Medupi Shabangu is only the third South African in 14 years to receive the prestigious award. (Image: Medupi Shabangu) A South African researcher, one of five scholars from Africa, has been awarded a place in the African Wildlife Foundation’s (AWF) 2010/11 Charlotte Conservation Fellows Programme. Medupi Shabangu, who is working on a master’s degree in Environmental and Geographical Science at the University of Cape Town, is also one of only three South Africans who have been selected for the programme since its inception in 1996.According to the AWF, each of the five Fellows was selected because of their achievements and exceptional dedication to conservation in Africa.“The programme is doing a good work in Africa to create a fund for African scholars who can become future leaders in conservation enterprises on the continent,” says Shabangu.The Charlotte Conservation Fellows ProgrammeThe programme was established in memory of the American philanthropist and conservationist, Charlotte Kidder Ramsay, who passed away in 1995.The Charlotte Conservation Fellows Programme has played an important role in advancing conservation on the African continent. With upcoming local researchers able to continue their master’s and doctoral research studies in conservation-related fields, Africa is able to expand its skills base of professionals and institutions. In doing so, the continent is better equipped to look after and manage its precious wildlife resources.Through the programme, researchers have the opportunity to expand their knowledge of conservation, improve their qualifications, upgrade their skills and keep up to date with new information and technology related to natural resource management.The AWF supports between three and six Charlotte Fellows every year with scholarships of up to $25 000 (R170 612). The programme has been running for 14 years and to date some 50 students from East, West, Central and Southern Africa have received assistance for their graduate degrees in biology, conservation economics, enterprise development and community conservation.South Africa’s Charlotte FellowMedupi Shabangu says it is a great honour to be selected. “I feel privileged to be counted as one of the Charlotte Fellows on the African continent. This will remain an experience I cherish for the rest of my life,” he says.The work that earned him a Charlotte Fellowship involves investigation into the potential of “transformative community conservation” in the Land Reform and Land Restitution programme in the Kruger National Park (KNP).Shabangu’s research explores some of the most difficult issues in land reform. It looks at both the theoretical and practical ways to reconcile conservation and restoration of land rights to communities who were dispossessed of their land rights in the KNP.According to the Land Research and Action Network (LRAN), land in South Africa is a very complex subject and is one of the country’s most pressing developmental and political issues.Land reform can make a big difference to the lives of the rural poor in terms of income, and is a logical starting point for the redress of past imbalances and inequality. Land reform is also seen as a central component for economic growth in rural areas in particular.Shabangu’s research sets out to test whether restitution claims are a threat to biodiversity conservation, or vice versa. He admits that this is tricky as there are no easy solutions to issues of transformation in South Africa, land reform, conservation, community involvement, rural development and community-based natural resource management.He says it is important to help communities who have lodged claims on land which was historically part of the KNP to effectively manage conservation-based projects.“It is a noble intention to correct the wrongs of the past, but this has to be done sustainably,” says Shabangu.It is important to preserve the KNP, which is not only an important tourism landmark in South Africa, but also a revenue-generator for the economy and is part of the country’s heritage.“We have to strike a balance between conservation, economics and land issues.”His goal is to help communities realise how they can be empowered through sustainable use of natural resources and conservation. “This can help our rural communities leverage enormous capital,” he says.In South Africa, alternative models are needed to resolve land claims in protected areas. “Such land claims have the potential to transform ownership patterns of conservation land and create a role for land claimants in conservation and tourism development,” he says.According to Shabangu, there is great potential for rural communities to establish conservation enterprises in the Park as a main source of revenue. This isn’t only limited to tourist lodges, but extends to other supporting enterprises such as cleaning services or landscaping. “There are numerous entrepreneurs out there who can do these things,” he says.There is always the need to evaluate the ecological footprint of any new enterprise in the park and Shabangu says that the balance between development and the conservation values of the KNP must be maintained at all times.“Natural resources can empower communities in South Africa in a big way and I want to help people see our natural heritage as part of their culture and identity.”Shabangu loves his work and sees it as his calling to continue researching and finding solutions to conservation and empowerment of rural communities.A greater focus on conservation in AfricaShabangu is encouraged by the greater interest in conservation on the African continent. “Our natural heritage is God-given and has to be protected by us,” he says.Protecting Africa’s natural resources also has important implications for the way in which the continent and South Africa can be branded as a tourist destination, adds Shabangu.“We have an abundance of natural resources. No other country has similar diversity, but it is up to us to conserve it and use it sustainably,” he says.Africa’s other winnersThe other four Charlotte Fellows recognised for their hard work in conservation are: Susan Siamundele from Zambia; Edward Amum Didigo from southern Sudan; Lawandi Kanembou from Niger; and Florentin Wendkuuni Compaore from Burkina Faso.Their research ranges from environmental risk management and renewable energies to eco-tourism.South Africa’s Dr Hector Daniel Magome was selected as a Charlotte Fellow in 1996/97 and 1998/99, and was abl;r to complete his PhD studies as a result. His career began in 1986 at the Bophuthatswana National Parks Board, where he was the country’s first black ecologist. He worked there for 10 years. Today he is the executive director of conservation services at the South African National Parks authority (SANParks).He also heads up SANParks’ transfrontier conservation initiatives and is vice chair of the World Commission for Protected Areas in Southern Africa.Magome was a pioneer in helping the government work together with local communities to create economic incentives for conservation. He was also instrumental in transforming South Africa’s National Parks Act to include local people in park management.The only other South African recipient of a Charlotte Fellowship in 1998/99, Ulli Unjinee Poonan, completed her Masters in Geography and Environmental Studies at Wits University.She is regarded as a specialist on land restitution issues concerning national parks and trans-boundary conservation. Poonan began her PhD studies at Wits University in 2004, researching the impact of SANParks’ social ecology unit in the KNP.