Explain your career journey – schooling and further education.
I matriculated from Union High School in Graaff-Reinet in 2001. I knew exactly what I wanted to study after school and chose my subjects according to the university requirements and so salved through mathematics and science until I matriculated… Biology, on the other hand, was always my favourite subject at school. The hard work paid off and I was accepted to the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) at the George Campus in 2002. I completed a four-year, full-time education and graduated with a B-Tech degree in Nature Conservation in 2006.
What has sparked your interest in the environment and biodiversity sector?
I would love to say that I chose conservation, but as life goes on I am more and more convinced that conservation chose me. I have always felt deeply connected to nature and when deciding my career path as a child, the options never veered away from it. I grew up as a bush kid with most of our holidays spent camping in the Kruger, which wasn’t far from Pretoria where I stayed in my younger years. I fell in love with nature from the start. My father recalls the first time he asked me what I wanted to be when I was older. My answer was, ‘to be a Bushman…’ He looked at me with compassionate eyes and said we would speak again in a couple of years. As strange as my answer would seem, I had such love and respect for the Bushman and Native American Indians in the way they lived with nature, deeply connected to it, and I carry that sentiment today still.
I always knew that I was going to spend my life fighting the conservation fight, but I had no idea where my career was going to take me. I think I imagined I would be working in a park or reserve somewhere and look at me now, my whole career has been working on private land outside of parks and reserves… who knew?!
Bronwyn assisting with the annual census in Camdeboo National Park.
When and why did you choose to work for SANParks?
I am one of those conservationists that grew up admiring the “bokkie kop” logo and always wanted to be part of the South African National Parks (SANParks) family. The job that got me there felt like it was made for me. I applied for the Project Manager position in 2012 under the Wilderness Foundation to implement the Mountain Zebra Camdeboo Corridor Project for SANParks. This project placed me back to Graaff-Reinet, what I would call my home town. The majority of my childhood was spent there, and it was great to work with so many people I grew up with. After a successful two-year project, I went back to the Western Cape until the GEF-5 PA project allowed me to come back and finish what I started. This time I was a full-blown SANParks employee and could not have been prouder or more loyal.
What is your current role in SANParks? What do you most enjoy about your job and what the least?
I am currently the Buffer Zone Coordinator for both Camdeboo and Mountain Zebra National Parks and I am responsible for work outside of the park boundaries. I have been hard at work working with private landowners in securing their land as a protected environment in partnership with SANParks.
What I enjoy most about my job are the relationships I have developed with my landowners and the honour they have given me to travel this landscape. I have seen places I would never have seen and I have never felt more accepted or embedded in a community than this one. No matter where my career will take me, I will always be a part of the Mountain Zebra Camdeboo Protected Environment (MZCPE) and a phone call away.
Bronwyn Botha presenting the MZCPE management plan to stakeholders.
Being so highly vested in the MZCPE and feeling so personally connected to the landowners I work with, what I enjoy least is the constant worry I have in terms of possible conflict. I am always trying to stay as neutral as Switzerland when it comes to conflicts or threats, both internal and external. I try my best to only deal with the facts and merits of the situation, knowing that I may not have the answer every landowner in the MZCPE wants but rather I strive to ensure that the vision of the MZCPE and the purpose for which it was declared would be upheld. I hate to disappoint people and it causes me copious amounts of stress and anxiety so I dread conflict.
What are your thoughts about the GEF-5 PA Project and your role in it?
The GEF-5 PA Project has been an incredible enabling project to not only secure more land as part of the MZCPE but also assist the already declared MZCPE to meet its high-level requirements in terms of the National Environment Management: Protected Areas Act 57 of 2003 (NEMPAA). As the coordinator for the work, the project has helped me to create the MZCPE Management Plan, implement multiple assessments using the Monitoring Effectiveness Tracking Tool (METT) and helped the MZCPE conduct numerous important baseline studies. The GEF-5 PA Project also provided support in the implementation of the management plan programmes allowing us to test programme implementation and to identify partnerships that will further support programme achievements post the GEF project.
The drive to create or improve the financial sustainability of the protected area (PA) network has been, in my opinion, the most important factor of the project. It addresses the old sustainability problem that creeps up time and time again and usually results in the collapse of well-intentioned PAs. For conservation to be taken seriously and to have a long-term impact, it has to be financially sustainable (as we operate in this world which is a giant marketplace). The answer to making conservation financially sustainable is a highly complex issue and we try to figure it out as we go, but luckily on a site level and within the MZCPE model, the MZCPE has its basic needs met through the unlocking of partnerships to help assist programme implementation and the generation of its own income to fill the gaps. This would not have been possible in such a short time frame if not for the GEF-5 PA Project.
What has been the project highlight/s thus far for you?
Apart from my relationships and the buy-in from landowners to become part of the MZCPE, the biggest highlight of this project has been the recognition that the MZCPE has been getting in the agricultural and textile industry. Although it was always a dream to get the landowners recognised under the MZCPE brand, I could not have imagined how much support and buy-in would come so naturally. This support from the industry has resulted in economic incentives for the wool and mohair farmers (the majority land users in the MZCPE) and is a fantastic example to prove how conservation and agriculture can benefit each other. The conservation effort that our landowners are showcasing through membership to the MZCPE is resulting in increased profit margins and niche market access and it’s only just begun.
Bronwyn with Lucia Bartesaghi, the Division Director for the National System of Protected Areas of Uruguay, on the final day of the South to South Cooperation mission in Uruguay where the cooperation received buy in from Uruguay to formalise a MOU with South Africa to work on identified themes of conservation collaboration.
What are your thoughts on being a woman in the conservation and biodiversity sector?
I have never set my goals in conservation based on the fact that I am a woman, but I would lie if I don’t admit that I may have had to try harder than my male colleagues to prove my worth or competence. I would say that this was most prevalent in my early career when I had no name for myself. As a student, I worked for SANParks along the garden route and I remember pushing myself physically to match my male colleagues so that I would be taken seriously. I tried to never have to ask for help, which has worked its way into my adult life too – much to my detriment sometimes. I think I was finally able to shine when I was first officially employed and was able to use my social skills to form relationships with private landowners. While I didn’t find it too obvious, I did have certain things to consider being a woman. One concern was that I would not be taken seriously as I was a woman and was working predominately with male farmers. The second concern was that I could present as a threat to the farmer wives. I was always very cognisant of this and made sure that I always made an effort to include the wives and build relationships with them too, they are also my landowners. Both of my concerns were easily dispelled through relationship building and the development of trust and transparency. All the landowners I ever worked with treated me with kindness and respect.
What experiences can you share from your day-to-day business, working in a very male-dominated field? What are the advantages/disadvantages?
I don’t view conservation as a male-dominated field (not that it isn’t, I just don’t focus on that), but rather more that it is a very small community where you can lose your credibility in a second. My achievements are my own and should not be viewed in terms of my gender. Although there may be benefits to being a woman in my job, I feel that a male with the same relationship skills, social makeup and innovation that I have, would have achieved the same result.
Bronwyn Botha amidst cyclists and the organising team after the first Roof de Karoo (RdK) in 2017. RdK is a stunning three-day 190 km mountain bike traverse created by the MZCPE.
To talk about the advantages and disadvantages of being female in this line of work, I would have to rely on gender stereotypes and if I do that, an advantage of being a woman in my line of work is that I may be perceived as softer and less threatening when talking to private landowners. I may have better organisational and prioritisation skills helping me as a coordinator to multitask and juggle multiple relationships and tasks at a time. While my line of work may not require too much physical prowess, I still may not be taken seriously as a woman by some men that may still view me as ‘lower than’. But in my experience, these instances are very rare and seem to happen in organisations rather than amongst the private landowners I work with.
What do you wish for the biodiversity and conservation sector?
I wish that the world would wake up and place biodiversity and conservation higher up on the world’s priorities and stop treating conservation as a ‘nice to have’ and rather treat it as a ‘have to have’. They need to understand that the earth does not need us, we need it and we are making a total mess of our custodianship. Don’t forget… you can’t eat, drink or breathe money.
What do you wish for your community?
I wish that we could all remember that we are all connected to each other and this planet. If everybody could take care of their own “back yard”, we could achieve so much. This means taking responsibility for the way we treat each other and this planet and to grow kindness and compassion for both. We are the solution and one person can make a difference.
Bronwyn Botha at a break during a management plan review process with landowners on a farm.
What do you wish for other women in this field of work?
I wish that woman in this field of work keep marching on and that they celebrate their differences to men as both sexes have so much to offer. I wish that woman aim to achieve for themselves and not as another quota statistic. I hope that any woman who wishes to fight the conservation fight will never be turned away because she is a woman.