Theresa Thompson talks to Dr Ian Little about his decade of work conserving the environment of the Eastern Great Escarpment and how he won a Whitley Award for it
hey may be less often reported, but good news stories do come from the world of conservation – perhaps a species edging back from the brink of extinction, a habitat restored or awareness raised and community action kindled. And it is the inspiring stories of the vision and dedication of conservationists working in developing countries to protect endangered wildlife that are celebrated by the Whitley Fund for Nature’s annual awards.
Often dubbed the ‘Green Oscars’, these prestigious accolades offer support, training and networking opportunities, as well as £35,000 of project funding to each of the six winners.
Dr Ian Little of South Africa’s Endangered Wildlife Trust was one of this year’s victors, chosen from 166 applicants from 66 countries, and honoured for his work to protect South Africa’s threatened grasslands. He has been working for a decade to protect the Eastern Great Escarpment area between Johannesburg and Durban, a huge region of incredible natural beauty.
Why is it so important?
“The answer is two-fold: water supply and biodiversity,” he said. “Demand for fresh water is expected to outstrip supply in South Africa by 2025. Solving the water provision problem is one of the most important things for South Africa, a country that is one of the world’s most arid nations.”
“This area of the Great Escarpment, the Drakensberg Mountains, is the catchment for three of South Africa’s largest rivers, making it a vital source of water for much of eastern South Africa, including cities such as Durban and Johannesburg,” he explained further.
“The threatened grasslands are a key biodiversity hotspot as well as an important water source. Habitat degradation is the major threat. Only 2.5 per cent of South Africa’s grasslands are formally conserved, and more than 60 per cent have already been irreversibly transformed: by large-scale agriculture development, mining, prospecting and fracking and urban development.”
However, the area has more than 3300 species of plants. It is incredibly rich and yet undervalued – the region coming a close second to the botanically diverse Cape Fynbos Biome in South Africa’s Western Cape. Many of the plants species are endemic to the region. And it’s not just plants.
To take just two examples from a plethora of endangered or endemic species supported by these grasslands, Dr Little spotlights the charismatic sungazer lizard and the yellow-breasted pipit. The sungazer is “a lizard that looks like a meerkat”, he said, explaining that it gets its name from its habit of sitting with its nose up, pointed at the sky. Threats include the illegal pet trade and traditional medicine, in addition to habitat loss. The yellow-breasted pipit is particularly important as it is a key indicator species, signifying that the land is in good shape. Myriad species rely on the health of the grasslands, among them three types of crane, three types of eagle, Cape griffon vulture, white-bellied korhaan, southern bald ibis, as well as other threatened species.
An exemplary project
“Strong science and community engagement are the hallmarks of the winning projects,” said Danni Parks, WFN’s Deputy Director. Ian’s project exemplifies this. For over a decade Dr Little and EWT have been working to understand grassland management, and with farmers and tribal leaders to improve management practices so the farmer can still make a living from the grassland while simultaneously protecting its wildlife and habitat. “Establishing land protection is the crux of our work,” he says, adding that they do this using “the tool of biodiversity stewardship”.
His vision is to establish a corridor of legally protected areas of grassland habitat along the escarpment, linking the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountain range (a World Heritage Site) with existing protected areas on the border between the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal province. Training farmers in improved management practices such as less intensive grazing is also part of the plan.
“I am very honoured to win the Whitley Award,” said Ian. “A Whitley Award is far more than a financial award; winning it is recognition of the work we are doing, the connection it provides to other organisations and donors, the networking, the backing WFN provides and the credibility it lends are invaluable. WFN is a highly respected international charity – this is a significant endorsement of our work.”
To find out more, visit www.whitleyaward.org.