In the heart of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, lies a valley created by the Umgeni River, after cascading over the majestic Howick Falls.
The Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve is situated 1km from Howick on the Karkloof Road, a mere 20 minutes north of Pietermaritzburg. The reserve is comprised of natural bush and grasslands with giraffe, Zebra, a variety of antelope and two hundred and seventy bird species. Spending a day or more at the Umgeni Valley is a great way to spend your time and to come away feeling relaxed and refreshed. WESSA (the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa) is a South African environmental organization which aims to initiate and support high impact environmental and conservation projects to promote participation in caring for the Earth. For over 90 years we have proactively engaged with the challenges and opportunities presented by our country’s unique natural heritage and the social and economic systems that depend on it.
We have become a leading implementer of environmental initiatives: We work with schools and teachers throughout South Africa on a range of local and international programmes to support and improve school curricula with regard to environmental learning, enabling learners to achieve their full potential towards a sustainable future by taking environmental action in their own areas. Blue Flag is the global symbol of quality for beaches, boats, and marinas in the environmental management of our coastline and coastal waters to help tourism growth and development. The Green Key eco-label recognizes tourism establishments demonstrating excellence in the field of environmental responsibility and sustainable operations. Our professional training programmes are addressing South Africa’s skills shortage, and we are also implementing programmes to develop an empowered and enthused youth sector. We are supporting the conservation of life-supporting biodiversity and water resources through ecological infrastructure projects which involve the removal of invasive alien plants and the rehabilitation and restoration of ecosystems.
WESSA is an integral part of the international environmental community: In addition to being the appointed operator in South Africa for five FEE (Foundation for Environmental Education) programmes, we are a founder member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and, as a UNESCO partner, we are supporting education for sustainable development across the southern African region.
We are a membership-supported organization and activate a wide range of local conservation initiatives for the environment through our membership network of branches or friends groups. It is due to the efforts and strong leadership within our membership that we have been a motivating force behind many of South Africa’s most significant environmental actions, and we continue to work to promote effective environmental governance through participating in the development of legislation and supporting compliance.
WESSA is a Section 21 company registered as an Incorporated Association, not for gain.
We are one of South Africa’s oldest and largest independent non-government environmental organizations and our many achievements over the years have been well documented:
The book “The Conservationists and the Killers”, first published in 1982, covers WESSA’s history for the period 1926 to 1980. A special “Diamond Jubilee” issue of WESSA’s then magazine, African Wildlife, was published in 1986. To mark WESSA’s 85th birthday in 2011, “A celebration of 85 years of Caring for the Earth”, was compiled, and a new publication celebrating WESSA’s 90th birthday was produced in September 2016.
Whilst we can trace our roots back to 1883, our organisation officially formed in 1926 as The Wildlife Protection Society of South Africa, when a group of passionate individuals got together to campaign for the creation a National Parks Board (now known as SANParks), to ensure the proclamation of the Kruger National Park, and to advocate the formation of other national parks in South Africa.
Over the years we have continued to play a strong role in shaping conservation practices throughout South Africa, proactively engaging with the challenges and opportunities presented by our country’s unique natural heritage and the social and economic systems that depend on it. Whilst our organization has changed its name and its focus several times over the years, one very important aspect of WESSA’s mission that has remained unchanged throughout our history is articulated in our logo: “People Caring for the Earth”.
At 92, we are proud of our history. We are also excited about what we are achieving through our current projects and partnerships and – in spite of the significant challenges facing our environment – we look forward to the future and to all the opportunities it will present, in our ongoing quest to be champions of the environment.
On the 11th March 1926, in what was known as the Transvaal, the inaugural meeting of the Wildlife Protection Society took place. On that day, representatives of the Society sent a telegram to the Minister of Lands, Mr P.G.W Grobler, in which the new members urged him to proceed with the National Parks Bill. The National Parks Act was passed on the 31st May 1926, so soon after its debate in the House. The new Act had a clause, which commemorated the role of the Wildlife Society in creating the Kruger National Park, and provided a permanent seat on the National Parks Board. This was an honour so well bestowed, as it was the only private organisation to hold this position.
There is much intrigue about the history of the WESSA logo and the iconic Sable, and understanding and acknowledging the formation of WESSA in 1926 is key to this dialogue. The Transvaal Game Protection Association (TGPA) was disbanded the day the Wildlife Protection Society was formed. The symbol of the TGPA at the time was the sable. The Wildlife Society, which later became the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa took on the sable logo from the TGPA, and over the years, many versions of the sable have been used. The Conservationist and the Killers claim that as many as 7 variations have been used since 1926. The logo was officially registered by the Bureau of Heraldry on the 17th October 1974, and is described as follows: ‘The head and neck of a sable antelope revers within a square border with rounded corners’. The logo was approved at the Annual General Meeting of the Wildlife Society in 1974.
So why the sable? At the time, the sable was seen as a prized “game” species – it was, and still is a popular trophy animal for hunters. The sable is magnificent in appearance, extremely aggressive, and when confronted by a predator, often opts to attack rather than flee. It is a mixed feeder in that it is able to both browse and graze, making it a resilient and tough species.
Is there a chance that the sable was actually meant to be the blou bok (Hippotragus leucophaeus), which is a species that was sent to extinction by European hunters? In 1774, Thunberg noted that the blou bok was becoming increasingly rare, and it was eventually hunted to extinction by European settlers. The blou bok had a very similar head to the sable and they are a closely related species. Is there a chance that a hand-drawn version of this animal’s head was “corrupted” to eventually become a species that we all know – the sable? The story of the blou bok is very similar to the quagga, and follows a storyline that more closely represents why the Wildlife Society was formed in the first place – to protect animals from being hunted to extinction.
Today, the WESSA sable continues to be revered by many South Africans. It remains a symbol of the extraordinary work of thousands of WESSA members, volunteers, supporters and employees over 92 years.