Wilderness Foundation Africa’s focus on Species, Spaces and People

12 May 2022 | Podcasts, The Business of Giving Podcast

Denver Frederick interview with Neelam Chhiber

Denver Frederick is the host of The Business of Giving, a podcast that focuses on solutions to today’s complex social problems, and the people who are bringing about systems change through their work. He regularly has deep and insightful conversations with Catalyst 2030 members.

The following is a conversation between Denver and Catalyst 2030 member Andrew Muir, the President and CEO of Wilderness Foundation Africa.

photo of Andrew Muir

Andrew Muir, President & CEO of Wilderness Foundation Africa

Denver: Wilderness Foundation Africa, or WFA, works to protect and sustain wildlife and wilderness through integrated conservation and education programs. Whether it’s direct action anti-poaching in the field, large landscape wilderness management, or developing rising young leaders from disadvantaged communities for a career in conservation, Wilderness Foundation Africa has been getting results for 50 years. And here to tell us more about their work and the difference that it’s making is Andrew Muir, the President and CEO of Wilderness Foundation Africa.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Andrew.

Andrew: Thank you, Denver. Nice to be on the show

Denver: WFA was founded 50 years ago; 1972, you were founded. Share with us some of that founding story and some of the organization’s history over the past half-century.

Andrew: It’s a very interesting founding story. Our origin story is quite unique because we were founded by Magqubu Ntombela, a travel elder, and Ian Player, who became globally known as one of the great conservationists of our time. He was Gary Player’s, the golfer’s older brother. They founded us in the ’70s, in the height of Apartheid.

And it’s very interesting that at this moment, of some of our country’s worst moments in its human rights history, a conservation foundation was founded that was all about bringing black and white people together in nature. And that was actually how we started. We started as a foundation to bring South Africans together in the one place where at that time in history they could be equal, amongst wildlife.

Denver: Wow. That is truly remarkable. And the three-point Erythrina leaf was chosen as the symbol of the organization. What is the significance of that?

Andrew: Again, it points to our founders. So Magqubu, he gave us that logo. At that time in the late ’60s, early ’70s, there weren’t too many conservation foundations operating in Africa. Those that were, all or mostly had a symbol of an animal head or the horns of an animal. He immediately saw that we weren’t going to be like that. We were more human-orientated.

And so the Erythrina leaf, the coral tree, the leaf of the coral trees found throughout Africa, it is a tree of the settlements because it’s a great shade tree, and it’s a tree of wild areas that have 300 different species of this tree in Africa. And that’s why he chose it.

And then of course, the three-pointed Erythrina leaf, the three points to the leaf represent our relationship to each other, human to human, our relationship to nature, and our relationship to whatever spiritual connection we may have.

Denver: I love founding stories, and I love symbols because you can tell an awful lot about the organization, and so much of the values of the organization are baked in at the founding that continue here a half-century later.

WFA focuses on three areas: Species, Spaces, and People. So let’s talk about each, starting with Species, and I guess the anchor of that would be your Forever Wild Conservation Programme. Tell us a little bit about that work.

Andrew: Thank you, Denver. Yes, and because of Ian Player’s work as one of the pioneers in large species management…. So he really led the team in the ’50s that pioneered the technique to capture live large mammals, and that became a global first. In fact, it’s one of the great achievements of South Africa to global conservation… we developed the techniques of how to capture elephants, rhinos, all these large mammals, and move them successfully and safely to new habitats.

And by doing that, you expand their ranges, and you allow for wildlife to habitat areas that they used to occur in. And so those rewilding, what’s now become this great word ‘rewilding’, these guys were doing that in the ’50s and the ’60s, and they were developing that technique.

And Ian Player in particular, made his name around rhinos. He really saved… led the team rather… that saved the white rhino from extinction by doing exactly that, by capturing them where they existed and moving them to new areas to allow them to breed and to reestablish themselves as a species throughout Southern Africa.

And so one of our programs from our roots is rhinos. So we do a lot of work with rhinos. It’s a charismatic species. It is a symbol for conservation globally. It’s under tremendous threat. It’s one of the few species from the sort of dinosaur or just after the dinosaur era.

And I think it really is a sign of the struggles that conservation has in global when a species so magnificent is once again under threat of extinction. And so we are very involved in those kinds of programs with rhinos, leopards, lions. And as we said earlier here, I think we always need to bear in mind that we’ve had five mass extinctions since the planet was formed.

We’re now in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, which is related to invertebrates and wildlife. And Africa is really where that’s all coming down to: Is it  going to happen or not? And rhino is one of the symbols of that, but unfortunately it’s not just about rhino. Many species of wildlife, from giraffes all the way through to lions, have a risk of extinction through this biodiversity crisis that we have.

Denver: Yeah. And let me stay with rhinos for a minute because the rhino population was pretty stable until maybe 1970 or so. What happened to change all that?

Andrew: It was stable. So it was certainly stable in Africa– we’re not sure how stable it was in Asia and other areas where they naturally occur… the Indian rhino, the Burmese, the other species. And they got hammered in the ’70s and early ’80s.

And then that poaching of rhinos for their horn mainly for medicinal use, other uses too, but mainly for medicinal use in the East, came to Africa. And literally as a wave, it started in the northern part of Africa and swept all the way through. And now in South Africa in the last 10 years, we’ve lost over six and a half thousand rhinos in South Africa alone due to poaching.

“So the greatest threat is not making that connection between how we as humankind need nature, not just for spiritual renewal, but also for our survival as a species because all nature, biodiversity as we call it, make up our life support system. If we lose 10%, 20%, 30% of our life support system, then of course we become far more vulnerable as a species ourselves.”

Denver: Wow. What would you say, Andrew, are the biggest challenges to conservation at the moment?

Andrew: I think that our world is facing so many crises. I actually trained as a social scientist, and I believe that if we do not make the connection between human and wildlife, we will lose the battle to save our wildlife.  In a way, COVID 19, which is a zoonotic event, as was HIV/AIDS, as was MERS, SARS…. Coronavirus really is an indicator of the breakdown between human and wildlife, and the states that our natural resources are in.

So the greatest threat is not making that connection between how we as humankind need nature, not just for spiritual renewal, but also for our survival as a species because all nature, biodiversity as we call it, make up our life support system. If we lose 10%, 20%, 30% of our life support system, then of course we become far more vulnerable as a species ourselves.

Denver: Picking up on biodiversity, that leads to your second area which is Spaces, protecting areas that play a critical role in supporting that biodiversity. Tell us about your work in that arena.

Andrew: Apart from protecting individual, charismatic, and indicator species, obviously being a wilderness space foundation, we recognize that landscape-scale eco systems is the best way to protect all biodiversity, including those species that we talked about earlier.

But also connecting and having corridors between protected areas is now in science regarded as the best way of doing conservation, and both as an adaptation and as mitigation to some of the threats that we are facing as a planet, such as climate change. So that does become an important part of that. And these words that we’re now hearing of– rewilding and restoration– obviously have the basis of landscape survival.

Denver: And your third leg of the stool would be People, which is perhaps best captured in your Youth Development Programme. Tell us about that.

Andrew: One cannot protect a conservation area and ignore the people that live on the boundaries or that live within that protected area. And more and more around the world with conservation and protected areas, we’re talking about people living in those landscapes or dependent on those landscapes.

And so ever since we were founded and as part of our origin story, we’ve always recognized the importance of embedding people with nature and with conservation. So our programs really look at finding ways to make that connection between those protected areas.

Giving livelihood, giving jobs to communities both from urban and rural areas, so that these conservation regions that we’re trying to protect become a valued part of society. If you generate a job and you’re able to earn a livelihood by doing conservation, by working off those natural resources, you are far more likely to help to protect it.

Denver: Oh, you’ve been a big advocate of mentorship, I know. In fact, you were mentored by Ian Player yourself, and you’ve passed that forward in this program and mentoring other people as they come up through the ranks to have careers in conservation.

Andrew: Yes. I think mentorship and peer mentorship in particular, but I think all forms of mentorship, Denver, are critical in our times. I think there’s no greater gift, I believe, than imparting your knowledge and hopefully the little wisdom that we have, but in such a way that you truly empower other people to take forward the work… and in whatever way that they are able to contribute positively to society.

“…I highly recommend cooperation and embedded partnerships with like-minded organizations so that you’re not duplicating the work that you really are heading to, what you’re trying to conserve.”

Denver: Absolutely. Pass that wisdom along before you forget it so somebody else has it. So when you take a look at this enterprise, and it is a massive enterprise, this whole wildlife and the wilderness and climate and the rest of it, how do you get your arms around it? How do you identify and strategize what project you’re going to go after?

And what’s your theory of problem-solving, once you begin to make that decision: “We’re going to do this.”?  How do you go about then trying to disaggregate all those pieces together to be able to make some progress?

Andrew: I think that there are a few answers to that question. I think conservation should be based on science. I think science and informed information should be part of your decision-making.

But not only that, we depend heavily on local knowledge and local wisdom, particularly in Africa; traditional, indigenous systems are part of the makeup of the African continent. And we need to learn from those elders and those communities that have lived at peace with nature for hundreds and hundreds of years.

And so that I think becomes part of the decision-making process as well. Not easy to embed that in programs and projects, but I would strongly advise people doing work in conservation in Africa to bear that in mind.

And then also, we look at areas where there are vacuums, where perhaps other organizations aren’t working.  I highly recommend cooperation and embedded partnerships with like-minded organizations so that you’re not duplicating the work that you really are heading to, what you’re trying to conserve.

And so we are a strong advocate of partnerships, and I think that is what’s sustained us over 50 years if you had to ask me, Denver, more than anything else, is the incredible partnerships that we’ve had with communities, with other organizations in the field.

And then of course, an area which I think becomes increasingly important is cross-pollinating with other sectors out of conservation. That’s why I enjoy the social enterprise field so much because it allows one to reach beyond conservation.

And if you’d asked me at my age– I may not look too old– it is one thing I want to do now more than anything else, it’s to preach to the unconverted. I really want to get to those that don’t understand the issues that you and I are talking about and find ways to bring them into the fold.

Denver: Yeah. And to your point, most new ideas come from outside of your field because essentially, you’ve been doing all the stuff in the field; you know the people in the field, and then you go to some social enterprise in some other sector, and you begin to say, “Wow! That idea actually might work over here!”  But we tend to be very vertical, I think, in terms of the way we look at things.

Well, when the challenges are much greater than the resources, you have to be innovative, and you’ve been doing that in finance. I think that South Africa’s official biodiversity finance gap sits at 65%… so how are you using innovative finance to try to close that gap?

Andrew: It’s something that I think countries like the USA lead on, and that is the whole stewardship side of conservation. I think you call it easements. And in Southern Africa, I’ve also developed over the past decade or two good stewardship mechanisms that are linked to financial instruments.

And of course, the big one is tax incentives that would help you to conserve the land or the wildlife that you have under your stewardship. And so we are helping to unlock that legislation, make it user- friendly for landowners and also for communities and other groupings that don’t quite understand how those mechanisms can benefit them.

And then of course, when you look at these global programs around rewilding, you look at the carbon market, you look at… Now we’re talking globally about potentially biodiversity credits, looking at restoration and rewilding. There’s a lot of incentives there.

And again, those are often complex trade agreements that need to be unpacked locally so they can really be effective, and if you like, work on the ground. And so that’s what we try and do as well, is to help to make that user-friendly, applicable, and impacting where it’s needed most.

“Resilience talks to nature, and you don’t need to look for better resilience than in wild places. And I think this has taught us, as NGOs throughout the sectors, to really look at how to become more resilient and how to adapt. Nature that is surviving survives because it’s learned how to adapt. And we, as a species, need to learn how to be less dominant and more resilient and adaptable. There’s a lot we can learn from natural systems.”

Denver: Yeah. Lots of tools out there. Andrew, this hasn’t been an easy time to be in charge of an organization. The last two years have been so difficult and so challenging. How do you think the nature of leadership is changing, and what have you done to adapt over the course of the last 24 months or so?

Andrew: I think that “resilience,” which is a word that we use a lot, it’s actually ecological work. Resilience talks to nature, and you don’t need to look for better resilience than in wild places.

And I think this has taught us, as NGOs throughout the sectors, to really look at how to become more resilient and how to adapt. Nature that is surviving survives because it’s learned how to adapt. And we, as a species, need to learn how to be less dominant and more resilient and adaptable. There’s a lot we can learn from natural systems.

So I think that that’s what we’ve applied. We’ve tried to practice what we preach on the conservation side. And in part, so we’ve looked at our efficiencies. We’ve looked at more partnerships so that we can focus resources on less because we are now cooperating on a much larger scale.

So in a way, it is a form of scaling your work without necessarily growing your human resource side of the organization. We’ve looked at that, and that has made impact. But I think what the last two years has also done for us, and this may sound a bit ironic, but it’s made us more human as an organization because we have looked internally.

In southern Africa and in South Africa where we are based, COVID really impacted. And where I live, in the Eastern Cape, I think it’s the highest death rate of COVID in the world… or one of them anyway.

And so we had to get involved in issues that we would not normally get involved in. We’ve got very involved in food parcels, in food kit packages, in helping assist the process of building field hospitals. These are not things that the conservationists would normally do.

But I think that’s a good way forward because the only way I believe that we, as I said earlier, that we are truly going to move forward as a conservation movement is if we reach out to other sectors and be seen as and become more relevant to all aspects of society.

Denver: Yeah, I can’t agree with you more. And I think the best organizations have done that because you do have some core competencies there, and you can transfer those core competencies to be relevant at the moment for what people need.

And I’ve always called it… it’s not mission drift, it’s mission morphing. And it just is a little bit of an evolution that you do at a time to do the most good at that moment, and then you can get back to whatever else you’re doing. But it really, I think, sets the best organizations apart.

Andrew: I absolutely agree, and I like that word that you used because how can it be mission drift when you are giving food parcels to communities that live on the edges of Kruger National Park that are starving. So I think it’s forcing us to think outside of the boundaries, and I think that’s an incredibly important part of the evolution of conservation, of the conservation movement as a whole.

Denver: Let’s talk a little bit more about partnerships in the context that you are a part of the breakthrough collaborative, Catalyst 2030… And tell us a little bit about the impact that that has had, the impact that it’s had on you, and maybe an update on some of their progress.

Andrew: I think you asked the right question because, Denver, it really impacts on one as an individual. I think when you run an NGO, particularly over the last few years, with all the crises that we’re dealing with, it becomes quite a learning space. And that peer mentorship that we’ve talked about earlier applies to us as chief executive officers, too.

And I have found that I’ve been able to reach out through food capitalists, to other leaders, who are facing the same challenges that I’m facing. And honestly, it becomes a safe space. We are able to share; we’re able to learn from each other. We’re able to give each other advice, and maybe at times we’re just able to listen.

And so I have found that very powerful.  That to me, personally, has been one of the benefits of having this wonderful platform like Catalyst 2030. But also as a conservationist, if you’re talking about sustainable development goals, five of those goals directly impact the environment.

And those are often the goals that are not really, you know… one looks at health and education and life support systems and water often aren’t given the attention. So I’ve found it very useful to be part of a platform where I can be a voice for those other components that perhaps we have a little bit of technical and local knowledge that we can bring into the conversations.

“But I think that what I’ve learned in my career is that scale can be achieved through impact, but also it can be achieved through networking and teaching others. It doesn’t necessarily have to be your organization trying to grow itself to a size that becomes unmanageable.”

Denver: Yeah. No, that sounds great. So many things are going on. I think that along those lines, we’re beginning to redefine success. I’ve talked to some other Catalyst people. They have this definition of success very often which is around our organization.

And I think these collaboratives really begin to say, “It’s really not about what our organization does; it’s how we are collectively tackling the issue.” And there’s just a different mindset, and I find that it’s really important that the boards of organizations begin to adopt that mindset, or otherwise it’s going to be:” How many meals did we provide?”  Or, “How many people did we help?” And some of those don’t really have anything to do with eliminating the problem that we’re facing.

Andrew: Yes. And to that point, I like, many of us, serve on other boards; we are helping other organizations. And I think that it’s so easy to get into the numbers game, the kind of impact, what are you doing… having high level numbers. But I think that what I’ve learned in my career is that scale can be achieved through impact, but also it can be achieved through networking and teaching others.

 It doesn’t necessarily have to be your organization trying to grow itself to a size that becomes unmanageable. And that’s what I’ve enjoyed too about these platforms, is that people have been very honest about lessons learned, where they’ve tried to grow their organizations too fast because their boards have been driving for that growth, because that’s the business way, right?

But that’s not always the not-for-profit way; it’s about impact, not just about growth. And so it gave me that magical moment between growth and impact. I think that’s something that we need to continually work at and use these platforms to develop the tools that we’ll base and form the decisions that will allow the organizations to… if you like, to grow in a sustainable way and not lose the impact they’re having on the ground.

Denver: Yeah. Great point. And not to simplify it, Andrew, but if you’re in business, growth means more money. And if you’re a nonprofit, growth means it’s going to cost you more money. So that’s what it gets down to.

Andrew: That’s about it.

Denver: That’s about it, yeah. Let me close with this, Andrew. What are you really excited about at the moment? You have so many things that are going on. So, when your mind gets racing… and you can’t turn it off because you’re thinking about something… and you’re really excited about it, what would that be?

Andrew: I think it would be about the opportunity to reimagine a future where protected areas are joined, that you don’t have these islands of protected area around, that they become central to community life; they become central to our new path towards what we’re calling the path of sustainability and the path of zero emissions.

That we really refind ourselves as a society with that balance with nature, which we once had a few hundred years ago, and we really have lost that path. And I think that the time of opportunity that we have now…, and if you remember, Denver, what gave me hope was in the early first two or three waves of COVID, there was a massive reconnection that people were having with nature, and we must really build on that.

People were hiking. They were out in the outdoors. They were suddenly appreciative of what was around them because for the first time in their lives, in a hundred years, they were forced to be confined. And no one wants to be confined. And if we don’t want to be confined as a human species, we need to reconnect with nature, and we need to do it before we lose it. And that window is closing.

So what excites me is the opportunity now in this moment to see the positive, not the negative, of reconnecting, not just ourselves, but reconnecting in terms of natural systems, growing this vision of protecting 30%, 50% of what we have left on this earth in order to sustain ourselves. That excites me.

Denver: Yeah. Excites me, too. For listeners who want to learn more about Wilderness Foundation Africa, tell us about your website, Andrew, and what they can expect to find on it.

Andrew: Thank you. We have two platforms. We have a global platform called Wilderness Foundation Global, which is a global foundation network of like-minded organizations around the world. At www.wildernessfoundationglobal.org, you will find that.

And then the work we’re doing in Africa is www.wildernessfoundationafrica, or wildernessfoundation.org. So I would just encourage your listeners to get in touch with us through our platforms, and we will happily engage.

Denver: And you have a donate button there too, right?

Andrew: We do, yes, and that becomes an important tool. I wanted to say earlier that I think one of the great changes in conservation, in the last 10 years in particular, is technology. And technology can play a massive role in the future of conservation, particularly in terms of anti-poaching and protecting these species into the future. One of those technology tools is that donate button, so please use it.

Denver: That technology tool helps provide money for all the other technology tools. Thanks, Andrew, for being here today. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.

Andrew: Thank you, Denver. Thank you for hosting me. All the best.

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