Our Burning Planet


Rural late school starter bags international environment award

Rural late school starter bags international environment award
Rifumo Mathebula, Wild Shots Outreach programme leader and winner of an international young environmentalist of the year award. (Photo: Mike Kendrick)

A chance meeting with a wildlife photography teacher and Kruger Park animals set Rifumo Mathebula on a path he never dreamed possible.

In a poor rural community bordering the Kruger National Park, Rifumo Mathebula did what youngsters his age were expected to do: he herded the family goats. Wandering as they grazed day after day, time slipped away and schooling took a back seat. By the time he first sat in a classroom at Frank Maghinyana High, Rifumo was nine.

At the age of 19, and still at school, he attended a Wild Shots Outreach (WSO) programme run by educational specialist Mike Kendrick. This involved learning to use a camera and entering Kruger Park — something he had never done before — to photograph wild animals.

rifimo award

Hoping it all goes okay. (Photo: Rifumo Mathebula)

It was like flipping a light switch and he needed more. That passion, within six years, would earn him an international title of Young Environmentalist of the Year and a local Mail & Guardian Greening the Future Award.

Desperate to share what he experienced in the park, Rifumo took the first steps in what would become his future: he persuaded Kendrick to run the course at his high school.

Recognising his passion for teaching and wanting to help other young people in his community, Kendrick began inviting him on photo assignments — including elephant collarings, rhino conservation operations and documenting the World Youth Wildlife Summit.

rifumo award

Dealing with the breathing end. (Photo: Rifumo Mathebula)

“Although I grew up on the border of Kruger Park,” Rifumo remembers, “I had never been into a game reserve until I did a game drive with Wild Shots Outreach. Seeing wildlife for the first time changed my life. I knew I wanted to inspire and encourage other young people to connect with nature.

“Most young people in my community have never been into a game reserve. I want to connect them with our natural heritage — we’re the future of Africa’s conservation.”

When Rifumo matriculated, he became Wild Shots Outreach programme leader, taking more and more responsibility, helping to build WSO’s reach and impact. In 2020 he was promoted to Programme Director and now leads WSO courses, organising all the logistics and teaching in the local Tsonga language.

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“The biggest barriers to young people connecting with nature,” he says, “are poverty and lack of resources and aspiration.”

These are shortcomings which Wild Shots Outreach was created to overcome. It was founded by Kendrick in 2015 and prioritises government high school students and unemployed youngsters living adjacent to Africa’s national parks. 

Using a camera as the entry point, it provides a focus introduction to the natural world. It also helps young people from these communities to accessing training, further studies and employment through a bursary fund. 

Kendrick says when he relocated from Cape Town to Hoedspruit in 2015, he was dismayed to discover that most local youngsters had never seen or engaged with their natural heritage. Being a photographer, he realised the medium provided a powerful tool for them to capture their memories, tell their own stories and really “see” nature.

“Through Wild Shots Outreach, we’re changing the narrative,” he says. “Flipping the script, making wildlife photography and conservation more inclusive and diverse.”


Rifumo has become a key leader in this process. To date, he has delivered 60 programmes to 495 students. He manages and mentors four teaching assistants — all former students and previously unemployed. He also coaches young people in the WSO’s bursary programme.

The judges in the Young Environmentalist of the Year Award, presented by the London-based Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management, said they were “incredibly impressed by Rifumo’s drive, commitment and passion for promoting awareness of sustainability through his community work and photography, always working to inspire others.

“It is clear Rifumo has committed his career and personal life to the cause and has empowered others to make a difference too. His work is exceptional and is clearly going from strength to strength, leaving a positive and long-lasting environmental legacy.”

In the same month, he won the Mail and Guardian Greening the Future Awards in the Protecting Habitats category.

Judges were impressed by his striving to be a positive role model for young people — particularly those from impoverished communities — inspiring them to connect with nature. DM/OBP

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Congratulations to this fine young man! I am sure that a wealth of talent lies untapped in the many poverty stricken parts if our country. All these BEE millionaires: do they fund any programs? It’s sad that so many young people never visit nature and game reserves that are quite close to them.

  • Ritchie Morris says:

    Great positive story. Wild Shots Outreach is a fantastic project and initiative. It’s a worthy recipient for ALL THAT UNUSED CAMERA GEAR that is lying around your house. Please donate your unused photography kit. Send to Wild Shots Outreach Postnet Hoedspruit, South Africa. Well done all.

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