Faces of Africa – The Unlikely Birdman

Samuel Japane is a self-taught bird specialist who started living out his purpose at the age of 46. For quite a while, he had dreamt about birds, but at first, all that did not make sense.

In 1991, Samuel struggled to find a fulltime job. It was such a great concern for him because he had to fend for his growing family.

After seeking advice from his mother, he purchased three donkeys and started collecting firewood and water for people in the community. But his source of income would not last because more people bought donkeys and wagons for the same business.

Samuel Japane, a self-taught bird specialist at Outpost, Kruger National Park

Samuel was forced to look for a job.

In 2006, he got a security guard job at Makahlule Primary School where he worked for six years. But he yearned for a change.

“One day as I slept, it came to me as a dream with a lot of questions, how you can change your life. The morning came with an answer. It was challenging to me,” he recalled.

One day, two South African women from Wilderness Safaris visited the school for a project called ‘Children in the Wilderness’ meant to educate children on nature and wildlife conservation.

The Makuleke Community during the apartheid period when they were being evicted from their homes in the Kruger National Park

Samuel approached them and shared his dreams.

“I told the two ladies about my dream of being a bird specialist. One of the ladies jumped and hugged me saying, “People like you are needed in this world.”

His interests grew further when they sent him a book on birds.

“I love that book. Those ladies played an important role in my life. They put light into my future,” he told.

Day and night Samuel learned about the different bird species with their scientific names, listening to them with their sounds.

“My favorite is Marsh Warbler, bird number 633. The bird can imitate the sound of over 75 different species of birds,” he told.

Samuel approached Makuleke Community Properties Association (CPA) for support to become a game ranger specializing in ornithology. But he did not get the financial support. He did not give up and continued to study more about the birds on his own.

Samuel Japane offering a wildlife experience and educating tourists on birds during a tour visit at the Kruger National Park

Seven months later,  CPA advertised two Guide jobs.

Samuel competed with younger, more educated men for the same position. He did exceptionally well and two weeks after the interview, he was called to study the course he had long desired to. Today, he works at The Outpost in Makuleke region of Kruger National Park, the land of his ancestors since 1884.

In 1969, Makuleke people were forcibly removed from their ancestral land by the apartheid authorities. They were mercilessly evicted, loaded into trucks at gunpoint and their houses torched to prevent them from going back. Those who resisted were shot.

But in the 1990s, the Makuleke people reclaimed their land back and set it aside for ecotourism under the management of the wider Kruger National Park to yield income for the community.

Samuel Japane mentoring students at Malahlule Primary school where he used to be a security guard

Now, The Outpost boasts of its birding and abundant wildlife creating a flow of tourists, thus creating job opportunities for Makuleke people like Samuel.

“Working here for me is a privilege, it’s a home of birds, and it’s my land too,” told Samuel Japane.