Jeremy Shelton

Freshwater conservation biologist
Freshwater Research Centre

Jeremy Shelton is a freshwater conservation ecologist at Freshwater Research Centre (FRC), a non-profit organisation that develops solutions for balancing the human need and ecological requirements for water. His research involves understanding the consequences of species invasions and collaborating on projects that strive to protect functioning freshwater ecosystems and restore degraded ones.

Shelton is also a filmmaker and the creator of Fishwater Films, where his decade of experience and passion visually takes shape to create indigenous stories about South Africa. “My documentaries aim to tell purpose-driven stories that reveal the beauty and plight of freshwater ecosystems,” says Shelton.

His love for the world beneath the water was sparked when his father introduced him to rock pools. Years later, when starting his postgraduate studies, he noticed a surplus of marine biologists in comparison to freshwater ecologists. “That’s when I decided to become a freshwater conservation biologist — and I’ve never looked back,” says Shelton.

His work at FRC demonstrates how building ecological resilience is the best way to safeguard freshwater ecosystems in the face of climate change. He says: “Conservation is more about understanding people than animals and ecosystems.”

Despite facing challenges such as matching the scale of projects to the problems they are designed to overcome, Shelton still finds ways to stay motivated and inspired through those he educates. “Witnessing a degraded aquatic ecosystem being revived as a result of a successful conservation intervention is incredibly rewarding,” he says.

Through his in-depth research and challenging films, he exposes and shares the incredible diversity of life hidden beneath the reflective surface of South Africa. “The networks of rivers and wetlands flowing through our landscapes and into our oceans carry the life-blood of our planet — water.”

Conservation is more about understanding people than animals and ecosystems

Author - Alexandra van Nieuwenhuizen
Pfarelo Apologise Bologo

Pfarelo Apologise Bologo

Pepper Bark Environmental and Development

Pfarelo Apologise Bologo has gained valuable experience as a researcher for GroundWork, a non-profit environmental justice organisation; now she is now putting that into action. As director of Pepper Bark Environmental and Development, she works to educate and involve young people in sustainable grassroots development.

Bologo takes great pride in the role she played as an environmental activist for Earthlife Africa, where she took a stand against coal mining and the Musina Makhado Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Both Earthlife Africa and GroundWork fought against procedural flaws relating to the environmental impact assessments for the SEZ.

The intersection of climate change and our collective mental health has surprised and interested Bologo. She says that we must respect our position in nature and acknowledge that we are merely a cog within the bigger machine, not the master. As a society, we need to address the burning of fossil fuels and illegal dumping with great urgency. Continued exploitation of resources will cause large-scale natural catastrophes — she hopes to play a role in reducing this exploitation.

Bologo believes that we take a reductionist approach to nature by merely seeing it as a resource for oxygen and food. She says that we must always be aware of the interconnectedness we possess with nature and ecosystems, and that we must cherish and prioritise this. We coexist with each other, but it is as important that we coexist respectfully with our natural environment.

She plans on using Pepper Bark Environmental and Development as a vehicle to get this message across, to spread awareness and to hold those in power accountable.

It is… important that we coexist respectfully with our natural environment

Albert Troost |
Rifumo Mathebula

Rifumo Mathebula

Programme director
Wild Shots Outreach

Rifumo Mathebula is the programme director for Wild Shots Outreach, a non-profit organisation and environmental education programme that teaches young South Africans from rural communities about wildlife and conservation. It also develops photography and other employment skills in the tourism and environmental sectors.

Mathebula grew up in an impoverished area near the Kruger National Park. Like many young people in his community, he had never visited a game reserve or learned about wildlife and conservation. He was introduced to the Wild Shots Outreach course and he loved it so much that he persuaded its founder Mike Kendrick to run the workshop at his high school — and organised the event himself!

This course inspired his passion for wildlife photography and conservation, motivating him to attain a certification in advanced photography after graduating from high school. Mathebula has since gone from being a part-time volunteer at Wild Shots Outreach to becoming its programme director. He organises and leads workshops with schools and youth foundations, liaising with safari lodges to host game drives so that students can capture their experiences of seeing wildlife for the first time.

Mathebula has spoken at the international Leadership for Conservation in Africa webinar and other conservation programmes. He has also taken the Wild Shots Outreach programme to Botswana, where he worked with three local communities that live near protected areas. He has gained recognition for his photography; some of his work was featured in the award-winning short film Beyond the Fence and in national publications.

He believes that the biggest barriers to young people connecting with the need for conservation are poverty, a lack of resources and a lack of aspiration. He strives to be a positive role model for young people — particularly those from impoverished communities — inspiring them to connect with nature.

Be a positive role model for young people

Robert Sam-Kputu |
Eric Ngúgì Mwangi

Eric Ngúgì Mwangi

Founder and chief executive
Unganisha Cultures

Eric Ngúgì Mwangi, founder and chief executive of Unganisha Cultures, originally envisioned himself becoming a news anchor. When Wangarĩ Maathai, a Kenyan social, environmental and political activist, won the Nobel Peace Prize and became the first African woman to do so, she inspired Mwangi to step into the climate space.

She always shared the story of the hummingbird that saw the forest burning and decided to do something, unlike [the] other animals,” says Mwangi. “That changed my perspective about nature and now I understand the purity of green spaces.”

Unganisha Cultures is an art-based organisation that focuses on issues of environmental crime in east Africa. Formed in 2019, with Mwangi at the helm, they aim to sensitise local communities about environmental crimes through art, and advocate for environmental policies at national and regional levels.

Through his work with Unganisha, Mwangi discovered the importance of the wealth of services the natural environment offers us — although they’re difficult to measure monetarily. He also highlights that ecosystem services are integral to our functioning as a society, especially when it comes to clean air, water purification, food and medicine production, and the reduction in pollution.

His most important work with Unganisha includes a policy brief and an investigative documentary on sandalwood trafficking in east Africa, which has since empowered affected communities to launch the first sandalwood research centre in the region.

To combat the climate emergency, Mwangi believes we need to focus more on using organic raw materials for production to minimise carbon emissions.

“Let’s focus on creating a balance between increasing our forest cover and food sustainability,” says Mwangi. “It’s painful that people in Africa are dying from hunger in the 21st century. We need to create a green and sustainable habitat.

We need to focus more on using organic raw materials for production

Cher Petersen |
Caroline Thembelihle Mbokazi

Caroline Thembelihle Mbokazi

Liaison manager
All Rise Attorneys for Climate and Environmental Justice

Caroline Thembelihle Mbokazi is a dedicated conservationist, activist and advocate for environmental issues. She made history in 2005 when she became the first woman of colour to earn a Wilderness Guide certification from the Wilderness Leadership School.

Outside of her role as liaison manager at All Rise Attorneys, she has volunteered for groups such as Earthlife Africa, EcoPeace and the Wilderness Action Group, as she has always had a love for the outdoors. “My volunteer work entailed conserving and saving the environment, ecosystems and wilderness,” she says.

At All Rise, Mbokazi provides communication between their lawyers and their community clients, mainly based in the rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal. She grew up in KwaMashu township in KwaZulu-Natal, and is now based in Stanger. “I also get involved in facilitating the training and workshops that All Rise runs in the communities that we work with,” she adds. Mbokazi has become well-versed in environmental legislation — something she never anticipated learning.

Her crowning achievement came this year, when she led a workshop on climate change for the first time in the KwaZulu-Natal town of Eshowe. Mbokazi says that the world of conservation is still male-dominated: “They take female conservationists and environmentalists for granted, thinking that they are the only ones who are more powerful and knowledgeable in this field.”

However, things are slowly but surely changing. “Now, we have more women getting into the field. I have worked with amazing female environmentalists and lawyers who are doing amazing work defending our clients who were affected by the mine in the Somkhele area in northern Zululand,” she adds.

For Mbokazi, the most important message regarding South Africa’s natural environment is that it should be protected and valued as a national treasure.

They take female conservationists and environmentalists for granted

Alexander Brand |
Dr Fortunate Mafeta Phaka

Dr Fortunate Mafeta Phaka

Project director, author and postdoctoral fellow
South African Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity and North-West University

Dr Fortunate Mafeta Phaka is an environmental scientist and wildlife TV producer striving to introduce more harmony into the relationship between culture and biodiversity in South Africa.

He is the author of A Bilingual Guide to the Frogs of Zululand, an English and isiZulu book that makes wildlife knowledge more linguistically accessible.

Phaka is currently working as a postdoctoral fellow in herpetology (the study of amphibians and reptiles) at the South African Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity. His efforts here are directed at demonstrating the conservation potential of South Africa’s cultural practices, and how we can all work to protect the biodiversity on which we rely.

His current research focuses on understanding how South Africa’s nature- based cultural practices can be used to improve conservation so that it becomes socially inclusive while still protecting biodiversity. Since South Africa’s National Environmental Management Principles encourage consideration of all people and their knowledge, this research hopes to improve environmental science’s alignment with national policy and make recommendations on how to integrate traditional cultural practices into current conservation measures. His research has been successful in demonstrating that there are traditional cultural practices that protect nature.

Phaka often works as a wildlife TV producer, director and script adviser. His most recent film work was as a producer for the nature and culture programme Imvelogy on SABC2.

In 2017, he received the ACRS Future Leader of Conservation Award from the Amphibian Conservation Research Symposium. Phaka was also featured in Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans in 2016.

He is a project director at Youth 4 Africa, a wildlife NPO that helps young people better understand how they can be part of conserving our country’s biodiversity. He leads experiential conservation experiences where the youth spend a month gaining hands-on experience looking after nature reserves.

We can all work to protect the biodiversity on which we rely

Daniël De Jager |
Thiyane Duda

Thiyane Duda

Land and Accountability Research Centre, University of Cape Town

Thiyane Duda is a researcher at the University of Cape Town’s Land and Accountability Research Centre (LARC). LARC works with citizens living in the former homelands and provides support regarding the protection of rights and living customary law. The centre works to analyse, summarise and translate the particulars of laws and policies, which are then communicated to the people concerned.

Ensuring that rural citizens are informed about these matters means that they can keep local leaders accountable and challenge decisions that do not serve them. “Parliament will draft acts without consulting those living in these areas, and without knowing how the people manage their land and resources,” says Duda. “This can be a threat to both the land and people’s way of living.”

His area of focus is on traditional governance and living customary law. He plays a key role in equipping rural citizens with the knowledge and means to hold space in public hearings and share their experiences, opinions and grievances in both traditional and magistrate’s courts. In doing so, he offers people an opportunity and a platform to fight for a life on their own terms.

He notes how it is those with a deep historical and spiritual connection to the land who hold the most knowledge about sustainable living practices. “If you are not consulting the people who live on the land, who have known it for centuries, you are saying that they are people not worth listening to. You are losing valuable knowledge.” He believes that we need to begin with consulting those living on the land directly, personally and in good faith.

“We cannot exist without our natural environment. We are completely dependent on it. In destroying it, we destroy ourselves. If we want to survive, we have to respect and preserve it.”

We cannot exist without our natural environment

Natalie Fraser |
Dr Anton Wolfaardt

Dr Anton Wolfaardt

Project manager
Mouse-Free Marion Project

As a biologist in research, conservation and eco-management, Anton Wolfaardt has dedicated 25 years of his life to protecting endangered seabirds and marine life. Appointed by the non-profit organisation Saving Marion Island’s Seabirds, he manages the Mouse-Free Marion Project.

The initiative aims to eradicate the house mouse population on Marion Island, located between South Africa and Antarctica, by 2025. It is believed that mice were introduced almost 200 years ago and, as an invasive species, they have become an environmental threat to the island’s 28 different seabird species. The Mouse-Free Marion Project was established by Birdlife South Africa and the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment. 

Under his eye, the project has raised over R100 million — and counting. Wolfaardt has also worked as a conservation manager on Dassen Island Nature Reserve, an uninhabited island 55km from Cape Town in the Atlantic Ocean. He acts as the chair of the Redford Conservancy and as a non-executive director of the board of the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds.

He has also worked as an ecologist in the British Antarctic Territory, particularly in the Falkland Islands, Tristan da Cunha, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

Wolfaardt spent time with his uncle exploring the natural world and his curiosity grew further under the tutelage of Dr Douglas Hey, the first director of nature conservation (1952-1979) in what was then called the Cape province.

“I was lucky enough to be brought up by a family with a love of the outdoors,” Wolfaardt says. “Family holidays were often spent in the Cederberg mountains or exploring the stunning coasts of our country, observing and marvelling at the varied and fascinating wildlife. We spent a lot of time hiking and camping, and I started surfing at a young age, all of which exposed me to the beauty and magic of the natural environment.”

I was lucky to be raised by a family with a love of the outdoors… which exposed me to the beauty and magic of the natural environment

Lethabo Nxumalo |
Natania Botha

Natania Botha

Content developer and partnerships coordinator
Indalo Inclusive South Africa NPC

Natania Botha lived a very carefree life as a child. However, she then encountered great difficulties and was forced to leave high school, find a job and become the breadwinner for her family. Through hard work and determination, Botha returned to school and then graduated. “I am now in the process of completing my master’s in international business,” she says.

This year, Botha travelled extensively around South Africa to document the effects of climate change as part of her work as an environmental activist. Her goal is to build value-adding and sustainable relationships with social and political leaders to uplift communities and mobilise citizens to create green and inclusive spaces. “My determination and desire is to live a purpose-led life,” says Botha.

Her proudest moments include being part of Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans in 2021, featuring in the Top 12 Females in the Corporate Social Responsibility News South Africa awards (also in 2021) and being part of the Young African Leadership Initiative (Yali Alumnus).

She believes that we need to care for the natural environment because we are an extension of it. “Let’s see things as if you are half human and half plant, because without trees and plants, we will not be able to breathe and human inhabitancy on earth will not be possible,” she says. “We need to protect and nurture this connection with nature at all costs.”

Botha explains that the only way we can ensure permanent sustainability is to actively support and empower the youth to innovate. “We need to unlock our minds to think beyond the Paris Agreement and create the desired world we want to not only see for our children, but experience for ourselves in this lifetime.”

Let’s see things as if you are half human and half plant

Ncumisa Lerato Kunana |
Dr Kyle John Lloyd

Dr Kyle John Lloyd

Wetland conservation project manager
BirdLife South Africa

Dr Kyle Lloyd is a wetlands conservationist with a strong understanding of the correlation between the protection of our environment and the sustainability of our society. Through his work as a project manager at BirdLife SA, he has been instrumental in defending regional wetlands.

As a child, Lloyd grew up on a chicken farm where he gained an early understanding of nature and how we interact with it. His curiosity and love for nature and his determination to protect it emerged as a result of his adventures with his brother and the animals on their farm. This resulted in Lloyd studying zoology, in which he now has a PhD.

BirdLife SA works to protect ecosystems by supporting South Africa’s indigenous bird populations and creating greater harmony between people and the natural habitats they interact with. One of his proudest achievements at BirdLife SA has been the declaration of the only confirmed breeding site of the white-winged flufftail in the southern hemisphere as a nature reserve.

Lloyd asserts that conservation is not just the responsibility of the few. It’s on all of us. Many of our fundamental human rights — such as clean water and breathable air — are inextricably linked to the health of the environment. By degrading biospheres, we inhibit nature’s ability to provide us with these basic “services”, and it is the poorest and most vulnerable who suffer most.

He encourages people to take the time to learn about and support conservation efforts through volunteering, donating and finding ways to use their existing experience and skills outside of the conservationist paradigm to support conservation efforts. If we see conservation as our collective responsibility, we can apply different strategic and practical approaches to really enact change.

Many of our fundamental human rights… are inextricably linked to the health of the environment

Anita Makgetla |