NRF Youth Month 2024: Thabang Motaung

NRF Youth Month 2024: Thabang Motaung

This year’s Youth Month is significant as the NRF celebrates 25 Years of Research, Innovation, Impact and Partnerships. These are the stories of the youth who have not only been impacted by the NRF but who also have an impact in their own spaces – and beyond! We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us.

Mr Thabang Motaung is a final-year MSc student in Zoology at the University of Fort Hare. He has received funding from the NRF for his Master’s as well as Honours studies.

How did your journey start?

Growing up in the eastern Free State, QwaQwa, livestock has always been an integral part of my upbringing. It was not a surprise that I was attracted to a Bachelor’s degree in Animal Production at the University of the Free State. I always knew that my passion lay with biodiversity conservation in the context of sustainable agriculture. However, I must admit that I did not perceive myself as an academic.

After graduation, I was rather uncertain about what to do, and I remember my cousin mentioning the NRF in one of our conversations. I decided to take a chance and I was fortunate to be awarded an NRF scholarship for my Honours degree in Wildlife Management at the University of the Free State. This qualification shaped my career and channelled me to focus on how we can conserve biodiversity while also responding to food security challenges.

Since then, I have never looked back. I have been able to work with commercial livestock farmers who are also conscious of the responsibility to conserve nature.

How has your affiliation with the NRF impacted your studies/career?

I have always been different from my peers and the postgraduate education funded by the NRF allowed me to refine my uniqueness. I am a first-generation student, and going for postgraduate studies upon graduating did not really make sense to the people who were hoping that I would begin to work and earn some money to help the family.

However, the stipend I received from NRF allowed me to hit two birds with one stone. I was chasing my dream and equally assisting my mom with some of the bills. I am small scale farmer because I was able to purchase some livestock with some of the money I saved from my scholarship

What is your research focus on/what is your area of expertise?

My research interests are in human-wildlife conflict and sustainable agriculture. The nature of agriculture in South Africa is still dualistic with commercial farming receiving more research attention than communal farming. I became aware of the gap and decided to be involved with rural farmers to address production challenges.

With funding from NRF, I recently completed a Livestock Predation research project at the University of Fort Hare on the predation experiences of communal sheep farmers in the Eastern Cape. For this project, the aim was to assess and quantify the threat to the livelihood of the communal sheep farmers. This research has attracted attention from industry stakeholders such as the South African Wool Growers’ Association and the BKB (a South African authority on agriculture). These organisations are involved with the farmers on a daily basis, and our study has revealed to them the nature of the problems that farmers face.

As part of the science and community engagement initiative, we have held a livestock training workshop with the communal farmers. The engagement was fruitful – we were able to host different stakeholders on Farmer’s Day and inform them about the findings of our study. The farmers were also equipped with methods that they could employ to reduce conflict with wild carnivores.

For example, most of the farmers did not know how to correctly identify the responsible predator after a predation incident. This can be very risky as innocent predators can be incorrectly persecuted. The workshop armed farmers with the skills to correctly identify the predator species involved so they would be able to employ the correct mitigation method for that particular predator species.

Why is your work/studies important?

The socio-economic contribution of livestock farming in rural areas is very important as wool production plays a vital role in poverty reduction. The amount of wool coming from the rural Eastern Cape is of national importance. Moreover, when farmers are farming sustainably they can sustain themselves and their loved ones.

The conflict between communal farmers and wildlife, specifically carnivores, can threaten human safety and their livelihoods, and the retaliatory killings of predators can have a knock-on effect on biodiversity and the normal functioning of the ecosystem.

It is important to first understand the attitudes and perceptions of the farmers towards the predators before we can propose mitigations to the conflict.

Our study has been able to quantify the level of predation in these communal areas. Our results suggest that predation is a serious threat to the livelihoods of the farmers. We have been able to realise the factors that lead to high predation risk and the leading “problem animals”. Domestic dogs appeared to be causing more damage than wild carnivores. These results can be used to inform all the stakeholders involved about the nature of the predation problem which is unique to these areas. We are also able to propose solutions to mitigate the predation problem.

What are some of your proudest academic achievements?

The abstract of our first chapter has been accepted for full presentation at the Southern African Wildlife Management Association Conference.

The novelty of our results was positively received by the scientific audience. One of the interesting findings was that, contrary to the expectation that wild carnivores such as black-backed jackals would be responsible for most of the predation incidents, our results revealed that domestic dogs were responsible for most predation incidents. Moreover, our results also indicated that farmers resort to lethal control of predators which is, evidently, not effective.

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