Roger Porter: an environmentalist extraordinaire
Roger Porter is one of those patient and truly remarkable people with the ability to explain and bring to life the wonders and value of the natural world.
With a pair of bushy sideburns and quizzical eyebrows sprouting above his spectacles, he has an avuncular appearance. His knowledge, intellect and understanding of nature enables him to peel away dense layers of complexity and describe natural phenomena in simple terms.
Porter, 74, was honoured with a lifetime achievement award for nearly 50 years of dedication to nature conservation at the Excellency Awards ceremony of the Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife conservation agency.
Working largely behind the scenes as a strategist, conservation planner and later as an independent environmental consultant, he helped to establish four World Heritage Sites in Southern Africa — including the Okavango Delta and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
He has also played a central role in the creation or expansion of several smaller reserves and almost single-handedly halted the construction of several dams that would have drowned Africa’s oldest wilderness zones.
Born in Johannesburg, his parents and grandparents encouraged his deep interest in natural history from an early age and he recalls getting his first Roberts bird book as a Christmas present when he was 10 years old.
While studying for his BSc honours degrees in plant ecology at the University of the Witwatersrand and BSc honours in wildlife management at the University of Pretoria, he went on several field trips and was particularly impressed by the work of the then Natal Parks Board.
“It was the African leader in nature conservation and one of the world’s leading organisations in this field,” he says , so he joined it in 1971.
Stationed first in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve, he worked as a botanical ecologist and later as regional ecologist. This included providing advice on veld management, game ranch inspections and writing the first formal management plans for the Hluhluwe, iMfolozi and Ithala game reserves. He also conducted a pasture production study for which he was awarded his MSc degree.
After more than a decade in the field, he moved to the board’s Pietermaritzburg head office where he served as head of planning for more than two decades. According to the award citation, this is where Porter began to shine as “one of the more influential thinkers and specialist scientists to grace our country’s conservation history”.
In 1977 the department of water affairs proposed a highly controversial plan to build several large state dams that would have flooded the wilderness section of iMfolozi and reduced fresh water supply to Lake St Lucia.
Porter spent nearly three years developing one of the country’s first environmental impact assessment (EIA) studies and his 443-page tome was submitted to a ministerial committee of inquiry in 1981. His findings and recommendations were accepted and none of the dams were built.
At the time it was not mandatory for developers to conduct EIAs, but Porter helped to pioneer and formalise the process of integrated environmental management policy.
He became something of a “lone voice” in government circles acting to protect biological diversity from damaging impacts from several large-scale projects — water transfer schemes, plantation timber, mining, housing estates or new resorts.
He also contributed to the national law reform process after 1994, culminating in a new environmental act which made EIAs mandatory for the first time.
Working with colleague Trevor Sandwith, he formulated key clauses in the KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Management Act of 1997 that empowered Ezemvelo to submit written comment on any changes in land-use that could damage the province’s ecological biodiversity.
Porter also played a significant role in halting controversial plans to mine the coastal sand dunes at Lake St Lucia during one of SA’s most heated environmental debates. He and his team produced highly technical responses to the EIA report and made a detailed submission to the review panel that was appointed to advise cabinet on the matter.
He also had a hand in the creation of several new or enlarged nature reserves — including the Umgeni Vlei and Blinkwater nature reserves and extensions to Mkhuzi, Kamberg, Weenen, Karkloof, Mpenjati, Umlalazi, Oribi Gorge, Spioenkop, Midmar, Harold Johnson and Krantzkloof reserves, and the transfer of state forest areas in Zululand, Drakensberg, the Midlands and Ezemvelo.
Realising that there were limitations to state-funded conservation, Porter and his team initiated a new biodiversity stewardship programme in 2006 to secure new nature reserves on private and communal land.
To crown these achievements, Porter became an internationally acclaimed expert on World Heritage, a scheme initiated by the UN Environmental, Scientific and Cultural Organizsation (Unesco).
During his 39-year career with Ezemvelo he prepared the nomination dossier that led to the declaration of SA’s first World Heritage Site, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in 1999. A year later, he helped secure the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park as the SA’s fourth World Heritage Site.
After retiring he continued this heritage work, helping the Lesotho government to secure a new transboundary World Heritage Site adjoining the Drakensberg.
In Kenya, he helped to prepare recommendations that led to the incorporation of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy into the Mount Kenya World Heritage Site. In Botswana, he was an adviser and mentor to the team that secured the Okavango Delta as Unesco's 1,000th World Heritage Site.
In Tanzania, he led a monitoring mission to the Selous National Park — the world’s second largest protected area — to report on widespread elephant poaching.
He also advised the Mpumalanga government during the recent nomination process for the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains, now SA’s 10th World Heritage Site.
“Roger Porter, you have made — and continue to make — an extraordinary and singular contribution to conservation in SA and particularly here in KwaZulu-Natal,” the citation reads for his lifetime achievement award.
“It is with the greatest admiration that we honour you for everything you have done to preserve the magnificence of our protected areas. You have set a standard that all conservationists revere.”