Cape Town - It’s not a job, it’s a calling, and we do it for the love, the passion and the privilege of being guardians of the some of the richest biodiversity on the planet.
That was the message from the acting chief executive of CapeNature, Kas Hamman, who stepped down at the end of last week after a conservation career spanning 42 years – all of it spent at the Cape’s provincial conservation authority in its various guises.
Hamman, now 65, spent his childhood in Alberton on the East Rand in Joburg, and Ermelo in what is now Mpumalanga, and was one of the first students to attend the then new Rand Afrikaans University (RAU), where he did a BSc degree.
Although he’d always enjoyed fishing with his father, it was really during his honours year that – inspired by department head Professor Hendrik Schoonbee – he developed what would become a life-long research interest in aquatic science and, particularly, indigenous freshwater fish.
In 1972, he started his career with the Cape Department of Nature Conservation (as it was then) as a professional officer working on the Orange River as an aquatic scientist. Three years later, he moved to the department’s scientific services unit in Jonkershoek as a senior professional officer and remained there until 1991 while completing his PhD on the impact of dams on the ecology of the Orange River.
His doctoral research findings were “quite alarming”, he recalled, because the construction of dams and turbines had changed what had been a natural summer rainfall flow regime into an all-year flow regime.
Previously, the river would dry to standing pools during the low rainfall winter months. But with the higher demand for electricity in winter, water was released from the dams to drive the new turbines, resulting in a constant flow. There were dire consequences for those species that could not adapt to this new flow regime, while other species – some of them problem species like midges – thrived, with the result that farming patterns changed.
Hamman also found that mining had a major negative impact on the river’s estuary – in particular, the development of a road that cut off and isolated a substantial part of the bird-rich delta area. “Now they’re trying to restore that, at huge cost,” he noted.
He says one of the highlights of his career was being able to amend early legislation that protected exotic fish species like trout, bass and carp while offering no protection for rare and endangered indigenous species, like yellowfish. His first moves in this direction were slapped down firmly by the then head of nature conservation Douglas Hey and other senior managers.
“I started trying to do something, but my efforts were quite strongly suppressed and I was told not to make waves, and it was only after Dr Hey retired in 1979 that I could do something about it,” he said.
Hamman started the Freshwater Liaison Group as a forum to interact with anglers and where he could try and convince them that indigenous fish should be conserved and exotic fish removed. But it was an uphill battle for the next five years and he has certainly not been able to persuade everyone – to this day. “But we managed to change the legislation, and the other provinces followed suit.”
Another highlight for Hamman was the Western Cape’s adoption of a new game transfer policy that allows some non-locally indigenous animal species – like giraffe and white rhino – to be brought into this province, under strict conditions. “Once again that policy is now being used at the national level.”
Hamman is also happy with the province’s adoption of its problem-animal policy and he believes that the Western Cape can hold its head high in terms of its biodiversity conservation record, although he concedes that he’s still considered by some animal rights supporters to be “the villain” in this regard.
“It’s not true that we’re the worst of the lot (in terms of allowing ‘problem animals’ like leopards, jackals and lynxes to be killed) – in fact, we’re stricter than the other provinces,” he said.
Hamman said he was concerned that South Africa’s conservation model was not effective and that only the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal conservation authorities were operating successfully.
“If you look at the provinces today, most are in dire straits and are failing to a very large extent in their biodiversity mandate. And it’s not just about a lack of resources – there’s an incredible fragmentation of expertise and also an overlap. I’m not a strong fan of centralisation, but I think in this case this would have been a better way to go.
“As there is no political will to ‘give up’ the biodiversity function (by the provinces) a possible way is for the national government to allocate more ring-fenced biodiversity funding and play an oversight role.”
Hamman taught freshwater ecology at Stellenbosch University on a part-time basis for 20 years – an experience he really enjoyed.
He’ll now be taking a break before writing up scientific and conservation management information that he’s acquired over the years.
“And then I’ll be looking at a couple of opportunities” he said.
He is succeeded by Razeena Omar. - Cape Argus