Mkhize takes up top job at Ezemvello



By Lynette Strauss

The managing executive of the Kruger National Park, Dr Bandile Mkhize, has taken up the position of chief executive officer of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife from Monday December 1, 2008.Although Dr Mkhize's contract with SANParks only expires at the end of March 2009, he requested that the board release him earlier and this request has been granted. He has headed up the KNP since March 1, 2004, when he took over the reins from the previous park head, Dr David Mabunda, current chief executive of SANParks.

Several colleagues and friends paid tribute to him at a farewell function on Thursday November 27, 2008.In his address on behalf of SANParks, Dr Mabunda commended Dr Mkhize for his good work with communities neighbouring the park. Mabunda acknowledged his dedication and unassuming leadership. "Humility is his second nature," he said."We thank him for his efforts and hard work during his tenure and, although we understand he is not lost to conservation, we still believe his departure from the KNP will be a loss for our organisation.

We wish him well with his new appointment and know that he will take some of the lessons he learnt in the KNP to his new post," he commented.Dr Mkhize thanked all the speakers and highlighted his fulfilment when meeting and working with staff, "especially during the management tours.""I encourage all staff to continue with their efforts and I urge SANParks management to give the KNP all the support it deserves," he said during the event, which took place at the Skukuza Golf Clubhouse.

Abe Sibiya, currently the KNP's general manager: operations, will act as the KNP's managing executive until a permanent appointment is made. Sibiya, who joined the KNP at the beginning of November 2008, has extensive experience in the conservation and tourism industry.

Interview

Soft-spoken, even-tempered, calm, humble and supportive is how colleagues, peers and friends paid tribute to the managing executive of the Kruger National Park (KNP), Dr Bandile Mkhize, at his farewell dinner on November 27, 2008.Dr Mkhize has taken up the position of chief executive officer of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife from Monday December 1, 2008.

He has headed up the KNP since March 1, 2004. We featured the man and his hopes and expectations for his five years in Kruger in the very first issue of the Kruger Park Times in April 2004.At the time, Dr Mkhize, who holds a masters degree in tourism from the University of Carolina in the United States and who completed his doctorate at the University of Durban-Westville, underlined his passion for and commitment to previously disadvantaged people and communities.

He explained how his research in the mid-90s indicated that South African blacks prefer to visit family and friends rather than conservation areas over long weekends or holidays. He said he believed that careful branding and marketing can change the long-standing perception amongst blacks that the Park is for white people only. During the 2007/8 annual financial year, the total number of black visitors had increased to 24,8 percent from the year before, from 207 030 to 266 739. About 56 percent more black visitors stayed overnight than in the previous year.

In the 2004/5 financial year, ….. black people visited Kruger.This is part of Mkhize' legacy to Kruger – making it an accessible and preferred destination for all South Africans. On his last day at Kruger, we asked him to reflect on his time as head of one of South Africa's flagship national parks.

What are the good things you will remember about your time as head of the KNP?

In terms of conservation, Kruger has definitely upped the bar. The way we do things are world-class. In my time here, I have personally seen more than 20 delegates from other countries visit us to see how we do things. I also like the attitude of the staff towards conservation.In terms of tourism, I think we still have some way to go, especially with regard to the upgrading of our infrastructure and as more and more people visit the park.

However, we have started the upgrades and once completed, it will take us to the next level.There has been a dramatic increase in the number of people who visit the park. We have retained our customer base, while at the same time we have also attracted more people from previously disadvantaged communities.I believe modern conservation cannot be divorced from the people that live next to the protected area and I have received much gratification from the improved relations with neighbouring communities.

I think the park is much more accessible to them now and they have a greater understanding of how and why we do conservation than when I started at Kruger. Programmes like the Kruger to Kasie has really worked. We have also done well to broaden the economic empowerment of the communities in terms of business and employment opportunities.In terms of our staff, we still need training programmes to ensure they are the best they can be.

What were the challenges you encountered?

One of the major difficulties in running a place like Kruger is that you have to account to all stakeholders. Everybody regards this place as theirs – and rightly so. We are just the custodians and must answer to so many stakeholders – tourists, communities, foreign visitors, business people, government and more.

Another big challenge was dealing with elephant management issues and I hope the matter will be dealt with well. It took us some time to get the norms and standards pertaining to elephants and when we did get it, we still did not know exactly what to do. At present we are finalising the elephant management plan, again having to incorporate many factors.A further concern is the increase in poaching, especially rhino poaching and we are working very hard to minimise this practice as it runs right into the core business of SANParks.

However, the biggest challenge facing the KNP is land claims. Until the land claims are sorted out, we have a problem. Currently we are not told if the claims are legitimate or have been approved or not. This "what if" scenario makes it very difficult to plan. It is important that decision makers at the highest level understand this issue from a perspective of ‘what do communities think?' I think whoever comes after me will have a big challenge in this regard.

Another challenge has come from dealing with all the developments – residential and commercial – bordering the park. The only way in which we can deal with this is by getting involved with the Integrated Development Planning (IDP) processes at local government level. It is at this level, long before final decision-making is reached where the KNP can say "these are developments acceptable to the KNP in terms of its mandate." How would you describe the relationship between South Africa and Mozambique and the future of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP)?

We have a wonderful relationship with Mozambique both at the operational and strategic levels. That is why the other day we could hand over a boat on loan to the officials in the Limpopo National Park (LNP). We need each other. The attitude of the officials in Mozambique is very good – even at political level. I think the GLTP has a great future.

However, for it to work as it was originally planned, it is imperative that Zimbabwe solves its internal issue and come to the party. If not, we may have to rethink the GLTP design as, at this stage, it only comprises Kruger and the LNP.On a personal level, what have you gained from your stay at Kruger? I have grown to understand the very intricate relationship between conservation and tourism. We have to manage this relationship, and the inherent conflicts, well.

We do not do conservation for the sake of conservation, but for the benefit of future generations. We must give those generations access to conservation through tourism. I have also learnt the value of adaptive management and I think it works well if there is understanding of what it is. We have to understand and adapt to the situation at hand, not put up a fence, or run away or close the door if we are confronted with issues.

The future

I am looking forward to going to Ezemvelo - it is almost like going home (Mkhize hails from KwaZulu Natal). There are huge challenges and problems to deal with, but there is also huge potential. The relationship between the parks and the communities needs to be strengthened. It is possible to avoid situations, such as the recent invasion of park land by communities, through taking them on board and involving them in conservation. These are one of the things I would like to instil there.

I am also a firm believer in team-work and am looking forward to building a strong team around me.



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