After finishing school Nkanyiso Ndlela joined WESSA in Howick and began his journey to becoming a well-liked and much respected figure in local conservation – most recently being appointed as Education Manager at the KZN Crane Foundation (KZNCF) until his death in mid-March 2018.

With WESSA he worked on a project focussing on the use of wetlands by crafters, which lay the foundation for his lifelong passion for wetlands. He helped develop teaching materials, including the Windows on our World Wetland Game. He often used this game when he became known as ‘Charles the Chameleon’ at the Midlands Meander Education Project. Fellow Bug, mentor and friend, Charlene Russell, remembers his concern when she introduced him to a class as a ‘wetland expert’ as he didn’t think he was an expert. However, he rose to her challenge and quickly developed his knowledge on the importance of wetlands and the need for their conservation. He achieved his National Diploma in Environmental Education in 2012.

Nkanyiso grew up in the rural area of iMpendle where there are many wetlands and great birdlife, which gave him a special insight into the threats that cranes face. In 2013 he joined the KZNCF soon earning the nickname ‘Uncle Crane’. He understood that big birds make a good meal for a rural family and that despite the effort that goes into the crane rearing project, KZNCF would not be able to protect the birds once they were released into the wild – education was key. He was acutely aware that many people know how endangered these birds are and did his best to share his passion and knowledge through creative education programmes, knowing that learning happens best when children are having fun. Antonia Mkhabela, vice principal of Shea O’Connor Combined School recalls how delighted learners would be to see him. “They loved him more than the class teachers because his lessons were so exciting. He told stories about these awesome birds and now cranes are everyone’s favourite birds in our school.”

Nkanyiso dancing with kids

Colleague Jenny Stipcich, developer of the Cranes in the Classroom series, is devastated. “This was supposed to be his best year ever. He was off to spend three months at the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin, USA. While I am desperately sad, I know his legacy will be carried by thousands of school children.”

Con Roux of N3TC, who has funded a couple of the organisations that Nkanyiso has worked with, is saddened by the news. “I learned much from his special qualities – humility, quiet joy, observance, understanding and empathy. Wearing his signature smile, Nkanyiso felt everyday was an opportunity to ensure he made an impact on the community to protect nature. We have lost a hardworking and passionate teacher.”

Nkanyiso’s hope was to inspire others, especially students living in townships and rural areas, that with dedicated effort, they too can follow their dreams. Samson Phakathi, Senior Field Officer with EWT, had great respect for Nkanyiso. “We should all draw inspiration from his conservation journey,” he said this week, “he was an exceptional eco-hero who dedicated his life to conservation.”

Nkanyiso will be laid to rest at his home in kwaKhetha in iMpendle where beautiful wetlands abound. Now it is up to us to build on his legacy and ensure everyone takes care of nature – especially wetlands – and stops destroying wildlife.