Environmental educator and tour guide, Theo Xolani Gina, puts into practice what he preaches when it comes to plastic pollution, writes Bukeka Silkwa

NO-ONE likes a hypocrite.

So when you work in environmental tourism, earning your crust showing people pristine nature, it’s important to practise what you preach and to remember that little things matters.

That’s something Theo Xolani Gina, owner of Theo Tours and Culture based in St Lucia on the Zululand coast, understands well.

Consider for example the three-hour cycle tours he runs, taking tourists to see local communities and natural areas.

“When we do tours we do not provide our tourists with plastic bottles of water, instead we give then bottles of water that are attached to the bicycles. They are refillable and returned with the bicycle to avoid litter,” said Gina.

The 37-year-old, who as been nominated for an Amaqhawe Award, told Roving Reporters that being environmentally friendly is at the heart of his business. And he knows better than most the devastating harm plastic can do to the environment.

During his turtle tours, from November until February each year, Gina often witnesses the staggering impact of plastic pollution. “Seeing a sea turtle struggling to get back into the water, tangled by a fishing rope is a very disturbing picture,” said Gina. At this time of the year, turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. The eggs incubate for about 65 days, depending on nest temperatures.

Gina feels so strongly about the problem that he often takes local school children into iSimangaliso Wetland Park to teach them about his work and the harm pollution does.

“Litter is a big problem in this area. It is hard to show my tourists in other areas, because of litter – for example, plastics, ship buoys and ropes at Leven (((SUBS: correct))) Point Sanctuary Beach, in iSimangaliso and Mtubatuba town,” Gina said.

“When I was growing up in my community all they knew when they see animals is their next meal. Through environmental education by the Natal Parks Board (now Ezemvelo KZN WIldlife) over the years all that changed,” he said.

Gina credits the late Sipho Ngobese, a former Natal Parks Board official and community wildlife coordinator, as inspiring his love for environment.

Ngobese would bring videos of animals to Gina’s community to teach people about the environment and the need to protect nature.

Gina, who was born at Nkundusi reserve on the western border of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, said he enjoyed watching wild animals as a boy.

“I knew I wanted to be close to nature,” he said.

Nevertheless, after matriculating from the local Kufezekile High School in 1998, he had an urge to “experience the urban life”.

“But it never worked for me. That is when in 2006 I started being a tour guide trainee at Isimangaliso,” he said.

He also began volunteering for a number of different organisations in his village and nearby.

“We went around doing clean-ups of the wetland areas. Picking up plastic and planting indigenous trees. I have learned a lot from life experiences, beyond formal education,” said Gina.

In 2016, after several years working as a tour guide for Heritage Tours and Safaris, he established Theo Tours and Culture. This was made possible by the Isimangaliso Rural Entrepreneurship programme and Tourism KwaZulu-Natal.

Gina said his focus goes beyond making profits. He takes tourism students at a discounted prices from the area on walks in the park so they
can improve their knowledge.

The future of conservation lies in the hands of young people, he says, and sometimes you have to lead by example. – Bukeka Silekwa/Roving Reporters

Bukeka Silekwa is Rosebank College journalism graduate enrolled on Roving Reporters environmental journalism programme supported by the Human Elephant Foundation.