Holding back the flood(of biodiversity loss)
Text Paolo Candotti Photographs Richard Boon
“The value of biodiversity is that it makes our ecosystems more resilient, which is a prerequisite for stable societies; its wanton destruction is akin to setting fire to our lifeboat.”
Professor in Environmental Science, Stockholm University
Celtis mildbraedii, Pigeon in Valley Nature Reserve
The regular invitations from Hamish Campbell were always something which could not be refused even though it meant a pre-dawn rise on a Sunday morning and a trek down the coast to be at Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve, ideally before first light. The early rise was always more than well compensated by interesting sightings and even more so by the enlightening company of a truly knowledgeable and passionate lover of nature.
Trained as General Practitioner, and friends at school with renowned conservationist Ian Garland, Hamish was one of Richard Boon’s early mentors and who Richard credits for nurturing what by then had become his own life’s passion – doing one’s best to hold back the flood of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.
Richard is well-known in Durban from his early work in the 1990’s at WESSA under the guidance of the late Keith Cooper whom Richard also held in high esteem and as “another good one!”. A productive stint at WESSA was followed by an 18-year career in the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department at eThekwni Municipality during which time Richard not only applied his environmental skills but also learnt and honed the skills needed to navigate the many rapids one comes across when interacting with the public, politicians, developers and conservationists.
Throughout his career, as part of a team in of one of the municipality’s more effective departments, he took on many of the environmental challenges facing the city and successfully built a strong reputation for a balanced, honest and constructive approach to environmental issues. This interview takes a closer look at what shaped Richard’s career and some of the highlights and challenges he faced along the way.
A Christmas breakfast at Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve. From left Hamish Campbell, Penny Boon, Richard Boon and Dennis McCarthy
Born and bred in Durban Richard’s passion for the environment developed at the relatively late age of 18. When asked if a particular incident sparked the interest he explained: “We were having lunch at home in the garden in Glenwood, Durban with family friends. A Spectacled Weaver caught our attention and one of the guests, Glenda Potter, identified it. I am not sure why, but it piqued my interest. Glenda gave me a copy of Ken Newman’s Garden Birds and told me I should visit Pigeon Valley.” Richard took the advice and visited Pigeon Valley only to find himself being “trailed” by well-known horticulturist, Geoff Nichols who at that stage had his office in the inner-city reserve. Geoff must have wondered why a youngster was wandering through the reserve on his own and thought he was most probably up to no good but as they got talking and Geoff started explaining what birds were found in the reserve, a friendship developed that has endured to this day. The enthusiasm for conservation was entrenched – and as the saying goes – the rest is history!
The interest in natural sciences prompted Richard to enrol at UKZN where he studied and graduated with an MSc. in Biological Sciences which he found to be very useful throughout his career. At the time that Richard joined what later became the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department, it only consisted of three people under the leadership of Dr Debra Roberts*. Interestingly Debra had been Richard’s co-supervisor during his MSc. research on the birds of Pigeon Valley and more specifically the Red-capped Robin-chats (Natal Robin then).
Exploring the Mornington Peninsula (south-east of Melbourne) with Debra Roberts
“It is that range of biodiversity that we must care for – the whole thing – rather than just one or two stars.”
Broadcaster and natural historian
By the early 2000’s the concept of D’MOSS had been well established having been adopted by the former Durban City Council (now eThekwini Municipality) in 1989. The adoption had come about after years of work originated by WESSA who had promoted the concept based on design principles of MacArthur and Wilson’s theory of island biogeography.
The theory was relevant for Durban as it could meaningfully be applied to the many biodiversity rich land islands in Durban within a ‘sea of land’ which was rapidly being transformed for development. Richard’s role developed into the difficult challenge of overseeing D’MOSS planning which then grew to include implementation. Richard has previously written for The Leopard’s Echo on the importance of the D’MOSS system where he outlined how the process unfolded and its critical role in preserving biodiversity in the city. During the interview Richard gave some insights into the dynamics at play behind the scenes.
“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”
Communicating and implementing D’MOSS provided many challenges and difficulties particularly when property owners were informed that they may not have “unfettered” use of their land for the sake of a better environment. This was often not well received and sadly sometimes not even by some residents who labelled themselves as “conservationists”. In many cases there was a general perception that the implementation of D’MOSS would result in financial devaluation of properties – something which did not eventually occur.
When asked about some of the challenges which were encountered, Richard responded: “I think the vision was fairly clear, but the implementation instruments evolved as opportunities arose. From early on it was clear that it was crucial to have a well-founded and defensible spatial plan and then to find tools and resources to protect and manage as many of the high priority areas as possible. We tried to get our own path sorted out first but acknowledged that there were many role-players that would need to pull together to fully implement a D’MOSS for all. Over time we got better at reaching out and making connections. I am not sure that we articulated the vision and goals well enough, but there were plans to try and do that. From a spatial point of view, there were a range of high priority areas but in the latter years species-rich KwaZulu-Natal Sandstone Sourveld (KZNSS)** became a key focus because it is so impacted and opportunities to protect what remained were fast disappearing.”
D’MOSS Signage at the recently proclaimed Roosefontein Nature Reserve. Getting this important grassland reserve officially protected was a major achievement for the Environmental Planning Department
“Our world is evolving without consideration, and the result is a loss of biodiversity, energy issues, congestion in cities. But geography, if used correctly, can be used to redesign sustainable and more liveable cities.”
The City was implementing a system which had few if any models elsewhere to learn from and as a result the obstacles were significant. The complex South African socio-economic context also had to be taken into account and this added significantly to the challenge of converting policy into practice as Richard explained: “The scale of the challenge is large relative to human and financial resources. Challenges include the size of the eThekwini Municipal Area (c. 2 300 square kilometres ), the national and global importance of Durban’s natural environments (for biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services), high levels of poverty and inequality (highest of South Africa’s cities), lots of illegal or anti-social behaviours to contend with and inadequate enforcement capacity, the low level of protection D’MOSS enjoys (about 9% of D’MOSS or 3% of the EMA was protected in 2016), the fact that the planning (EPCPD) and natural resource management functions (Parks) were in separate units and trying to simultaneously keep the overview in mind while specific matters often needed urgent attention.”
In this process the support of senior management and city officials and politicians was very critical. Again, Richard explained: “Debra (Roberts) was the primary driver on the planning side and many years ago Geoff Nichols was a key driver in managing the municipality’s natural areas which were part of D’MOSS. For a period in the 2000s, EPCPD was fortunate in having a Unit Head/Deputy City Manager and City Manager who were supportive. We got a lot done then. In time we became experienced and knowledgeable enough to hold our own, but the support of certain politicians, municipal leadership and colleagues and external people remained important to our success. It would also be remiss of me not to say that virtually every team member also made their own important contribution.”
“You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.”
Nobel Peace Prize winner
A KZN Sandstone Sourveld Grassland in New Germany with industry in the background. This photo in many ways illustrated the compromises necessary to balance development and at the same time protect our biodiversity.
Although D’MOSS remains an imperfect tool the gains for the environment have been significant if not dramatic! Richard touched on some of the key successes: “I think the environmental sector did very well given resources and the strong push for socio-economic development in the city. I put that down to trying to be as reasonable as possible in trying to accommodate the wishes and needs of other sectors. Where lines had to be drawn this was done with careful thought and using best available science. Where there was pushback it was important to stand firm (D’MOSS was referred to as the DEMON by some politicians and officials in the early 2000s). Where resistance came from outside the Municipality, we weren’t afraid to use legal teams (internal and external) responsibly to support our position when justified. Debra led the way in this, but it didn’t take long for her modus operandi to rub off. Critical too was having senior municipal leadership supporting us. EPCPD worked hard in developing and maintaining these relationships.
In the early days a special highlight was successfully defending the environmental position when development was proposed right up to the edge of the Hawaan Forest. We (with the help of others including NGOs) did this even when the provincial environmental authorities (not Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife) went against our position. That was a milestone and set a precedent for future applications. Almost as significant was working with the owners, who had been fierce adversaries during the process, in proclaiming a significant part of the Forest as a fully-fledged protected area. That was an unexpected and appreciated outcome.”
Ohlanga River estuary and Hawaan Forest
Richard’s work ethic and approach to the environment was inevitably influenced by some of the people he interacted with. In addition to the already mentioned early influence of Dr Hamish Campbell and Keith Cooper, Richard described Debra Robert’s role as a mentor and manager as “one of the best”! Geoff Nichols also was a key “influencer” and one Richard has always looked up to and who has also been a source of invaluable information thanks to his encyclopaedic knowledge of natural history. In recent years Prof. Braam van Wyk has become a source of inspiration and Richard has collaborated with him on a number of research papers specifically on trees which is one of Prof. van Wyk’s fields of expertise. This involvement in a more “academic” approach to species is something which Richard has thoroughly enjoyed.
“A lifetime can be spent in a Magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree.”
E. O. WILSON
American biologist, naturalist, and writer
The subject of trees of course is another of Richard’s significant contributions to the biodiversity not only of Durban but for the entire KwaZulu-Natal and beyond through his authorship of the revised Pooley’s Trees of Eastern South Africa which was a journey of seven years from 2003 to 2010. Richard was originally approached by Elsa Pooley to join a project team to prepare the second edition and whilst it was a joint effort with a number of very good collaborators it became clear early on in the project that the burden would fall largely on Richard’s shoulders!
The book was produced under the auspices of the Flora and Fauna Conservation Trust and fortunately the good leadership of then chairman Charles Botha and Elsa’s experience and support won the day and resulted in a book that is very much the “go to” reference document for trees in our part of the world.
Editor’s Note: We are offering two copies of the book in our reader’s competition in this issue. Learn more and enter here.
Dovyalis revoluta Zulu Wild-apricot or Zulu Kei-apple at False Bay Park, Hluhluwe. This species was originally described in 1971 but ‘sunk’ under D. zeyheri for nearly 50 years. The two species are quite different.
Researching the book was not without its challenges and the relatively simple practicalities of getting the best photo or actually finding a tree turned into significant and time-consuming challenges! Richard explained: “There are still one or two KZN trees that I haven’t seen. These are mostly range-restricted and occur in remote localities. There are a few that were poorly known and never had scientific names (they hadn’t been formally described) when the book was written. These were challenging to cover. For others there were no pictures or at least no decent ones. One success that sticks in my mind was getting pictures for the field guide of Combretum eugeneanum Maputaland Climbing Bushwillow (only formally named in 2020 after Eugene Moll in a paper done with Braam van Wyk and Marie Jordaan). I travelled to Tembe Elephant Park in 2008 for that and spent five days waiting without luck for buds to open. When I had to leave for Kosi Bay they were still tightly closed. On the way home I decided to detour to check if the flowers had opened. This time I was lucky, and the climber was in full bloom and I got the pictures I needed. Little did I know at the time that 12 years later the flower images would still be the best available to illustrate the publication of the new species’ description.”
Combretum eugeneanum photographed in Tembe Elephant Reserve
Bill Nortje keying out trees at Nkandla
Sometimes it is a question of luck and unexpected help as Richard described one such occasion: “Recently while walking with Bill Nortje in the Krantzkloof Nature Reserve we had just seen the woody climber Quisqualis parviflora and I told him that you rarely see it in flower and never in fruit. Minutes later we turned a corner and I gave the forest margin a cursory scan with my binoculars and couldn’t believe my eyes when I spotted several fruits. The species was first collected near Umdloti in the 1860s and had apparently never been collected in fruit. The only description of the fruit was mistakenly made from a Combretum species (the genera have similar fruit) from outside of the range of the Quisqualis. This find was worth writing up, so Bill and I planned to return to get pictures and a specimen for the Natal Herbarium. This was a bit of a challenge because the plant was growing at the edge of a steep drop and there wasn’t enough support to lean a ladder against the vegetation. Bill loves these challenges and told me to come back the next morning and that he would rig up a suspended ladder for me to climb. I was a little late the next day and when I arrived, he was standing back supervising five ladies, who had been out exercising, while they put up a ladder for me to climb. They loved it!”
A team of trail runners erecting ‘scaffolding’ under Bill’s guidance to photograph Quisqualis parviflora in Krantzkloof Nature Reserve
Sharing a joke with colleagues from left Errol Douwes, Richard and Geoff Nichols
Good company during fieldwork has always been a source of encouragement and helped make much of Richard’s work all the more enjoyable: “I enjoy mildly irreverent and eccentric people. Geoff Nichols was always good for a laugh, Hamish Campbell had so many good qualities and one of them was his sense of humour. Roy Cowgill was similar. In recent years Bill Nortje and sometimes Greg Davies, who is one of the authors of the latest Roberts Birds field guide have been excellent travel companions. David Styles, Errol Douwes and other friends have often been good company in the field too. I am extremely grateful for the patience of the many people who I spent time with in the field while writing the tree book. It often took hours to cover a few hundred metres taking pictures and notes. Bill even learnt to bring a pop-up tent and have a nap in the bush.”
Fieldwork can also present some unexpected challenges as Richard explained: “Dangerous situations can arise anywhere in and around Durban where violent crime is always possible. Driving to and from natural areas on our roads is generally more dangerous than the localities themselves. That said, luckily, I have been very fortunate and had no bad experiences. In nature itself I have had some close shaves with Black Mambas and Puff Adders (fortunately no more than a handful), fallen a few times (fortunately never too serious) and have felt lost in forests more than once which I find a tad scary.”
Making a plan to get a good photo! Ably assisted by Vincent, a local gardener
When asked which tree out of the 1100 or so featured in the book was his favourite, Richard replied hesitantly: “perhaps it would be Celtis mildbraedii, the Natal Elm. They are magnificent trees and remind me of my second home, Pigeon Valley which I estimate I have visited over 1000 times!”
Richard took early retirement from EPCPD in 2018 and in looking back he highlighted some of the milestones and many projects that he was involved in and all of which have had a meaningful impact on the biodiversity of Durban (Editor’s Note: these achievements are very much endorsed and applauded by the conservancies movement):
- Watching the department grow in size, function and impact, and how individuals grew to become effective and dedicated practitioners. The diversity meant there was always so much to learn and share.
- Getting buy in from planning colleagues such that early on D’MOSS became part of our Integrated Development Plan and later part of the town planning schemes. I think this is still a first for South Africa. Critical to this support was that D’MOSS was based on a finescale systematic conservation/biodiversity assessment which is global best practice.
- Following the inclusion of D’MOSS in the schemes (which affected over 18 000 properties) we were challenged in court on the basis that nature conservation falls outside of municipal planning and is not a Constitutional mandate of local government. There was a particular local lawyer who was pushing to have this argument settled in court. Fortunately, the combination of a good legal team and a defensible position won the day. Once they had a mandate, our Biodiversity Impact Assessment team was crucial to defending the lines.
- Purchasing land for conservation and having this land and other municipal areas proclaimed as fully-fledged nature reserves. This was especially important for KZNSS as the only areas previously protected were at Krantzkloof and Vernon Crookes.
- The establishment of the Working on Fire and Working for Ecosystem Programmes.
- Establishing the Giba Gorge as a Special Rating Area and later a nature reserve.
- Improved links with conservancies, friends’ groups and establishing and maintaining a quarterly biodiversity forum.
- Developing a formal partnership with UKZN to assist with some of the research and science we needed to inform our work and to develop young people in the field.
Richard with an endangered Pangolin during a field trip
The lack of progress in formally protecting the environment in the very large area of land under the control of the iNgonyama Trust Board (Traditional Authority Land) is one disappointment and point of concern where Richard felt more could have been done. Other low points were some examples of uninspiring leadership in the later years of his work at the municipality and some of the inefficiencies that come with bureaucracies, but these have never detracted from the strong sense of purpose which persisted despite some of the challenges.
Enjoying Australia – Richard snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef
Richard is currently living in Covid-19 bound (at the time of the interview) Melbourne, Australia and is employed by the state government in Victoria where he gets to travel (Covid-19 permitting) the length and breadth of the state doing conservation assessments. It all adds to an already rich experience with new challenges, different climatic conditions and new species! “It is a great opportunity to see the state, to meet landowners, learn its flora and fauna and about various initiatives to achieve biodiversity conservation goals.”
“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”
Polar explorer and environmentalist
The one question we ask all our interviewees is their opinion on the future of the planet from an environmental perspective. Richard was somewhat conflicted in his reply and, ‘hedged his bets’: “I am generally a positive person, but I vacillate between cautiously positive and negative for humanity and the environment as a whole. I see some excellent and exciting work with positive results but can’t help thinking that is not enough and the general trajectory is in the wrong direction. Some of the issues seem intractable especially with current global political leadership. That doesn’t stop me doing the best I can with what I have and generally having a positive outlook. That last comment appropriately sums up the spirit of inspiration we seek to convey to our readers, and we acknowledge Richard as another true member of the Eco-Impi***!
“It is our collective and individual responsibility … to preserve and tend to the world in which we all live.”
Zebra Mountains, Namibia one of the many strikingly beautiful places Richard was fortunate to travel to
Dr Debra Roberts*
Dr Roberts is currently Co-chair of Working Group II of the UN Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change.
KwaZulu-Natal Sandstone Sourveld (KZNSS)**
This vegetation type is restricted to KwaZulu-Natal and most has been lost. It would have been the predominant vegetation of the sandstone plateau above Field’s Hill.
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.