A passion for the environment rooted in scienceAn interview with Nicolette Forbes
Text Paolo Candotti Photographs Nicolette Forbes
Cogitatio in vero exquirendo maxime versatur. Appetitus impellit ad agendum
(The Intellect engages us in the pursuit of Truth. The Passions impel us to Action)
MARCUS TULLIUS CICERO
This photo of a Leopard taken at Java Camp in the greater Timbavati Game Reserve brings it all together, environment, animals and photography and I adore leopards – if the predators like this are there it means everything else is probably in place
Two mischievous young boys attempting to terrify a young girl by dropping a grasshopper down the back of her shirt are initially thrilled at the screeching response, but this is soon turns into puzzlement and surprise as the young girl is not panicking in fear for her safety but rather in serious concern for the safety of the grasshopper which she carefully recovers and gently places back on the lawn. This incident when Nicolette Forbes was just four years old has remained in her memory not as an ”eureka” moment but more as her first awareness of a passion for all things natural which endures to this day.
Shaping the passion
Born and raised in Durban and schooled at Our Lady of Fatima and Danville Park Girls High where an early obstacle was the then discriminatory policy on what young girls could and could not study. This sparked an initial rebellious streak described by Nicolette “I was horrified to find out when choosing subjects in Std 8 that girls were not permitted to take three sciences – Geography, Biology and Physics. After a brief thought about joining DHS – impossible as that would have been – I decided in favour of Art over Physical Science. Both a good thing and a hindrance later ….”
The family environment strongly nurtured and helped develop the passion for science and nature from a very young age as her parents had an overriding love for animals and Nicolette’s “Nana” in particular was a pillar of strength in this regard. But, it was “an influential biology teacher in Std 9 and Matric made me realise that it was where my heart was, but it was also a growing passion – I was still torn between Meteorology and Biology but Biology won”
1967, fascinated by butterflies already at 20 months – with my Mom, Sheila Demetriades
Nicolette, on left at age 4 examining the teeth in a herbivore skull
Moving on from High School, the then University of Natal, Durban (now University of KwaZulu-Natal) provided a solid theoretical platform as Nicolette graduated with a B.Sc. Degree in Biological Sciences with majors in Environmental Biology, Cell Biology and Geography (Meteorology and Geomorphology Stream). Nicolette stressed, “Environmental Biology dealt with whole organisms and ecosystems, both animal and plant, and Cell Biology dealt with cellular level and biochemical processes for both plants and animals. This I believe meant we got taught a very integrated picture without the classical separation of plants and animals. At a post-graduate level studies started with mangrove seed biology and tree physiology and moved to the estuarine and marine ecology with a study on shallow water prawns.”
First career steps
Armed with the theory Nicolette then embarked on what was and continues to be a career dedicated to helping create a better environment for all of us. Initially this involved a period lecturing at the University which she described as a very happy time as “I love to see the ‘light come on’ when students understand the wonder of science”.
This phase then migrated into a professional career initially being on call as an Estuarine Ecologist for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife which provided a steep learning curve on how to apply theoretical knowledge to real world situations. During this period Nicolette took the bold step of running her own business which required the learning of an entire new set of skills such as administration, accounting, and hum-drum activities such as VAT and Tax!
St Lucia Bay Estuary from Catalina Bay
The mouth with Lesser Flamingo, Pink Backed pelican, terns and other waders – a global Important Bird Area for a good reason.
A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
In 2010 Nicolette’s career took a defining turn where she embarked on an amazing journey with many exhilarating ‘highs’ and some enormous ‘lows’. “I saw the advert for an estuary scientist to lead the restoration of the St Lucia area – I had worked on St Lucia from my early days of studying and since then had lectured, accumulated lots of experience with different estuaries in KwaZulu Natal (basically being involved with either sampling, management advice or site visits on each one of the 75 estuaries in the province as well as a few beyond its borders) and felt that this was a project I really wanted to be a part of. I was lucky enough after an ‘interesting’ interview to be the candidate selected”
The project at iSimangaliso Wetland Park was a leading edge effort and profoundly important given the status of the park as the first South African site to be included on the World Heritage List by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1999 in recognition of its outstanding natural beauty and unique global values, including its status as the largest estuary system in Africa. The formation of the park had seen an ongoing battle which continues to this day between conflicting human commercial interests often driven by greed such as the attempts to authorise mining in the area in the 1990’s or sugarcane farmers that insist on farming on environmentally sensitive floodplains and the need to protect what is a very important and unique environment.
An aerial survey of the estuary was a regular highlight of my work in the park. This photo was of a finally linked uMfolozi river to the estuary.
The elephant bulls were perks of working in this outstanding World Heritage Site where nearly all historical mammal species were reintroduced
Much has been said and written about this ongoing conflict in many academic papers, press articles and more recently in the ubiquitous social media but what is evident is that were it not for the passion shown by the dedicated staff of iSimangaliso World Heritage Authority, the park would now be “a lost cause” and it would be overrun by commercial interests.
Working on this project provided numerous highlights for Nicolette;
- The time I got to spend in the different sections of the park, learning about it and the incredible landscape scale perspective that it gave me.
- Being able to be involved with one of the most dynamic groups of people working towards a common goal with incredible and focussed leadership
- Getting to know new people from different disciplines who made me introspective about my own
- Winning the National Wetland Society of South Africa Research and Science Award alongside my colleague Bronwyn James.
The National Wetland Society of South Africa Research and Science Award
Unfortunately, the hard facts often did not go down well with individuals that had their own agendas and this resulted in significant verbal and media attacks on the team including Nicolette which were often very personal. Coping with these dynamics is not something which one is trained in, and they create enormous personal stress and tension which can severely test one’s resolve. When asked how she coped Nicolette replied, “With difficulty – lots of sleepless nights, lots of tears but always with a return to the thought that I had to rely on data, specialist knowledge and not be swayed by anecdotal understanding but to continue to do what was right.”
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts”
The career chapter on Nicolette’s involvement with iSimangaliso remains open as she retains a keen interest as an estuarine ecologist but there is a tinge of disappointment in the current status of the park particularly following the controversial and illegal breach of the estuary in January 2021 and the subsequent investigation and report by a panel of experts appointed by Minister for the Environment, Barbara Creecy.
The report rightfully invites a broad involvement of all affected parties but at the same time it demands that decisions be based on sound definitions and data which currently may not be available and there is uncertainty on whether these data will ever be collected or agreed upon. This potentially opens the door to all and sundry who have vested interests and who are likely to act with impunity as sadly, enforcement of policy is not a current strength within the Department of Environment.
“If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”
More than just estuaries!
Following her stint at iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Nicolette has continued to develop her expertise particularly in the field of estuarine management where she relies heavily on the support and inspiration from husband Prof. Ticky Forbes, “ …. mentor and colleague for his ability to zoom out and see the wood (forest) for the trees.”
Demonstrating her broad commitment to the environment Nicolette has been and continues to be involved on a pro-bono basis in numerous environmental initiatives and is inspired by a quote from D.H. Lawrence:
“Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot.”
Nicolette has previously been a committee member and chair of Coastwatch KZN, a member of the RSPB in the UK for over 10 years and she tries to support other initiatives where she can, bearing in mind the difficulty it gives rise to in terms of potential conflicts or a blurring of roles.
Although I love birds I don’t really have a favourite – there are so many…but this one of a young Bateleur sums up what I enjoy about interactions with animals including birds. His quizzical expression with head tilt is something I have had Bateleurs do before and since. These youngsters are curious and in response to me talking softly to him, and he was very close, he tilted his head much like a puppy does when it is processing what is happening in front of it. I love the detail and the sharpness and these are also impressive birds
Birding has been a passion for Nicolette from an early age – “I have strong memories from wildlife trips at school from the age of 16 where two influential friends (who were already bird watchers) from DHS and Roy Cowgill (who was their biology teacher) which was the start of this love affair and as anyone who gets close to this activity knows it can be contagious. I joined the bird club when I started at university (my second year actually) in 1985 and have been a member ever since.”
This passion for our feathered species led Nicolette in 2018, to take on the role of chair of what was then BirdLife Port Natal. This role has enabled Nicolette to revel in her outstanding organisational skills and she has transformed the club (now known as BirdLife eThekwini KZN) into a dynamic NGO which has expanded the traditional “bird club” activities to include digital media and significantly grown membership numbers. Predictably many of the changes she proposed for the club posed challenges but Nicolette turned these into opportunities and when asked how she obtained “buy-in” from long-standing members she responded in a manner which provides a significant learning point for all environmental NOGs, “Someone that I admire greatly told me once that power is in the action – so I have tried to ignore the jibes, any nasty comments and focus on making sure there is movement in a positive direction. This often brings the critics around when they see whatever action is being criticised, working!”
Finding time in a busy schedule for another of her passions, travel, has been challenge but again that is something which Nicolette relishes and the travel bug has taken her to some extraordinary places such as Borneo, Antarctica, Falklands, Alaska, Patagonia, Costa Rica and most recently a trip to the Arctic Circle to see the Northern Lights.
King penguins were a delight for us to watch and photograph in the Falkland Islands.
The thrill of our first sightings of hummingbirds in Costa Rica never dulled and we have been equally thrilled whenever we encounter these fascinating bundles of energy – this one is in Arizona.
As exciting as travel can be it sometimes can also be daunting as the trip in 2012 to the Manu Valley in Peru. While I am not scared of heights or walking near steep edges I have a complete panic when driven by anyone else along precipitous roads. As those who have travelled along the Manu road know there are a few of these and I was on the verge of getting out and walking rather than remain in the vehicle.
The steep terrain of the Andes in some parts of Peru make for interesting roads and heart jolting driving.
The yellow arrows show the unprotected road edge and the potential fate of any ‘mistake’. We saw evidence of a few mistakes…
On another occasion a yacht trip between Kosi Bay and Richards Bay turned into a life-threatening experience. In Nicolette’s words “…..during 26 hours of the most unbelievable weather – our anemometer was destroyed but the last wind reading it gave was 80 knots, 10 – 12 m waves one of which dislodged our anchor, making no progress through the worst of it because we had a south westerly headwind, this ranks right up there as one of my most terrifying experiences”
But there are also lighter moments as when Nicolette walked “…… into the five-star Polana Hotel in Maputo covered in mud and carrying samples and thinking my mother would be horrified” or “…… being taken to a loo, by shall we say ‘late-night workers’, in the Durban harbour mouth area during all night zooplankton sampling runs.”
And off course there are also some great moments:
- Seeing hummingbirds for the first time
- Seeing pitcher plants in their native habitat
- Finding a grizzly bear or him finding us in Alaska with no-one else around
- Seeing glaciers calve
- Going out in a high speed duck with a dry suit to find Orcas
- And finally, after a life-time of wishing, getting to see the northern lights…
The Northern Lights
The road ahead
When asked what her short-term plans were Nicolette responded, “To get through enough work that we are able to travel to the Outer Hebrides in the Scottish summer this year to see waders in summer plumage and other charismatic species like Puffins and calling Corncrakes.”
On her long-term plans, “To try to work less and travel more and maybe to live in a different place from where I am now.”
As with all the interviews in this series the question is invariably asked on the state of our environment. More specifically, given all the dire warning on climate change and biodiversity loss that we get bombarded with, we ask our interviewees for their views of the general state of the environment and whether they are optimistic or pessimistic about the future for the environment as a whole in, Durban, in South Africa and elsewhere and why? Nicolette’s reply was a cautious one – “I find it hard to be negative so I would say I am a concerned optimist and I urge everyone not to sit back and do nothing because you think it is too little – every local action and each and every person can make a difference. If we all do something my optimism will be rewarded”
One of the goals of these interviews is to highlight what individuals can achieve through passion and commitment. Nicolette’s contribution has been significant across the environmental spectrum and there is promise of more to come so we respectfully acknowledge Nicolette as a true member of the Eco-Impi**.
Early morning in KZNs bush spaces during May often give beautiful photographic opportunities with light and mist adding atmospheric elements.
The GEF is the largest multilateral trust fund focused on enabling developing countries to invest in nature and supports the implementation of major international environmental conventions including on biodiversity, climate change, chemicals, and desertification.
An Impi is defined as “an armed band of Zulu warriors involved in urban or rural conflict”. In our context we refer to an Eco-Impi as those conservationists armed with knowledge and experience who are fighting to help protect our biodiversity and have made a significant impact in our area.