He found them in the mountains and streams of Limpopo. Frogs and lizards, big and small, all of them equally exciting to his inquisitive mind. To the despair of grandmother he would run around with them in his pockets – yes, even snakes – as his rural childhood village became a playground of untold riches. When the time came, as it always did, to return to Mamelodi, where he went to school, he immersed himself in that melting pot of cultures.
It was there, in the northeast of Pretoria that he would wander the bustling streets, the sage-like advice from his grandfather about different cultures filtering everything he saw.
“He would always tell me which animals were totems of which groups, and what certain cultures believed about animals. Some people thought it very strange that my grandfather was teaching a six-year-old about culture,” Dr Fortunate Phaka from the North-West University’s (NWU’s) Unit for Environmental Sciences and Management quips, looking back decades.
As a student at the NWU, he pursued his passion for animals that took root in sun-drenched Limpopo and chose a career in zoology, never wavering from his love of frogs and reptiles. As an undergraduate, it was also when he realised: “My beloved animals are under threat.”
His journey into herpetology – the branch of zoology that focuses on reptiles and amphibians – had begun. Now, Dr Phaka is taking what caused consternation for his grandmother together with the wisdom of his grandfather and educating communities to help conserve reptiles and amphibians.
As he explains: “The general view is that cultural uses are bad for any wildlife, but when you start to sit down and study and talk to people, you realise that like anything else, there is good and there is bad. We want to protect wildlife in a way that is relevant and makes sense to the local people who live alongside the wildlife we are trying to protect, and without suppressing people’s cultures, we try to show people that certain beliefs are not true by explaining why they are not true. One example is that frogs can bring lightning, which is impossible. We use scientific evidence to show why certain believed outcomes are highly unlikely.”
According to him, close to 30% of South Africa's 134 frog species are threatened with extinction. Around 63% of the 134 frog species are only found in South Africa. Studies carried out almost 20 years ago showed that a number of frog species were no longer found in urban areas, which is worrying considering how resilient they can be. Threat levels to reptiles are also underestimated globally.
By taking an inclusive approach to conservation, he hopes to help reverse this decline.
“In South Africa, we’ve always had a problem where environmental scientists and environmental societies are not always inclusive. When we start looking at looking at frogs and reptiles alongside the cultural uses of frogs and reptiles in certain communities, it can add a lot of conservation value. Our research can help to update conservation planning to include these cultural elements, as is required by our national policies, but isn’t always done. From a global perspective, it also ticks the boxes of national treaties that say that we should include everyone in our conservation planning.
“We have an educational role to play, but we do it in a very culturally respectful way. I conduct an information session with the community after getting permission from the community leader and I ask: ‘Can you tell me about your culture and how you use frogs and reptiles?’ I then incorporate what I have learned and combine the cultural knowledge with the scientific knowledge in a language that is familiar to the community.”
Engaging with communities while respecting their cultures is key to conservation, but he cautions: “We can’t make judgements without evidence. That has never helped anyone.”
This is just one way the NWU is helping to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which call for the protection, restoration and promotion of the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems and halting the loss of biodiversity. The NWU has shown that we can protect our biodiversity through cultural diversity.
Dr Fortunate Phaka.