Conservation - a Community Imperative
In this issue of CEO magazine we speak to Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, CEO, Dr Bandile Mkhize, about the leadership tenets he most cherishes, the importance of involving communities in conservation, getting black entrepreneurs into the tourism sector and the importance of creating awareness around eco-systems.
Can you give us an insight into your vision for conservation?
My view is that there exists a great need for a paradigm shift: conservation can no longer simply be about plants and animals. It needs to relate to the challenges of the 21st century and probably the biggest shift that needs to be made in this regard, is the recognition that conservation is no longer the preserve of a few. The reality, whether we like to accept it or not, is that conservation issues touch each of us on a daily basis. If we understand in our personal capacity that we can make a contribution to conservation, our thinking will impact on those around us and ultimately impact on our communities too.
If we go back in time and explore the relationship between man and his environment, particularly in the African context, there is abundant evidence that man was able to co-exist with his environment. He understood the benefits of looking after it because it was an important life source to him. Along the way we have lost touch with the benefits of conserving our environment and the benefit this yields. We need to rebuild this understanding; we need to help individuals and communities understand the benefits of conservation.
To do this, I have coined an approach called ‘African conservation’, based on Ubuntu. It highlights the economic and environmental sustainability that can be achieved through conservation. It shows communities that if they play their part in conservation; it can translate into jobs and other benefits. In my opinion, this is the future of conservation, and the sooner we realise that it’s everyone’s business the better it is going to be for all of us.
You have won several awards for managing the ‘Best Park’ in the past. What leadership aspects can you say played an important role in gaining that recognition?
I am a firm believer in situational leadership. You have to develop the ability to adapt to a situation very quickly and you need to learn how to deal with each situation on its merits. The world is evolving at a rapid pace and demands that leaders are able to adapt quickly.
I try to lead people in a way that best suits their character and abilities. There are people you keep close whilst others you set free and monitor from a distance. Once again, you need to adapt because, as people grow, the way you interact with them needs to change. The power of innovation and creative thinking is also something that I promote. Just imagine if someone told you in 1965, that thirty years from now there will be a black president in South Africa. It was unthinkable at the time, yet it became reality. I therefore push my people to get out of their comfort zones and look at things differently. When you start becoming fully engaged with your work and explore new ways of doing things, you become motivated and driven to the extent where ‘clock-watching’, which incidentally I abhor, disappears from your frame of reference.
When it comes to people relations I am not big on protocol, it can easily become overdone and stifle progress. If you want to swing by my office and you have business issues to discuss, my door is open. I believe this is the best way to understand what is happening at ground level in the organisation. In fact, most days you will find me in my uniform, out in the parks trying to get first-hand experience and knowledge with respect to developments. Spending time with my people, like park rangers, is very important to me. It is their feedback that informs our strategy because they have the best view of what is really happening. It is important that people recognise me as part of the team because ultimately it is not about me, it’s about the organisation and the loyalty that people have towards it.
Finally, I admit I am somewhat of a perfectionist and my team knows that half measures don’t sit well with me. If you are going to do something, do it properly, otherwise don’t bother. Very often when people find themselves in my office, in less than congenial circumstances, it’s the result of half measures.
You are a big advocate of working with communities. How are these vital to wildlife conservation and how do you rope them in?
Communities are, without a doubt, our greatest assets. We are responsible for 114 reserves, more than 100 of these are in rural areas, so we interact with a large number of communities and if they are not positively disposed towards us, it will make our work very difficult.
These communities are our eyes and ears on the ground and my departure point in this regard is simple. If conservation is not working for a community in the sense that they see tangible benefits, it is always going to be difficult to win them over to the importance of making conservation a focal point.
The next important consideration is respect. If you don’t have respect for communities and the knowledge that they hold about their environment, you are going to get nowhere. They have spent their entire lives in a particular region. It is therefore logical that they will know more about that area, than you ever will. I therefore always approach community involvement with the necessary respect, for everyone, be it elders, traditional leaders, healers, politicians and even particular cultural practices.
Building a relationship premised on respect makes things a whole lot easier. The community understands that I want to connect with them as an equal and my proposals are not about Ezemvelo imposing themselves upon the community, rather it is about us working together to develop the community. I really enjoy building relationships with communities. Every time you start a new project you are moving into the unknown and this presents a great opportunity to learn from new experiences and build relationships.
Much of our focus with community projects is about making them understand how the environment is important to them. We start with what they know and look to build on this, before long they are sharing more perspectives on how conservation can be leveraged for their benefit. Once we have reached this point, where we can share thoughts and ideas, things start moving forward rapidly.
A really good example of this is our Rhino Ambassador programme. Our communities understand the impact of the current threat to rhinos. They know that if our rhino population is decimated and we have to start marketing South Africa as a destination where you can visit the ‘Big Four’ as opposed to the ‘Big Five’, things are going to become difficult for all of us. Hence they are fully supportive of the additional measures we have to take to protect our rhinos and they are alert and looking out for threats from unknown sources to these animals.
At the same time, we have tried to take the positive out of this terrible situation by training around 400 young people from these communities to be Rhino Ambassadors. This has manifold benefits; its gives young people employment; raises awareness among youth about the importance of conservation; re-affirms to communities the critical role they play in protecting valuable assets and shows that working together we can achieve more.
You have played a key role in tourism development of South Africa. What do you consider your greatest achievement thus far and what is your focus at present?
My doctoral thesis was titled ‘The Meaning and Expression of Tourism amongst Black South Africans’. I completed this in 1999 and my findings revealed that black South Africans hardly visited our national parks. It is sad to say, but very little has changed since then. During my time in Mpumalanga at the Kruger National Park, I looked at developing programmes that would bring the benefit of tourism to local communities. At the same time I aligned these with a drive to bring Black South Africans into the Park.
In 2004, when I started out only 4% of visitors to the park were black, by the time I left in 2008, it had risen to 27%. I certainly count this as one of my successes. That being said, there is still an enormous amount of work that needs to be done to get Black South Africans to the point where they start appreciating that one of the best ways to enjoy our natural heritage is by visiting our national parks. Similarly, there is a lot of work that needs to be done to get blacks involved in our industry from an entrepreneurship and economic stakeholder perspective. I am very excited by the future, because I believe tourism holds huge potential and there is still so much more that can be done to develop this sector and to create opportunities for Black South Africans.
One of the challenges in this industry is that we tend to focus heavily on the marketing side. This, with all due respect, is the easy part. The difficult part, which is the development side of things, where energy and time need to be invested, tends to be neglected. Once again, local communities have a huge role to play. A community knows their region and can, within minutes, tell you where a picturesque waterfall or an panoramic vista can be found. These provide the ideal basis for sustainable development.
Tourism also provides a multitude of opportunities for the youth, they can, for example, help in identifying locations that have unique selling features and are worthy of development. In fact, I have a project in mind that could provide opportunities for the youth along these lines. My focus today, as in the early part of my career, is still to find ways to ensure that the benefits of our natural heritage accrue to all South Africans.
You have a reputation as someone who is a strong believer in accountability and dislikes bureaucracy. How do you ensure that those you lead don’t fall into a bureaucratic trap?
I am convinced that bureaucracy is not good for your state of mind. Bureaucracy creates subordinates. How can you be ‘sub’ to someone else? It takes away from your self-worth. We all have a vital role to play in society, and everyone needs to know that no matter how small their contribution, it is not insignificant. I see the value and importance of this type of thinking regularly, through the wide range of stakeholders that we service and interact with. I also encourage my team to be the best they can possibly be and I trust they encourage those around them to be the same. Ultimately, there is no substitute for hard work, which is the only way you achieve something in life. Working hard also means working smart and focusing on what you do well.
As a youngster, I once received advice on how to tackle an exam paper. It was premised on a simple philosophy; when you receive the examination, quickly scan it to see which areas you feel confident in answering and tackle those first, so that you place yourself on the path to doing well in the examination. It is advice that has stuck with me throughout my life and I have made it work for me in many situations. Consequently I am today of the belief that when you reach a certain age and experience level in the business world, your strengths and weaknesses are clearly defined. My view is that you mustn’t waste time on your weaknesses; you need to focus on developing your strengths and surround yourself with people that compensate for your weaknesses. It is an approach I encourage my leadership team to take.
I also like to lead through example and my team knows I am a hands-on individual. Whether I need to stack chairs, load boxes or write a speech. I am willing to do it if it means we are taking the organisation forward. At the end of the day if we all do what needs to be done to take us forward, there is no need for bureaucracy.
What do you think needs to be done to increase the economic contribution tourism and wildlife make to the country?
The tourist Rand is important in creating jobs. Right now we need to look after our heritage and our wildlife. You can’t build a tourism product if you don’t have natural assets. The big benefit of tourism is the multiplier effect it has, presently it is estimated one tourist creates seven or eight jobs. On top of this, tourism has the ability to attract money to areas where sustainable sources of revenue previously did not exist.
Of course, the key to exploiting all of this in a positive manner is the existence of entrepreneurs. We need to do more to get young black people active in this space. We have launched a project in Didima where tourists can rent bicycles from the youth. It has worked really well because people realise the benefit of not having to bring their bicycle along on vacation. It is a small start, but it typifies the type of thinking and opportunity development we need to pursue if we want to build our tourism industry.
Continuous conservation education is imperative for a sustainable wildlife ecosystem. Given that you have a teaching background, what measures or programmes do you have in place for this especially in light of rampant rhino poaching and other issues in the country?
You have to create awareness about eco-systems. People have to be able to relate to how the environment helps them. If you don’t know that the environment is important and that it sustains you, the likelihood of you intervening when it is being harmed is slim. We have spent a lot of time creating awareness amongst the communities that are adjacent to our parks. I can assure you they understand the importance of stopping rhino poaching and they serve as our first line of defence in this fight.
Looking to the future, where would you like to see Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife positioned?
I would like for us to be the recognised leader in biodiversity conservation world-wide - the sector benchmark against which other institutions measure their activities. I am confident we can propel ourselves into this position, the process is already underway. If we continue to challenge old ways of thinking about conservation and prove to the world that out of the box thinking does have a place in our sector, I have no doubt we will reach this goal.