The campaign to stop the rhino slaughter has been boosted by 300 volunteers in the Tembe Elephant Park, Ndumo Game Reserve and Weenen Nature Reserve areas, who have joined as “rhino ambassadors”.

They have followed 100 other young people surrounding Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park (HiP) in standing up and promising to do everything they can to stop the poaching.

In what is rapidly developing into an unprecedented mobilisation among local people living around KwaZulu-Natal’s protected areas, Ndumo, Tembe and Weenen youth have shown a willingness to protect their rhinos and the game reserves in their areas.

Opinions emerging at a meeting in Ndumo last week demonstrated people’s changing attitudes towards conservation. This prompted Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s community conservation officer, Mandla Tembe, to say that in his 20 years of operating in the region he felt “most upbeat” about the cause of conservation.

South Africa’s conservation icon, Dr Ian Player, described the rhino ambassador movement as supporting his claim that this country had never seen conservation as politically and socially acceptable as it was today.

“Whatever the merits and achievements of conservation in the past, there is no doubting that the chief executive of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Dr Bandile Mkhize, has made an unprecedented contribution towards popularising conservation among rural communities in this province.

“The ramifications of this will be felt in the years and decades to come,” Player said.

The programme first began when Mkhize approached the 10 amakhosi living around HiP towards the end of last year to raise a groundswell to sniff out poachers entering their communities and help spread a “save the rhino” message.

Among about 600 volunteers, 100 people were selected, who, at that stage, volunteered their services for no funds.

The Wildlife College in Hoedspruit agreed to donate a lecturer to undertake a month-long conservation and environmental training course for them. Ezemvelo was subsequently able to find funds to pay each one of them a stipend of R2 000 a month.

Four months later, this community support has expanded to the Ndumo/Tembe/Weenen regions. Eight elders and 15 young ambassadors of the Makhani ward in Ndumo assembled to explain their reasons for joining the ambassador programme.

The meeting opened with Makhani’s Induna Nhlangano Tembe proclaiming that there had been a “big shift” in people’s attitude towards conservation.

“Education has changed people’s thinking, especially us elders. More and more we understand what Ezemvelo is doing for us – not just in protecting rhino, but valuing our protected areas and what they mean to us as a community.”

He alluded to Ezemvelo’s establishment of KZN’s first “muti’ farm in Ndumo in 2011 and the powerful message this sent to all people to stop cutting down indigenous trees. It told them, instead, to source their roots, leaves and bark for medicinal purposes on a sustainable basis from this farm.

The ward’s rhino ambassador team leader, Thokozani Thusi, 32, stated that people should not underestimate young people’s understanding of conservation.

“When we were asked by our Ndabezitha (iNkosi Tembe) to volunteer for this, so many came forward. I will tell you why. It is because we understand that Ndumo Game Reserve belongs to all of us and so do the rhinos. If that is so, then we all see these poachers as stealing from our bank. They are stealing our money.”

Ward committee member, Themba Tembe, threw light on what he understood about “African Conservation”, the philosophy of Mkhize and Ezemvelo.

“This rhino ambassador programme has created an income for our youth; it demonstrates that conservation has created an economic opportunity for us.”

Induna Nhlangano Tembe said the rhino protection partnership should spread to the government as well: “I say this because much more could be done.”

He signed off in Zulu with their motto, translated as: “This is rhino country: Hands off our rhinos.”