Four young men who live close to the Kruger National Park’s Orpen Gate have been given the opportunity of a lifetime after being invited to travel to Johannesburg to participate in the trials for one of South Africa’s biggest and best-known soccer clubs – the Orlando Pirates.
This is thanks to a youth sports programme that aims to build social cohesion as an approach to address crime in the Greater Kruger and influence pro-conservation behaviour in youth.
After the training clinic at the Welverdiend Trust, the Orlando Pirate scouts invited the four young men to take part in the trials in Johannesburg. The trials took place mid-July, and the young men were invited to return to Johannesburg for further training and trials during the September school holidays.
The sports programme is a partnership between established community football associations, the Greater Kruger Environmental Protection Foundation (GKEPF) and WWF South Africa, with support from the United States Agency for International Development.
The procurement of soccer kits and equipment has allowed the football associations to expand their reach, and they collectively now have 40 teams with more than 800 soccer players and 43 coaches.
"This was a historic moment for us. No one has ever come to us to scout for players. The sports programme made this possible. Everyone is so excited. I see the players wear their jerseys with pride. It is amazing seeing their talent recognised,” said Khumalo Gottenberg, Chairperson of the Manyeleti Football Association.
But beyond the excitement of the potential to move on to greater things, the sports programme has a deeper purpose.
"To address wildlife crime and crime in general, we have to look at the landscapes affected holistically and consider the context in which crime occurs. This means we must look beyond the borders where rhinos live and improve the safety, security and well-being of the people living in this integrated landscape too," explained Lara Rall, Project Implementation and Communications Manager at WWF South Africa.
A recent review by WWF South Africa of community-based approaches to addressing wildlife crime recommended sport as a way of building social cohesion and resilience in communities.
Alby Mnisi, Chairperson of the Welverdiend Football Association, said the sports programme was keeping players busy, healthy, and away from dangerous activities. "They also entertain our communities. They bring people together when they practise or play games. It creates a sense of belonging.”
The youth sports programme is now being expanded to add more football associations and include netball clubs in the Greater Kruger and grow its reach to include more women.