Leader in Conservation : S. Africa--A Champion for Wildlife

Times Staff Writer

Too much of Africa’s medicine was vanishing, it seemed to Mkhuluwe Cele. Dozens of species of trees had been harvested to extinction for their bark. So little ginger root remained that treating flu might never be the same. Even a special bulb for curing wheezing coughs and broken bones had been plowed under for sugar cane and highways.

Professional herb gatherers were bringing less and less to Cele’s pharmacy, even as the number of patients grew. And Cele, a fourth-generation traditional doctor, began to fear that his profession itself was headed for extinction.

But then the black Zulu healers and a white conservationist struck an unusual deal: The conservationist agreed to save the important African medicines in a public nursery, and the healers agreed to protect the wild by starting their own gardens.

Nasty-Looking Brew


“Too many medicines were being destroyed,” Cele explained the other day, while dispensing a nasty-looking brew of crushed bark from an old Smirnoff bottle for a patient with a bad back. “You have to protect these things or lose them forever.”

South Africa is known worldwide as a country scarred by bloody civil strife, where the black majority is subjugated to white rule under a system called apartheid. But what is not so well known is that the land itself has one of the richest banks of wildlife species in the world--6% of the mammals and 10% of the world’s birds, fish and plants in an area about twice the size of Texas.

In fact, South Africa is the last frontier for dozens of plants and animals seriously threatened elsewhere on the continent.

The new herbalist nursery is one of the myriad ways in which private and provincial organizations, spending millions of dollars a year, are saving that wildlife.


One of the Best Reputations

Next to the United States, Britain and Australia, this country has one of the best reputations in the world for protecting its environment, according to international wildlife experts.

A few decades ago, for example, South African conservationists single-handedly pushed the white rhinoceros off the global endangered lists. And today, with the world population of black rhinoceros at 3,700 and falling, South Africa is the only country where the numbers of those beasts in the wild are increasing. In fact, one provincial game board has exported half a dozen black rhinoceroses to captive breeding programs in the United States.

At the same time, near Cape Town, a tiny conservation group is fighting the steady erosion of the world’s last wild population of black-footed penguins, fewer than 90,000 of which are found on 22 islands near the coast. The penguins’ deadliest enemies are oil slicks left by tankers rounding the Cape of Good Hope.


Even large semi-governmental enterprises and the fiercely independent white farmers are beginning to take wildlife conservation seriously.

When 200 rare Cape vultures, mistaking power lines for nesting sites, were electrocuted a few years ago, the national power company built 400 separate platforms for vultures to roost on. And the company recently issued bird identification handbooks to its linemen.

Here in Natal province, where farmers and conservationists once butted heads, more than 1,000 farmers have banded together in 100 nature “conservancies,” hiring game guards to prevent poaching. Now the farmers are watching the population of everything from anteaters to impala increase with each passing year.

Considered an Obligation


Many conservationists here consider the job of protecting wildlife in Africa, often called the birthplace of mankind, an obligation to all humanity.

“No matter where you live, this is where you come from. There are 2 million years of mankind walking in the African savannah,” said Ian Player, the 62-year-old founder of South Africa’s world-renowned Wilderness Leadership School for youngsters of all races.

Wildlife protection in the rest of Africa is hampered by small national treasuries, and conservationists there worry most about stopping the mass slaughter of animals for horns and meat. South Africa’s mineral riches, and its well-paid local game rangers, make it better able than other African countries to build up the continent’s wildlife stocks.

“We have the greatest responsibility because we have the greatest chance to do something,” said Richard Emslie, a biologist studying the feeding habits of black rhinoceroses in Hluhluwe Game Reserve.


“We are very quick to criticize black Africa,” added Dr. Martin Brooks, chief of research for the Natal Parks Board. “But even with our own level of expertise, to protect Africa’s vast areas without roads and resources would be incredibly difficult.”

Some anti-apartheid activists have criticized South African conservationists, most of whom are white, for spending more time and money helping animals than people. Millions of South Africa’s blacks live in urban and rural poverty, with standards of education, medical care and housing that fall far below those enjoyed by the white minority.

Welfare Intertwined

But conservationists say the welfare of the environment and of the people are intertwined.


“If you’re looking after the environment, you’re looking after the people,” Player said. “If you don’t look after the environment, you’re condemning the people to death.”

Neither the white-run national government nor the conservative Dutch-descended Afrikaners, the dominant white group, play a major role in conservation, however. That effort is led by private nonprofit societies and local parks boards staffed predominantly by whites of British descent, who generally hold more moderate political views.

And many of those conservationists believe their biggest challenge is to persuade blacks, who make up 85% of the population, to help protect the environment.

Many blacks have more pressing concerns in a country where they are denied the opportunity to live where they want or to vote in national elections. The black population is growing rapidly, and several million are unemployed. Blacks already are squeezed into a small part of the country. About 65,000 white farmers own 72% of South Africa’s land, while the 26 million blacks own only 13%, according to the Wildlife Society of South Africa.


“The First World aesthetic approach to wildlife doesn’t make much sense if you’re poor and black in South Africa,” a white game warden said recently. “Blacks look across at all these animals in the game reserves and they just see food.”

Most conservationists say that, ultimately, their efforts to protect South African wildlife will fail without the support of blacks, especially if, as many believe, the country will eventually be governed by its black majority.

“We’ve got to get around a table with these black guys and say, ‘How’re we going to solve our (wildlife) problems’?” said Keith Cooper, director of the Wildlife Society.

The disappearance of traditional medicines here in Natal province was just such a problem. In recent years, more than a million blacks have moved from rural areas in the province to the coastal city of Durban in search of jobs. And most of them still rely on the inyanga , or traditional doctor, to treat their illnesses.


‘Place of Shrubs and Trees’

Mkhuluwe Cele’s examining room and pharmacy, Kwazihlahla Zemithi (Place of Shrubs and Trees), is in Umlazi, a few miles southwest of Durban and part of the self-governing “homeland” that the government created for the Zulus.

Cele’s business, open until well past dark every night, is one of the busiest in Umlazi. Snakeskins hang from the rafters. Stacked on dusty floor-to-ceiling shelves are roots, twigs, sticks, candles, leaves, rocks, bark, bulbs and honeycombs. Patients calmly wait on wooden benches for hours to be seen by Cele.

Although Cele uses combinations of more than 500 different herbs, he began to worry that a number of important plants were becoming scarce.


Meanwhile, Goeff Nichols, a horticulturist with the Durban parks department, had become concerned about the destruction of plants caused by urban sprawl and foraging for firewood and herbal medicine.

So he asked Cele for help. They collected a dozen of the rarest species to create a nucleus of mother plants and help herbalists start their own gardens.

On several acres of sandy soil near his home, Cele, 53, and his wife, Jeneros, have planted everything from Touch Me Nots (for undoing the handiwork of bad witch doctors) to fig trees (for treating measles and fevers). They recently began installing an irrigation pump and, with a loan from the Wildlife Society, they are fencing the garden to protect the medicine from thieves.

“A traditional healer must look out for nature,” Cele said. “We don’t try to conserve it only for decorating the world, but for our own health as well. If we don’t, we will become like builders without tools.”


About 200 miles north of Umlazi, in the adjacent Hluhluwe and Umfolozi game reserves, lies the heart of South Africa’s effort to save one of the world’s rarest creatures, the black rhinoceros.

Poachers armed with submachine guns have decimated the black rhino populations across Africa. The animal’s horn today brings $65,000 on illegal markets in the Middle East, where it is carved into dagger handles, and in the Far East, where the powder is used as a traditional medicine to cure nosebleeds and reduce fever.

As recently as 1960, 100,000 black rhinoceroses roamed southern, central and eastern Africa. Now, about half of the world’s remaining 3,700 are in Zimbabwe, South Africa’s northern neighbor, where the numbers continue to fall despite the government’s decision to allow game rangers to shoot suspected poachers on sight and to impose lengthy jail terms on those lucky enough to be merely captured.

South Africa had only 100 black rhinos half a century ago. But that has risen to 600 today and, unlike in the rest of Africa, the number here grows steadily, by more than a dozen a year.


So far, South Africa has been able to prevent widespread poaching within its borders, although some wildlife experts say the country is increasingly being used as a conduit for exporting rhino horn and elephant ivory poached elsewhere in Africa. Conservationists have called on the South African government to stiffen criminal penalties for smugglers.

A U.S. court recently indicted two South African military officers on charges of smuggling rhino horn from black-ruled African countries after a shipment was landed in the United States, and the South African defense minister is investigating allegations that officers were involved in illegal ivory dealings in Angola.

To protect its black rhinos, the Natal Parks Board closely studies their feeding habits, tracking them by implanting radio transmitters in their horns.

“We’re not trying to preserve everything as the white man first saw it, but to understand this amazingly dynamic ecosystem,” said Emslie, the botanist who is studying a drop in the black rhino population in the tiny Hluhluwe Game Reserve. “This should give us a better idea of where to put the black rhino to save the species.”


Rare Rhinos Rescued

The white rhino was once rarer than the now-endangered black rhino.

Down to only 30 in the world in 1920, and all of those in Natal province, South Africa’s game reserves now have more than 4,000 white rhinos. The rescue of the species was led by the Natal Parks Board, which has exported more than 1,500 white rhinos to zoos and game parks in three dozen countries, using a technique it pioneered in the 1960s to safely capture the 1.5-ton beasts.

About 250 South African white rhinos are in the United States.


Like the black rhinoceros, the black-footed penguin once flourished in southern Africa.

The 18-inch-tall birds, also known as jackass penguins, were first threatened by the Dutch settlers who arrived in Cape Town three centuries ago and quickly acquired a taste for penguin meat. Later, penguin eggs became a delicacy and, about the same time, fishing fleets began to scoop up sardines and other sources of penguin food.

Yet as recently as 1940, more than 3 million of the penguins, with a distinctive pink patch over the eyes, still lived along the Atlantic coast of southern Africa.

But a new threat arrived from ships at sea--oil. The oil breaks down the penguins’ natural insulation and the birds simply refuse to enter the icy waters in search of food. Most quickly starve to death.


After an Esso tanker spill killed hundreds of sea birds in 1968, a group of volunteers formed the National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) to save oiled birds.

Today, 90,000 of these penguins, the world’s entire population, live on the islands near Cape Town. And SANCCOB, with an annual budget of less than $30,000, uses boats and helicopters to rescue hundreds of them every year, nursing them back to health at its small rehabilitation center on the coast north of Cape Town.

Rare Alliance

One of the most successful wildlife programs in South Africa is the rare alliance between farmers and conservationists in Natal province.


A decade ago, “a lot of landowners were ready to shoot anyone with epaulets on,” said Ortin Bourquin, assistant director of the Natal Parks Board, referring to the uniforms worn by his officers.

Nevertheless, the Parks Board knew farmers were worried about petty poaching and firewood theft on their farms. So it recommended that farmers band together and hire their own game guards, and the board offered to train them.

Today, in a program that the Parks Board says is unique, nearly 1,100 farmers have formed 93 “conservancies” in the province, and they have hired 240 game guards to patrol more than a million acres of private farmland.

One of those conservancies, the Beaumont Eston Farmers Assn. Conservancy, was launched eight years ago in verdant hills about 30 miles from Natal’s Indian Ocean coast.


Little Thought to Wildlife

“Back then, no one gave much thought to the wildlife on their land. Everybody was just interested in getting as much planted as possible,” remembers Malcolm Stainbank, 37, one of the conservancy members.

Some farmers objected to the conservancy, arguing that it would allow the population of predators to increase and threaten livestock and domestic dogs and cats. But they also were concerned about the dwindling wildlife in the area.

“Most farmers are conservation-minded,” Stainbank said. “They like to see a buck or an eagle on their farm. They like to see trees. So it wasn’t too difficult to get them to come along.”


The conservancy pulled together 35 farmers, with 50,000 acres of land, and hired eight guards to patrol it. Today the game population has soared and, Stainbank said, “our ecosystem is coming back into balance.”

Now the Natal Parks Board sponsors Sunday afternoon workshops for farm families to help them identify the hundreds of species of plants and animals on their property. And game-counting has become an annual family affair, like an American hayride, with wives and children piling into the pickup truck with sandwiches and flashlights for the nighttime ritual.

Allows Farmers to Cull

Knowing the number of animals also allows the farmers to cull when the ecosystem careens out of balance. Some invite hunters from town, charging them for the privilege of shooting a bush buck or impala. Others do the culling themselves, giving the meat to their black workers.


The farmers’ headlong push to develop every square foot of their land has been tempered as well.

Stainbank, a third-generation sugar cane farmer, recently considered clearing a few hundred acres for timber farming. But, after some soul-searching, he decided to leave the land alone.

“Take that little patch over there,” he said, pointing to a thicket of small trees. “You think there’s nothing there. But when you go in and look, there are all sorts of trees and plants. Yellowwoods. Xhosa trees. There aren’t many of them left.”

Stainbank paused, then added: “I reckon it’s more of a benefit to everyone just like it is.”