Zoliswa Nhleko

Junior scientist, SANParks

It was in primary school when Zoliswa Nhleko’s passion for wildlife conservation was kindled. “I was part of the Natal Museum club, which exposed me to a wide range of topics in environmental education and wildlife conservation,” says Nhleko.

“One of the notable, fascinating and scary topics was the extinction of animals through human activities — such as the dodo on display at the museum. “After being told that species continue going extinct, I wanted to learn more.” She majored in zoology at Rhodes University, and then went to work at the Durban Natural Science Museum as an education officer. “I had come full circle, because I was now teaching school children the same environmental education I had been taught in school,” she says.

After three years Nhleko says she felt that she needed to do more, a feeling that made her enrol for her masters in zoology, also at Rhodes. “When it was time to choose my research topic it made sense to study the endangered black rhino with low population numbers exacerbated by high poaching rates. “When hired in 2015 by SANParks as a junior scientist in the large mammal department I felt like I had struck career and aspirations heaven.

I was now working with the species ecologists were trying to save from the brink of extinction.” She then made the hop to working on white rhinos for her PhD research. That she can play a real role in the conservation of species like the rhino is what drives her. “Africa is the home of unique faunal species. By saving the rhino from extinction we equip ourselves with skills to manage other species avoiding them even getting to threatened status.”

“Passion drives what I do.

Conservation work is hardly ever high-paying, but knowing you are contributing to a greater purpose is the reward. Knowing that our work will ensure that future generations will not miss out on species like the rhino and the elephant like we did with the dodo. Saving our large mammals means saving many ecosystem services and processes — and humans, which would be negatively affected by their removal. Her goal is to find better ways to ensure that the conservation of wildlife gets the attention it deserves, especially in a country where eco-tourism plays such an important role. “I wish to motivate more young people into the conservation sector in South Africa, which is not ranked as a highly rewarding career.”

— Rebecca Haynes

Twitter: @zoenhleko