In 1910 there were estimated to be well over 1.5 million African Penguins. Today less than 10% of that number survive and their numbers are dwindling. It is estimated that there are fewer than 26000 breeding pairs. Enter Tribute “Birdie” Mboweni, one of South Africa’s youngest conservation ambassadors, who lived alone on Dassen Island for almost 2 years with the largest colony of African Penguins. Tribute is currently a full-time student at TUT and runs Projekt 23 and Golf View Environmental Heroes.
Mahala: How has your work on Dassen Island affected you?
Tribute: Working on Dassen gave me an opportunity to have a one-on-one session with nature. The experience gave me a time-out, you know, a chance to reflect and introspect. Separate the necessary from the unnecessary. And trust me, I found way too many unnecessary things there…
It also sharpened my senses. When you’re in that kind of setting for an extended period, the slightest change around you doesn’t go unnoticed. I’d listen to the birds and could eventually identify different species instantly.
The conservation work made me appreciate how everything in nature is part of a bigger picture. Everything. We’re all enmeshed. Environmental protection is not only greens.
It must have been tough all alone?
There are so many things that we have around just because we can and not necessarily because we need them. Including relationships! One of the most important things I learnt on the Island is that “alone” doesn’t necessarily mean “lonely”. Besides, nature conservation has a lot more to do with the management of people than the management of nature.
What other projects are you involved in?
Projekt 23 – The Green movement. We educate and plant indigenous trees at schools and in the community around Pretoria. We operate around the word CAP, which stands for Conservation, Awareness, Participation. We also established the Golf View Environmental Heroes. Young people between 8 and 17 in my neighborhood. We do weekly clean-up campaigns. The kids actively run the group. It’s amazing how they have embraced environmentalism. Project 23 started as a way to focus on on-the-ground, practical environmental activities. My dream is to see Projekt 23 registered as an official NGO soon.
Where does your love for nature come from?
I grew up in the Lowveld, Bushbuckridge, and because the Kruger National Park is so close, we would sometimes go there with my family for a day visit during the holidays. Apart from that, my late mother worked at what was then the Karos Lodge, also near Kruger and she would sometimes take us there, and even tell us stories about snakes coming into the offices. These experiences gave me a deep love for nature.
Was your family happy about you being into Nature?
Not entirely! We still laugh about it. When I left high school my dad felt that I needed “assistance” choosing a career. Because I sing, the first thing he said was: “You are not going to study music!” But that wasn’t even on my mind. He had other ideas. I had to cry to get my way. To end up doing Ecotourism, and I am glad I did. My family embraces what I do. They are my main source of support.
Birdie I see you as part of a generation redefining South African traditions. Do you agree? And what is the importance of challenging people’s perceptions of success in SA?
I do agree totally! What I’ve noticed is that young people are going for what they believe in. Not what they are expected to go for. There seems to be what I call an energy of rebellion. It’s all about making our voices heard.
Challenging people’s perceptions of success is crucial. We need to change. Society as a whole. Whenever I am around young people, I’m challenged by what they see as success. Most people are chasing something bigger than themselves. The first million, the first car. This generally translates as success. I think the best way to break this perception is by devaluing these things. By promoting a culture of doing what one loves regardless of the monetary value attached to it.
How does environmental awareness address critical social issues in SA?
Caring for the environment is caring for oneself. That’s really all people need to get. Nature is all about the well-being of people. General health and food security. Things like access to water, employment, you name it. We are all dependent on natural resources for our survival. Caring for the environment means creating an environment best suited for “healthy living”.
What has SA got to give to the global conversation on green issues and what do we still need to learn?
South Africa occupies only 2% of the world’s surface area but its home to nearly 10% of the world’s plant species. We are also one of 17 “megadiverse” countries collectively containing over two-thirds of global biodiversity. Areas of conservation are not entirely separate from society. Communities live in and around these areas. Every South African needs to take responsibility for our natural heritage. We have one Nature to take care of. There’s no replacement.
How can people help “save the future”?
Anyone can help change things. How we treat the environment now determines whether future generations will know the biodiversity that we currently experience.
What does guardianship mean to you?
Guardianship means protecting our natural heritage. Leading by example and inspiring people to get involved in conservation.
Do you plan on staying in South Africa?
South Africa is my life. I don’t see myself staying anywhere else! There is so much diversity here – both cultural and natural. There’s always something new to see and experience. I love it here!