HRH The Princess Royal, Princess Anne presented a prestigious international nature conservation prize to South African conservation Ian Little. Picture: Reuters / Matthew Childs
Johannesburg – HRH The Princess Royal, Princess Anne on Thursday presented a Whitley Award, a prestigious international nature conservation prize worth £35 000 (about R612 000) in project funding, to Ian Little at a ceremony at the Royal Geographical Society, London, in honour of his work to protect South Africa’s threatened grasslands.

Demand for fresh water is expected to outstrip supply in South Africa by 2025.

The Eastern Great Escarpment of South Africa provides catchment services for three of the country’s largest rivers, making it a vital source of water for cities such as Durban and Johannesburg in one of the world’s most arid nations.

As the world’s third most bio-diverse country, these grasslands support a plethora of plants and animals found nowhere else, including golden moles and the sungazer lizard.

Despite their importance, less than 3 percent of grasslands in South Africa are protected. Intensive livestock farming, coal mining and gas exploration are inflicting untold damage – with fracking now an imminent threat.

Little – of the Endangered Wildlife Trust – works with farmers to champion conservation of grassland habitat.

Working with farmers and tribal leaders, Little is building capacity for sustainable farming and introducing improved management practices, such as less intensive grazing and burning regimes to decrease pressure on grasslands and boost productivity.

He has already secured 60 000 hectares (about 600km squared) of grassland for conservation purposes; a figure Little plans to increase with his Whitley Award by creating a corridor of legally protected areas linking with others along the escarpment.

In doing so he will safeguard these grasslands and the important source of freshwater they provide.

Edward Whitley, Founder of the Whitley Fund for Nature, said: “WFN focus on conservation success stories which give us a reason for optimism."

The Awards Ceremony is about recognising progress – winning those small battles which cumulatively equate to change at the national level.

“In addition to the financial benefit of winning an award, winners receive professional communications training to turn scientists into ambassadors, so they are able to communicate effectively with the public and inform change at the political level,” added Whitley.

Little is one of six individuals to have been awarded a share of the prize money worth £210,000 (about R3million), winning the Whitley Award donated by the Garfield Weston Foundation.