This year’s theme for World Environment Day is biodiversity protection. The current rate of biodiversity loss is estimated to be 100–1,000 times faster than the background, or natural, rate. Biodiversity protection is critical for achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that underscore the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – our roadmap towards achieving a more protected planet over the coming decade. According to the World Economic Forum, more than half of global GDP (US$44 trillion) – is moderately or highly dependent on nature. Some four billion people are reliant on natural medicines, while 70 per cent of cancer drugs are either naturally-derived products, or synthetic ones based on nature’s blueprint.
Wild Shots Outreach (WSO) is a non-profit that supports young South Africans from disadvantaged communities in accessing their wildlife heritage through photography. Partnered with Canon’s Young People Programme, it aims to help young people develop employment skills in wildlife conservation and tourism.
Mike Kendrick, WSO’s founder, saw potential to unite his background in education with his passion for wildlife, as a force to lift communities: ‘During a break from city life in Cape Town, we took a road trip visiting national parks through South Africa, up to Nairobi in Kenya. On that trip, I came up with a plan to use wildlife photography to engage young people from black communities, and to get them interested in conservation and the wildlife tourism industry.’
The programme was born when Kendrick identified a critical disparity in wildlife access. ‘I was shocked and dismayed to find that many local black communities going to the government schools had never even been into the Kruger National Park, despite living on its boundaries,’ says Kendrick. He sought to overcome a common contradiction in conservation. ‘The word “national” implies that the “national park” belongs to everyone, but disadvantaged communities are limited. Before you get to the entrance of the park, you’ve got to buy fuel, have access to a car, and food for the day.’
The lingering economic impacts of apartheid, expensive entry fees and lack of transportation means that visiting the Kruger National Park is not an option for many local black communities. ‘Many children in the area have the surname Ndlovu, which means elephant, or Ngwenya, which means crocodile – the natural world is part of their heritage, but South Africa’s political history has denied them from realising it,’ says Kendrick.
His mission is to overcome these barriers. Kendrick trains disadvantaged high school students and unemployed young people in wildlife photography, teaching them photography skills with donated DSLR cameras. Each course consists of five workshop sessions culminating in a game drive through a reserve. Since the programme began in November 2015, WSO have run 72 programmes, helping 620 students to see the value of wildlife.
Eight exhibitions have so far been staged, featuring photographs taken by the students, including one at the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg. By exhibiting their work, students are extending a newfound interest in the natural world to their parents, community leaders, and younger generations of the community.
Neville Ngomane, a 2018 WSO graduate, was awarded the International Young Environmental Photographer of the Year 2019 prize for his image ’Desperate Measures’, showing the gritty process of rhino dehorning – a drastic response to the poaching crisis. ‘Neville went back into his community as a real ambassador for the natural world. He stood on stages at outreach events across the world, as part of a conservation tour, where he spoke about wildlife challenges. WSO were proud to have empowered somebody from within the community to speak up for the natural world,’ says Kendrick.
Leaders of the programme have since used photography as a medium through which to engage and empower community members in all areas of their lives. ‘In the beginning, it was all about the photography and the “wild shots”. Now it’s something far bigger, it’s a way of getting through to young people; to help them realise their own potential, and to raise their self-esteem and confidence to achieve.’
WSO now works with local businesses to secure work placements for graduates – one graduate, Queen Manyike, now works full time as a Field Guides of South Africa (FGASA) registered guide. ‘She’s become one of two black female guides in all of the greater Kruger area, excluding the park. She’s a fantastic role model for her community,’ says Kendrick. Three male graduates have started work with Conservation South Africa, and eight younger students have since enrolled on work placements in the local wildlife economy.
With plans to extend the programme into Botswana and Kenya, Kendrick hopes that WSO’s philosophy of empowerment will continue across Africa. By empowering local communities to realise the true value of their wildlife, they can unearth their inherent ambassadorship for the natural world – a critical step towards preserving biodiversity.