practical skills, and thought leadership to manage complex ecosystems, conserve wildlife, and empower local communities. Common Purpose is a 30-year old international not-for-profit organisation that develops leaders who can cross boundaries to better solve complex problems, while the Environmental Sustainability Agency is a for-profit enterprise that seeks impact through the development of rural inclusive agro-wildlife economies in partnership with landowning communities.