Andrew Zaloumis, the long-serving chief executive of iSimangaliso Wetland Park in northern KwaZulu-Natal, has been awarded World Wildlife Fund South Africa’s 2015 Living Planet Award.
In making the award, the conservation group noted Zaloumis’s inspirational conservation work and the economic turnaround of the nature reserve, once an apartheid operational zone with one of the lowest human development indices in the country.
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is South Africa’s third-largest protected area, covering 280km of coastline, from the Mozambique border to St Lucia. The park is a Unesco World Heritage Site, recognised for its rich biodiversity and the unique variety of irreplaceable ecosystems contained within its relatively small area.
The park’s sites include coral reefs, dune forests, wetlands and savanna grassland. It is home to a large wildlife population, including elephant, leopard, black and white rhino and buffalo, as well as whales, dolphins and endangered marine turtles.
The management of iSimangaliso, for which Zaloumis has been recognised by WWF SA, co-ordinates the administration and protection of the park. It also offers meaningful job empowerment and benefits for local communities. In awarding Zaloumis the recognition, the WWF highlighted his inspirational work over the last 30 years in making the area one of South Africa’s conservation tourism hallmarks.
In his acceptance speech, Zaloumis said that in order for places like iSimangaliso to continue to exist, society would have to think beyond the extractive values of conservation economics and rather acknowledge the real value of nature – the impact it has on the soul.
Zaloumis spoke of a time, in 1994, when industry threatened to dredge-mine the dunes of Lake St Lucia for titanium, stripping the wetlands of its most vital resource: water. Inspired by Nelson Mandela’s dedication to conservation-based ecotourism, half-a-million South Africans signed a petition to stop the development and focus on preserving the natural importance of the area.
“The (then) new democratic government of South Africa… showed the world that there were socially- and environmentally-sustainable economic alternatives to smoke-stack industries,” Zaloumis said.
iSimangaliso, he added, “offers hope and a new model of conservation to other wild places… It is a real privilege being able to work for the economic turnaround of a region and see tangible benefits for local people, while, and at the same time, restoring original game populations, ecosystems functioning and the natural wonders of [the park].”
Another notable highlight for Zaloumis was the reintroduction of the lion population in 2013. It was the first time in over 40 years lions were seen in iSimangaliso.
Zaloumis accepted the award on behalf of the iSimangaliso team, the local community and his family, but paid special tribute to his father, who inspired his love of nature and the area where he had come as a boy to study the wetland’s duck population.
WWF SA chairman Valli Moosa said the award was an important recognition of Zaloumis’s passion for conservation, rewarding “his boldness, visionary approach and courage to bring an inclusive form of conservation to an area that was once an apartheid operational zone and had one of the lowest human development indices in the country”.