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South africa - Environmental awareness: igniting a passion for wildlife in youth

Forests and Climate - Committed to a beneficial environment for humans

For Solly Themba, Community Facilitator at Kruger National Park, protecting the park’s biodiversity starts by training and raising awareness in young people in South Africa. The Kruger National Park, which covers 20,000 km2 in the northeast of the country, is managed by SANParks, a public organization. Established in 1926, its primary mandate is to oversee the conservation of South Africa’s biodiversity and landscapes. It oversees 19 national parks consisting of 4 million hectares. It is in this privileged setting that Solly contributed to developing the Walk and Learn on the Wild Side (WALOW) Program.

Solly Themba
We are changing lives and grooming tourism learners.

Solly Themba

“As an educator and a community facilitator, I wanted to find a way to use Kruger National Park as an outdoor classroom to promote environmental conservation,” says Solly Themba. “The idea behind this program was to encourage tourism career development initiatives as a way to increase environmental awareness of protected areas.”

In 2009, Solly launched the program with the help of Total, SANParks, Kruger National Park in partnership with the Limpopo and North West Provinces. Since that date, he has managed the program and been promoting environmental conservation through biodiversity awareness and rhino anti-poaching programs among students in grades 10 and 11 and their teachers.

An experience under the stars

Come sunset, SANParks interpretive officers take the students on a sunset game drive “to give them real experience of what it means to be a guide in a wildlife park”, specifies Solly Themba. “Participants learn the park’s basic ecology and study astronomy under the clear night sky.” From his ongoing experience with the program, Solly Themba sees the benefits. “We’ve empowered teachers and developed partnerships to support conservation initiatives. We are changing lives and grooming tourism learners.”

Since its inception, the program has welcomed 160 schools, 3,200 students, and 320 teachers from four provincial educational districts. “We’ve increased awareness of tourism in schools bordering the park and boosted youth visits to the park.”

The program is a hit with local populations. For participants from Limpopo Province’s Ralson Tshinanne Secondary School, the program was a “lifetime experience”, a sentiment echoed by those from the neighboring Mukhwantheli Secondary School: It ignited a passion for animals and wildlife”.

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To give them real experience of what it means to be a guide in a wildlife park.

Solly Themba

The park, an outdoor school

Every year, during the months of March and September, groups of students and teachers spend five days in Kruger National Park. They attend presentations about protecting the environment and tourism careers. And for an immersive experience, they discover all of the park’s activities such as the reception, fuel station, restaurant, and game-viewing area.

According to participants from Emmanuel Christian School in Limpopo Province, the program provides, “hands-on experience and empowers learners with a broader view of sustainable tourism management”.

The invitation extends to teachers, allowing them to confirm that what they teach in class matches the jobs in the park.

Kruger National Park

  • Founded in 1898
  • The largest national park in South Africa
  • One of the world’s largest game reserves
  • Home of Africa’s Big Five—elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards, and buffalo
  • 254 known cultural heritage sites
  • Over 1.7 million visitors every year

This protected area, harboring an unrivalled diversity of life forms, has long battled poaching. Images of rhinos being slaughtered for their horns and elephants for their tusks come to mind, yet illegal harvesting also extends to fish, plants and other living organisms and non-living resources. Tools to fight poaching include rangers, drones, helicopters, automated sensors, special dog units, buffer zones, and education, with programs such as WALOW.