Educating the younger generation vital for conservation; an interview with Wild Volunteers’ founder Anton Roberts

The human population is growing at an alarming rate – in April this year there was an estimated 7.5 billion people living on the planet, placing a substantial burden on the earth’s resources as they compete for land and food.

As such, over population is having an increasingly detrimental impact on habitat and wildlife numbers are falling. Recent data shows that just 20% of the earth’s wilderness remains.

For wildlife conservation to stand any chance of success, educating the younger generation is vital, founder and owner of Wild Volunteers and Albizia, Anton Roberts says.

It is therefore critical for information and knowledge to be passed down to provide the future generation with both the desire and the platform to improve and build-on current practices.

“To me, getting that message across is the core principle – it is today’s kids who will be spreading the conservation message,” Roberts says.

Roberts’ passion for wildlife began in a somewhat unusual manner.  At 13 he was bitten by a snake and, instead of turning against them, it sparked a love affair for reptiles which continues to this day.

Following military service, he went on to take several wildlife qualifications which resulted in stints researching a wide range of animals including turtles, crocodiles and black rhinos.

Then, in 2009, Roberts and his wife Emma purchased Umkhumbi lodge in Hluhluwe, South Africa. Initially, it began life as a conservation through tourism resort, but they quickly realised that there was a market for educating students and, as a result, set up a programme called Albizia.

“Student trips have always been for Albizia to show what conservation is about. If I can install that bit of conservation education, if I can trigger something in someone else, on the other side of the world, then it has been a success,” he says.

“You know what it is like, you’re in London on the bus/tube, or in a classroom, and there is no scope. It is all you do, churn things out. Then, you get out here and you realise you have so much more scope to make a difference.”

Roberts noticed that Albizia students often finished the programme wanting to stay or return to South Africa. This sparked the idea for Wild Volunteers which runs in conjunction with Albizia. Both companies are affiliated with the Wild Tomorrow Fund (WTF), a New York registered wildlife conservation charity.

Wild Volunteers was set-up to help protect, grow and maintain the wildlife around a 1,200-acre conservancy in Hluhluwe, it offers volunteers a base for rewilding and releasing rehabilitated wildlife.

Participants conduct on-the-ground scientific research as they track and monitor key species that have been released, collating data that will assist in future releases, alongside ecological measures such as species counts. Furthermore, the programme can be tailor-made to fit around specific requirements.

“If someone is doing a PhD then they could come and work and be part of the team here while doing their masters. Or, if their focus is more on community, rather than wildlife, we can adapt – that’s the beauty, we can tailor make it to fit the curriculum,” he enthuses.

It is an exciting time to be part of the project. Working alongside WTF, there are ongoing conversations to drop fences with neighbouring reserves which would allow for more animals to be released. An agreement has been reached in principle to bring in an additional 741 acres, which could then potentially join with the 72,900-acre conservancy that is Munyawana.

Short-term, the current conservancy will see the introduction of more plain game. Currently it is home to zebra, wildebeest, impala and duiker (both red and grey), but they hope to add giraffe to this list, soon.

“This land is old cattle and pineapple farms, but we wanted to return it to its natural state and re-introduce game and link this in with our release animals. Medium-term, we look at increasing gene pools for critically endangered animals – we need to get genetics stronger for their survival,” Roberts explains.

“If we get enough land, then we look at rhinos. Although there are strict criteria for having these animals, which makes it difficult,” he adds.

Rhino preservation increasingly critical

The preservation of rhino’s in South Africa is something Roberts is extremely passionate about. But, for there to be future generations, there needs to be genetic diversity.

Yet, due to poaching and habitat loss, the animal is now facing the very real threat of extinction – the black rhino has a 50% chance of being extinct in the next 10 years.

Rhino horn, with a typical value of $65,000 a kilo, is worth more than gold on the black market. Demand for the horn, made from keratin, is particularly high in Asia, where its high net worth is seen as a status symbol. It is also used in traditional Asian medicine, as they believe it has medicinal properties.

The insatiable demand for horn resulted in the decimation of Asian rhinos and, as Asian numbers plummeted, the poachers turned instead to South Africa, which is home to around 70% of the world’s rhino population. Since 2007, 7,666 rhinos have been killed in this country – an average of two-to-three rhinos a day.

In poor, rural communities, poaching rhinos is a way to make money. But, while the poacher is the one putting their life, or freedom, at risk, they receive very little – around 20,000 rand – in comparison to those heading the operations.

Educating South Africans in the importance of the wildlife in their own country is vital. As is often the case, people take for granted what they have in their own backyard, particularly if they do not understand its worth. Couple that with a high unemployment rate – currently at a 13-year high of 27.7% – and conservation is often way down the list of locals’ priorities.

“A lot of people don’t care or understand conservation. If you talk to locals about rhinos they say they don’t realise there is a problem. Or, even if there is an understanding, after so many years of reading about poaching in the news, people become indifferent and become blasé,” he says.

This attitude is something Wild Volunteers is actively working on changing. Volunteers get the opportunity to go into the communities and local schools and teach children about anti-poaching and wildlife conservation.

This has already started in earnest. The current batch of interns at Wild Volunteers trained 21 Albizia students on the importance of rhino in South Africa. Armed with a presentation, both Wild Volunteers and Albizia visited two local schools and, over a two-day period, presented this to close to 1,000 primary school aged children.

“That’s an incredible amount of education in a short amount of time. If even a small percentage of those children really understand the message, it will help change attitudes,” Roberts says.

Still, more needs to be done, and the education process is something which will need continued effort.

As Baba Dioum, a Sengalise forest engineer, famously said; “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught”.

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Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Volunteer & Internships, Conservation Enterprises, Wildlife