Tourism Conservation Fund has an ambitious goal: to link the survival of animals in our game parks to the livelihoods of humans on their borders.

It is not possible to get more right than the Tourism Business Council of South Africa’s (TBCSA) Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa: tourism has become SA’s lifeblood. In one sense, it’s more important than gold ever was. Not as a bigger proportion of the economy, but as crucial evidence in these moribund times that growth can actually happen.

Recall: this is an industry that brought more than 30 000 nett jobs into being last year. Despite severe official unhelpfulness in the form of tardy visas, complex visas, and yet another bullet in the country’s foot, continuing confusion over minors’ visas.

So while we wait, hope, pray and work for the economy to stand up and deliver, South Africans can take heart that at least a 10% sliver of it is roaring.

The nature of tourism’s contribution is as important as the contribution itself. More than any other sector, tourism is founded on small businesses, is labour-intensive, includes low-skill roles, and employs women. Here is Cyril Ramaphosa’s inclusive economy.

In time we will view tourism as our parents viewed gold – as the foundation of our country’s prosperity. It is worth valuing and protecting. Which means an upgrading of our thinking on matters such as the life expectancy of our rhino and other endangered species.

Readers will perceive the rhino’s extinction as unthinkable. Many will believe that all good people are united in shocked determination that it should not happen.

Regrettably, not all good people see things that way. For some of the three million penurious residents of land abutting our game parks, the rhino that roams on the other side of the fence offers no value – unless you hitch yourself on to the local poaching chain. Then you stand to benefit greatly. As does your community, for whom considerable largesse is available — in exchange for their silence.

This explains the wild celebrations in their home villages that accompanied the recent release on bail of ‘Mr Big’ and ‘Big Joe’, two notorious poaching kingpins who work the western border of the Kruger Park.

Marginalised, disaffected, unemployed communities who are excluded from the benefits of the neighbouring wildlife economy are sitting ducks for the well-heeled criminal syndicates that control the poaching chain. Consequently, many see an anti-poaching campaign as anti-social, if not villainous. You take pride in your daughter marrying the local kingpin.

Horrible as that is, it is reality. It would be yours, or mine too, if our livelihood was a disputed share of granny’s social grant. It is not unique to Africa either. Remember Robin Hood.

This is the context in which the Tourism Conservation Fund (TCF) operates. Established by the Peace Parks Foundation and the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association, it operates against a simple dual-attraction mandate: conserve wildlife by addressing poverty.

We are aware that this is Mission Almost Impossible. But it is the only hope we have. We do not place much faith in lecturing poor people on the value of biodiversity or conservation. We rather want people seeing evidence in their day-to-day life that a rich and full animal population in the next-door reserve directly benefits them — in terms of income, enterprise and job opportunities.

That means an ambitious change: spreading more broadly the large income flows that these reserves generate to benefit poor people historically excluded from them.

How is this to be done? TCF funds business linkages between established businesses and small ones that do not have the finance, markets, advice and mentorship that everyone needs to start up and thrive.

We expect our commercial partners to commit their own funding to the linkage, which we will match 1:1. We will not fund even the noblest development project or bright idea unless it is built around a sustainable-sounding business model. Nor unless all parties involved invest their own skin in the game.

We have operated in first gear for half a year now, and have some exciting tales to tell: village crafters linked to high-value lodge shops; an informal beautician ‘training college’ upgraded to deliver accredited beauticians to lodge spas; fresh vegetable delivery to top-end lodges in the Kruger from small holders in neighbouring Thulamahashe; upgrading a community homestay to become part of an international tour operator’s Big Five safari package.

The pace now picks up. A new front has opened that straddles development and conservation, and is rooted in the experience of shared value. The goal is more than lodges commissioning local fence repairs or tourists varying their game safari with a night in a village B&B. It is to leverage the link between the survival of animals in our parks and the development of humans on their borders. To turn currently indigent and alienated communities into custodians of the wild, drawcards to the world, and engines of SA prosperity.