Sihle Mthethwa – ACT’s Applied Ecology Unit

“Gaining people’s trust is the most critical part,” says Sihle Mthethwa.

Sihle is a member of ACT’S Applied Ecology Unit which is presently working in Zululand on the Ithala Elephant Range Expansion Project. “What we are trying to do is a bottom up approach. We go to the communities and let them say what they think should be prioritised,” he says. ‘We want the projects to be envisaged by the community and we will be an enabling agent.”

Community engagement is the first step and the project parameters will be agreed on only when the needs of the community are firmly established. This ground breaking range expansion project requires engagement with 7 separate communities and government bodies and seeks agreement on protected area expansion, priority species conservation and human/wildlife conflict in the area surrounding the Ithala Game Reserve.

“You can never urbanise every square inch of earth. That would be the most detrimental thing we could ever do. The backbone of any country is the rural farming people. It’s nice to wear a suit and tie and drive a fancy car but, at the end of the day, whatever you are going to eat comes from farmers. We have to make people proud of that”, says Sihle. The Ithala Elephant Range Expansion Project will lead to crop protection in the long term.

Sihle, who has Swazi roots, finished his schooling in Mbabane and subsequently started studying mechanical engineering which he followed with a desk job. It was then that he realised that the corporate world wasn’t his calling and he decided to study nature conservation at Tshwane University of Technology.

“I didn’t like wearing a suit and a tie and I always liked walking in the bush. Yes we’d play soccer and ride bicycles but the most fun we’d have is playing in the bush.” Sihle’s family was passionate about wildlife. “My uncles and my dad liked these nature channels and when they were together they’d watch videos of lions and hyenas.”

After qualifying, Sihle became a tour guide and ranger at Nisela Safaris Private Game Reserve. He, subsequently, worked in Cape Town managing baboon troops for Human Wildlife Solutions in the Cape Peninsula.

“The baboons are a big problem for various reasons. One is urbanisation and the other is access to water”, he says. “Baboons are very intelligent animals. They can tell if your car is locked. They know how to break into your house. I’ve seen a baboon take a sliding door off the tracks quietly and lean it on the wall and then enter the house. Our goal was to keep them out of town for 80 percent of the time as they are known raiders. We chased them and herded them like cattle and restricted them to areas where we could control them better.” Sihle was responsible for teams managing three troops, the largest of which comprised forty baboons. He attributes his success to his hands on approach.

“The greatest advantage for me, when I started, was that I didn’t focus on the admin work. I walked with my team, up and down the mountains, through the rain and I began to understand. That helped me to manage better.”

This enthusiasm for engagement and considered comprehension of all aspects of a community’s needs and priorities make Sihle an invaluable asset for the African Conservation Trust and we are proud to be associated with him.

Words: Sandy Woods
Images: Heidi Christie (BrightBlue Photography)

Shannon Hoffman– The Puppet Master

Although Shannon Hoffman is a passionate puppeteer, she doesn’t perform on a stage.

Shannon uses her African bearded vulture puppet to feed the two chicks she is rearing. This experienced conservationist, who is a long standing custodian and protector of African birds of prey, knows that puppet-raising prevents the chick imprinting on humans and improves the possibility of the fully grown bird successfully reintegrating into the wild.
She says, “Feeding the chicks is quite mechanical in the beginning. They eat because they are hungry. Once we had this new puppet I watched those little things start to lean in. They responded so beautifully to it. The only reason you know what you are is because you look at what is feeding you. Then you go oh I’m one of those.” Shannon’s puppet was hand-crafted by Spanish artist, Paco Ventura, and looks incredibly like a mature Bearded Vulture.

The African bearded vulture population is critically endangered as only 400 are estimated to remain in their natural habitat. Harvesting eggs to rear in captivity is a physically dangerous and logistically challenging endeavour. The birds build their nests on rocky outcrops and ledges on remote cliff faces of the Drakensberg Mountains. During July and August the helicopter hovers in front of a potential nest to visually line up a mountain climber so that he may successfully abseil down to the nest platform. Once there he needs to measure and weigh each egg so the smallest can be removed and carefully placed into a temperature controlled flask (37.5 degrees Celsius). This species of birds practices siblicide meaning that the chick which hatches first will kill its siblings. The theory is that the second egg can be ethically taken to be puppet- reared as the chick would die if left in the nest. The flask is stored away, the climber ascends and the first step in a complicated process is completed.

The egg harvesting procedure is dangerous indeed and Shannon has risked her own life on more than one occasion. During a stormy harvesting season, the helicopter that she and her team were travelling in crashed on a mountain top in the snow. Fortunately there were no injuries or loss of life but nevertheless, the stakes are high for Shannon and for her vultures. Shannon and her dedicated team are standing steadfastly between the bearded vultures and extinction.

ACT has recently partnered with the African Raptor Trust to build a fabulous education centre, with funding from the National Lotteries Commission, and we are proud to be involved with this hardworking and dedicated conservationist.

Words: Sandy Woods
Images: Heidi Christie (Bright Blue Photography) and Shannon Hoffmann

Nomfundo Phewa – Lighting Up Lives In Zululand

Nomfundo Phewa is bringing sunshine into 130 homesteads in deep rural Mkhuze and we’re not talking about her radiant smile.

This hard working ACT staff member is managing the Zululand Community Solar Project which is lighting households that regularly spend 40% of their income on power generation through burning coal, gas, paraffin, wood or cow dung. The locally manufactured solar units will make a real difference in day to day living in the communities bordering Somkhanda Game Reserve. By supplying rugged and robust individual solar power units, these rural families will have 3 hanging lights, 1 desk lamp and a cell phone charger in each home.

Although Nomfundo regularly drives long, dusty roads to meet with traditional councils, she is a city girl at heart. Born to 2 teachers, she was raised with her 4 siblings in nearby Kwandengezi. Hillcrest High was her father’s choice of high school and Nomfundo was part of the choir, played soccer, took part in the AfriBrit Initiative (a cultural exchange programme between Britain and South Africa) and became a prefect in her final year.

Initially disappointed by being unable to study medicine, Nomfundo quickly embraced her second choice which was suggested by her mother. Fortunately for ACT this was a BA Agricultural Extension and Rural Resource Management degree which was based at Cedara Agricultural College in Hilton. Part of the third group to register for this new qualification early rising, milking cows and cultivating plants became part of daily life for Nomfundo and her fellow students. Surprisingly, touch rugby was also part of the daily routine and Nomfundo was presented with the most promising player award at the end of her third year. After completing her Honours degree, this young conservationist worked for the Future Farmers Organisation and spent 2 months on a maize seed farm in Bergville. Fully immersed in farm life for the first time, Nomfundo’s love for agriculture was finally cemented.

Nomfundo joined ACT in 2015 and managed the GMC Project in Folweni in that same year. This was a community stream clean-up project with some group conflict which had to be well managed, providing much work and life experience.

At the same time, Nomfundo powered through the research study for her Honours degree, focussing on land use in rural Nongoma. “It was a great year as I graduated Cum Laude,” says Nomfundo proudly.

Nomfundo’s 2016 task was the EMSLI Project , an initiative involving seed supply, establishment and continued mentoring of community gardens in the Inanda Valley. ‘Interacting with the farmers on the ground was a wonderful experience.” She adds that working with ACT is growing her as a person as exposure to so many different lifestyles (rural and urban) helps one to better understand people, the way they live and the decisions they make.

At the end of a long, working day this city agriculturist comes home to her own vegetable garden In Kwandengezi which is abundant with beetroot, peppers, spinach and carrots.

The African Conservation Trust is proud of our passionate and knowledgeable Nomfundo who is bringing modern day farming practices and power to deep rural communities and we thank her.

Words by Sandy Woods and Photo by Heidi Christie (BrightBlue Photography)

Lost Cities and Settlements of the Kruger National Park

The African Conservation Trust’s Heritage Unit has recently returned from a 15 day fieldwork mission to the Kruger National Park. This was the culmination of 5 years preparation that began when Carl Grossmann, ACT Chairman, was conducting research into an ancient dhow anchorage on the River Save in Zimbabwe. He came across a 1905 sketch map of the stonewall ruins in Zimbabwe. Also indicated on this map were three ruin sites that were indicated to fall in South Africa and in particular in the Kruger National Park.

The ACT Geographical Information Systems (GIS) team began a series of best fit geo-referencing attempts of the sketch map. We had firsthand knowledge of the Thulamela Ruins in the north of the park and we had heard of the Makahane Ruins further to the western boundary of the park. We assumed that at least one of the sites indicated on the map were the Thulamela Ruins.

The Kruger National park has been occupied to various degrees by humans since the earliest of the Stone Age, through the Iron Age until present day. We were interested in the Iron Age settlements in the park and obtained a dataset from SANParks indicating known sites. There were two areas clearly devoid of any known settlements and these areas became the focus of our attention. GIS modelling of the known sites determined some key criteria and these were then applied to the areas of interest. The modelling delivered 9 potential sites of interest and possible settlement.

The team managed to investigate 6 of the sites on foot during the fieldwork period. Of those 3 Iron Age settlement sites were found which included remnants of stonewalling, ceramics and stone tools. Items were photographed and experts are resolving the information from diagnostic markings on the ceramics. The team is very excited about one piece in particular that may lead to a far greater investigation and even excavations of the one site.

Returning full circle back to that sketch map from 1905. If two of the sites indicated are indeed Thulamela and Makahane then there still remains a third extensive stonewall settlement to be discovered !!

Words: Carl Grossmann,

Photos: The ACT Heritage Team

Smiles in Inanda

Joe Ntshangase smiles broadly when asked if his sister sometimes takes his veggies.

The vegetable garden that Joe and Jabu share is a bright green rectangle in a crease between two hills covered with brown knee-high grass. A shallow stream flows between muddy banks beyond the wire fence which is stretched loosely between wooden posts, one of which bears a battered old watering can. Joe explains how he walks downhill from his homestead in the dark every morning at 6.30am, fills the watering can from the stream and tends to his crop. The Ntshangase’s are fortunate indeed to have an easily accessible water supply close to their garden, in an area where the majority of families rely on weekly municipal water tanker deliveries. Bright green leaves push through the freshly mulched beds. These thriving organic, non- genetically- modified plants in this neat, manicured garden are feeding Joe’s family of ten and Jabu’s family of six.

The seedlings are supplied by The African Conservation Trust and Ethekwini Municipality in a combined initiative called the EMSLI (EThekwini Municipality Sustainable Livelihoods Initiative) project. A valuable aspect of this project, in addition to the supply of seedlings, is the training and ongoing mentorship to support, assist and advise community micro gardeners. Marvin Ndelu is the Garden Mentor for the Matata area in Inanda where he presently lives and supervises 15 gardens visiting each one twice a week. It is a remote, rural spot which is an hour’s undulating drive from the ACT head office in central Hillcrest. Marvin is well trained, knowledgeable and has a flourishing vegetable farming enterprise of his own at his South Coast family home. He has become more friend than mentor to the community over the last two years, as he is as invested in and passionate about every garden as if it is his own.

Dark brown soil still clings to the freshly picked, bright orange carrot in Marvin’s hand as he stands in Thombi Mahlongo’s garden. Thombi has secured plastic, old blankets and corrugated iron sheets onto the fence around her vegetable garden which is a short walk from the busy tarred road. She explains that her greatest challenge is keeping roaming goats and chickens from eating her precious plants. Two of Thombi’s children help her to nurture their family crop, bringing buckets of water up from the nearby Jonono River twice daily. The tomatoes, carrots, spinach, beetroot, egg plants and green pepper seedlings provided by the EMSLI project have made it possible for her to feed her growing family of ten since last November, when she established the garden with Marvin’s help.

Micro farmers face many challenges in the dry, dusty Inanda Valley but with the support of the African Conservation Trust there are fewer hungry mouths and many more happy smiles.


Words by Sandy Woods and photos by Heidi Monica Christie (BrightBlue Photography)