No substitute for getting your hands dirty
Sabelo Lindani is one of the more experienced conservationists in Cape Town, South Africa, with experience in both the governmental and private sector of conservation. In 2017 he started his own company (Contour Enviro Group) and now employs 25 other up and coming and experienced conservationists.
Together they offer government and private clients Wilderness and Nature Guide Training, environmental education, environmental restoration and rehabilitation, as well as environmental compliance for agriculture in the fruit farming industry.
While South Africa is in COVID-19 lockdown, I was able to find out a few things from Sabelo to help the next generation of conservationists.
Why do work you in conservation?
I have been in conservation for the past 13 years. I grew up in Port Alfred, South Africa, and was always surrounded by a lot of greenery. This is something that as kids we always found a refuge in even though we did not understand its ecological importance and realise how lucky we were to be surrounded and connected to nature at such young age.
The authorities did not make use of the opportunity and ensure that us young people understood the intrinsic value of protecting nature. We would go and hunt small antelope with dogs and snares whenever we had a chance. I guess due to a lack of knowledge and understanding our schools also did not make any effort in ensuring that environmental education and awareness was part of the school programme.
However, by sheer luck my standard 9 teacher brought a newspaper article to school that was about nature conservation and he even invited the local game rangers to give a talk for our class. That day my life literally changed, what they talked about sounded very foreign even though we grew up around nature I just didn’t think that people could actually take that as their career.
Today, 18 years later our vision is to develop and inspire a love for nature. In our line of work we work with commercial fruit farmers, school children from the rural areas of the Western Cape, conservation personnel of some of the respected conservation authorities in the country, and the farming communities. What we seek to do is to influence these groups of people to look at nature differently whilst taking the necessary steps to ensure that our natural heritage is protected.
What do you consider the most rewarding part of your job?
I used to be very excited when I led people in combating veld fires in the mountain slopes of the Western Cape whilst protecting communities and properties but also the ecological integrity of our Fynbos (the special, globally renowned vegetation type of the Western Cape).
I now consider my biggest reward, however, the development and empowerment of conservation teams. We sometimes work, train and mentor people at the entry level of conservation such as field rangers and conservation assistants and what gives me joy is to see them develop overtime and reach higher levels of their conservation careers.
I enjoy seeing young kids especially in the rural areas going for a guided hike for the very first time and being taught about a simple but important concept of ecosystem services. I love providing environmental solutions and assisting conservation organisations with capacity whilst at the same time making local farmers environmentally compliant before they export their produce to international markets.
What would you consider one of your biggest achievements in your career so far?
My biggest achievement so far would have to be starting my own business in 2017 (Contour Enviro Group) which now employs 27 people. This started as an impossible dream and it meant that I had to leave the comfort of a good, well-paying job with the government to be my own boss.
This has obviously presented me with a lot of challenges and continues to do so but we are also proud to have done work with a number of respected organisations such as South African National Parks, CapeNature, City of Cape Town, The Nature Conservancy, Department of Agriculture (LandCare), and a number of private clients particularly in the agricultural industry.
What did you study? and would you recommend this to someone considering a career similar to yours?
I have a Bachelor of Technology in Nature Conservation obtained from Nelson Mandela University based in George (the old Saasveld). It is one of the best decisions that I have ever made in my life. One of our environmental programmes is Careers in Conservation and I would certainly encourage people to venture into this particular field especially if someone is passionate about it and they are not doing it to make a lot of money.
Unfortunately, in this field you have to be driven by the passion and love for nature and when all goes bad and one feels demotivated as we all do sometimes, your passion and love for nature should carry you through because it is certainly not a walk in the park.
What career choices have led you to be in the position you are in now?
I started as a Field Ranger at Bontebok National Park in Swellendam, I became a Conservation Trainer for a private training institution in Port Elizabeth. I then joined the City of Cape Town as a junior Reserve Manager for five years and thereafter I was appointed by CapeNature as a Conservation Manager for Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve where I managed large conservation and fire management teams.
Years later, I left CapeNature to start a new unit as the first Ecological Coordinator for the Recreation and Parks Department in the City of Cape where I worked with Area Managers and we sought to protect the critical and very sensitive biodiversity within the City. I left this position to start my own business and had a very short role as the Head of Green Futures College in Gansbaai working with the Grootbos Foundation.
My experience has exposed me to a number of international opportunities that include being the member of the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), one of the Commissions of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In the WCPA I served on various roles and committees that include Capacity Development for the WCPA, Regional Leadership for Young Professionals as well as Deputy Vice Chair for the East and Southern Africa Region.
What are some of the biggest challenges in your work?
Our biggest challenge right now has to do with COVID-19, this has had and continues to have a serious impact on what we do. We work in the outdoors and normally interact with high numbers of people and therefore the national lockdown that the government had to implement will certainly have a huge impact in what we do.
In our day to day work, though, our biggest challenges are mainly around convincing exporting fruit farmers about the importance of managing their farms sustainably by considering the ecological systems whilst focusing on the production of fruit. Making somebody value more than just income can at times be tricky.
What advice would you give to anybody looking at going into the conservation field?
Career growth in the conservation industry is a long journey, it takes experience, diligence, passion and commitment. There are certainly no short cuts, qualifications do not replace experience. You have to get your hands dirty and stay humble. You may know and master your fauna and flora but at some stage in your career you will realise that people make your job possible and if you do not enhance your people management skills now already you will have some serious challenges in the future. That said, at the end of the day, the rewards of working in conservation always outweigh the costs.