WILDERNESS FOUNDATION AFRICA – 50 Years Andrew MuirPhotographs: Wilderness FoundationOur story begins in the early 1960’s when game rangers Ian Player and Magqubu Ntombela founded the Wilderness Leadership School and the idea of walking trails into the wilds of Africa. Early participants of wilderness trails were so moved by the transformative experience of a wilderness trail that they convinced Dr Ian Player and Magqubu Ntombela to establish an organization that would champion both the creation and protection of wilderness areas.
Fifteen years later the Wilderness Foundation Africa came to the fore as the leading civil society organisation (over one thousand NGO’s from around the world joined this coalition) to fight one of the greatest environmental battles in Africa at the time: saving Lake St Lucia from open cast dune mining.
The strong memories I have of this time, as a 23-year-old and having just joined the Wilderness Leadership School as a trails guide in 1987 – was that I remember asking Dr Player what were the chances of us winning this campaign as we were up against the world’s biggest mining house at the time, Rio Tinto - he laughed, and said 2% but then he looked me straight in the eye and said “Muir do you know about David and Goliath?” I replied, “Of course I do!” He then asked if I knew what David said when he saw Goliath coming over the horizon, and I said no. Ian said, “David said, “He’s so big I can’t miss.”

The campaign for St Lucia was fought on many levels, politically, and ecologically and what began as a 2% chance of winning ended up with a proclamation of the now iSimangaliso Wetland Park as a World Heritage Site, the first in South Africa. We took forward three vital lessons from this campaign those are: how critical it is to get the press and media on your side; how Ngo’s can be far more effective working together in coalitions, and finally the importance of putting your fight / cause into a global context.

These are the lessons with partners like Volkswagen; Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust; Medivet UK and others that we are using in our fight to save the rhino from extinction in the wild.

Up until the year 2000 the Wilderness Foundation was a small Kwa-Zulu based Ngo, Ian gave over the running of the Wilderness Foundation Africa to me and at the urging of his good friend Adrian Gardiner – he agreed that we would move our offices to Shamwari in the Eastern Cape – in order to host the 7th World Wilderness Congress.
The rest, as they say, is history. After a very successful international conference with 1600 delegates attending from over 100 countries, we bedded down in the Eastern Cape province, grew from two people to over fifty and developed an extraordinary team of professional colleagues and board members all of whom I feel privileged to be able to work with. We developed many new programs and projects and have grown to become one of the larger conservation Ngo’s in South Africa and the region. WFA’s achievements are numerous, with a few milestones worth noting during this 50th Anniversary year.

  • We have helped to add over a million and a half hectors to the formal conservation landscape in South Africa;
  • We have played a key lead role in helping to create three World Heritage Sites – iSimangaliso Wetland Park and Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve (South Africa), and the Okavango Delta (Botswana);
  • We have raised and deployed over R100 Million in rhino conservation, protection and related awareness projects;
  • We have enabled over 85 000 South Africans from previously disadvantaged communities to experience nature and wilderness, often for the first time;
  • We have graduated over 550 students from our yearlong residential and vocational training academy (Umzi Wethu) and helped to place them in jobs in the eco-tourism and conservation sector.
We have always used nature as a positive force for social change by bringing disadvantaged youth, as well as political and community leaders on trails (of various lengths and duration) to experience wildlands and wildlife, rediscover cultural identity, and build self-esteem and leadership skills.

These have resulted in an understanding of the potential for personal growth and experiential education within wilderness. We have seen time and time again how people return from experiences in nature with not only something they need for inner growth, but also with a gift to give their community: the knowledge and respect for life and nature.
We are living in a time in our history where our earth is in a state of flux, and we are facing environmental challenges unparalleled in our time on this earth. We are one of more than 13 million species that make up our planet. It is commonly accepted that by the year 2050, 20% of the species that currently inhabits the earth, will either be extinct or on the brink of extinction.

This is due in part to the perfect storm of population growth, unsustainable resource utilisation and the human impact on climate change. Another way of seeing this is that our life support system, which is everything that makes up our living ecosystem, is going to be 20% depleted. Can we survive as a species in the same way that we are now, with 20% less? What will this mean for our everyday living?

I would add that the rhino poaching saga is also an indicator of the greater environmental crisis facing our world. These problems supersede all political problems because all of us are dependent upon the environment for our survival. I am reminded of the poem by W. H. Auden with his chilling words that could foretell the result of ignoring our ecological problems.

“The stars are not wanted now, put out everyone
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood
For nothing now can ever come to any good”

Clearly the answers to these challenges cannot come from one discipline or sector alone, but are reliant on multi-sectoral collaboration and commitment to sustainable living. Hence the critical need to put the environment at the top of the political agenda.
Wilderness Foundation Africa has become a recognised African-based conservation organisation that protects and sustains landscapes through its agile and innovative approach to conservation.
Landscape wilderness management and balancing natural ecosystem diversity, developing young black leaders in conservation and nature ownership to shift the legacy of inequality, direct and indirect anti-poaching initiatives locally and internationally, advocacy and educational intervention at a government level and the experienced incubation of emerging non-profit organisations, are at the core of the Foundation’s portfolio.