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African environmental stewards you should know: The Legend — Charlie “Nyempere” Nkuna 

The individual earth stewards that care for our natural environments and transform living environments into environmentally friendly versions are the perpetually unsung heroes of our climate precarious age. Here are some legendary, innovative, and unrelenting stewards you should know.

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Under the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR), international environmental law establishes that all states are responsible for addressing global environmental destruction yet not equally responsible. This is beyond CO2 emissions and applies to stewardship, conservation, and greening.

Some western cultures are battling the slow adoption of sustainable behaviour and practices because of a distancing of the population from the natural environment and the convenience of damaging environmental norms. For African countries, the dependence and close relationship with the natural environment and its resources is both a challenge and an opportunity. The main challenge is reliance for everything — from food and water to their livelihoods and culture leaves communities more vulnerable to extreme and unpredictable weather. The benefit is the knowledge encoded in oral tradition and local languages has helped keep conservation alive and is to a large extent the blueprint to mitigating the negative impacts of climate change or guiding future earth stewards.

For us to see the importance of individuals that have kept and used this knowledge, it is important to describe their impact.

Charlie “Nyempere” Nkuna 


This legacy steward is known as the Protector of Kruger National Park, South Africa. The Nkuna family has left deep tracks in the park’s history. Charlie’s father, Merriman Nkuna, his uncle, Helfas Nkuna, and 3 brothers all worked there as rangers and research assistants. His uncle Helfas Nkuna was a pillar of Kruger National Park, greatly admired for his prowess, and passed on while still in service at the age of 85.

When the younger Nkuna started working at Park the in 1948, he quickly rose to sergeant, the highest rank a black ranger could hold at the time.

The Legend — Charlie “Nyempere” Nkuna — Protector-of-Kruger. Photo courtesy

Among his many notable achievements are:

  • Helping to establish the fire research plots at Pretoriuskop, Skukuza, Satara, and north of Letaba in one of the longest-running fire experiments in the world to date
  • Helping to map out historic transport routes, from Pretoriuskop in the west to ‘Fihlamanzi’ outspan in the east.
  • Participating in the relocation of the first white rhino from Umfolozi Game Reserve to the Kruger National Park (which exposed them to deadly poachers) The white rhino relocation program continued for 12 years and was a resounding success. The Kruger National Park boasts a large white rhino population with over 3,529 of the species currently concentrated there (although this is a massive drop from previous years).
  • Played an invaluable role in finding many archaeological sites in the southern Kruger National Park. He found the site where the Swazi Chief, Matsafeni (the great grandfather of the current SANParks Chief Executive, Dr. David Mabunda) was murdered just south of Ship Mountain and the site of Inhliziyo’s kraal where Chief Matsafeni’s murder was plotted.
  • Responsible for the apprehension of many poachers in his 41 years of uninterrupted service- surviving many close encounters with armed and dangerous bandits.
  • At retirement in 1989, he assisted visiting researchers at the Scientific Services section for 3 years.

His stewardship and intimate knowledge of flora and fauna has touched topography, archaeology, botany, conservation, environmental research and historical archives. 

Learn more about him here.

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