LOVE FOR NATURE: Ian Little holds his Whitley Award, a prestigious international nature conservation honour, while posing with the Princess Royal, Princess Anne. Picture: James Finlay
WORKING tirelessly to save and protect South Africa’s grasslands and wildlife, the efforts of Ian Little, the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) senior manager for habitats, have not gone unnoticed.

On Thursday, Little was awarded a Whitley Award, a prestigious international nature conservation prize worth £35000 (R603800) in project funding by none other than Princess Anne, daughter of Queen Elizabeth II.

Speaking to The Star following receipt of his award, Little said his love for wildlife was instilled in him during his childhood.

“My middle name is Tchagra, a name given to me by my conservationist father, after his favourite grassland bird’s call.

“It can be heard echoing through the Drakensberg Mountains of my childhood. It was this landscape that instilled in me a love for nature,” he recalled.

When Little was 16, he saved enough money to go on a five-day walking trail through the Umfolozi/Hluhluwe game reserve.

“This was my first encounter with the wild Africa portrayed in Disney movies such as The Lion King.

“I not only fell in love with Africa all over again, but I knew there and then that I would devote my life to conservation,” he said.

Little explained that in Africa, elephants, lions, rhinos and other iconic megafauna are largely conserved in protected areas, “but it is the less glamorous grasslands and forests that are under severe pressure”.

“I have devoted my efforts to these unprotected landscapes that are being plundered for their natural resources. The ever-increasing demand for mineral resources, agricultural production, roads and powerlines make it a seemingly losing battle.

“It is certainly not the romantic ideal that I pictured as a young man,” he said.

His love for wildlife is what propels him to do this work, despite the continuous uphill battles he has faced in protecting these landscapes.

HARD WORK: Ian Little oversees four EWT programmes - TGSP, Drylands Conservation, Threatened Amphibians and Source to Sea.

HARD WORK: Ian Little oversees four EWT programmes - TGSP, Drylands Conservation, Threatened Amphibians and Source to Sea. 

“I love untouched places and I feel a duty to protect what is left. Being acknowledged with a Whitley Award offers the much needed en- couragement to continue to tackle the ever increasing challenges that come with modern-day conservation,” Little said.

The escarpment that he is working to protect houses not only thousands of plants, birds, snakes, chameleons and mammals but is home to some of the water sources that South Africans rely upon, in an already drought-prone country.

One species that has stolen Little’s heart is the Yellow-breasted Pipit, which plays a pivotal role in picking up on healthy landscapes.

“It’s a small brown bird that occurs nowhere else in the world. It is also a grassland specialist. If their habitat is changed for the worse, they simply disappear. It’s like a canary in a coal mine,” he emphasised.

“So, when a farmer sees this little bird, it’s a sign that his land is healthy, and that the water in rivers is plentiful.

“The more we see of the Yellow-breasted Pipit, the more we know we are succeeding in our efforts to save our wonderful biodiversity for the people of our struggling planet,” he said.

Little’s project aims to protect catchment functioning, biodiversity, landscapes and sustainable livelihoods within the Eastern Great Escarpment, through strategic implementation of urgent conservation interventions.

“The aim is to connect the existing uKahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site with several existing protected areas.

“These include the formal proclamation of protected areas, alien invasive clearing of priority upper catchments, as well as the improvement of grassland management practices in agricultural landscapes,” he said.

“By doing so, this will create conservation corridors connecting existing protected areas. This will protect and improve ecosystem service provision for local communities and urban centres (especially freshwater) and secure viable populations of threatened species.

“The formal protection of these areas will also conserve critical habitat for threatened, endemic species,” Little highlighted.

He added that only 2.38% of grasslands in South Africa receive formal conservation protection, while more than 60% is irreversibly transformed.

From a wildlife perspective, the project focuses on several threatened species and their habitats, which include the Wattled Crane (vulnerable), Yellow-breasted Pipit, Rudds’ Lark, White-bellied Korhaan, Sungazer Lizard, Southern Bald Ibis (all vulnerable and endemic), Grey-crowned Crane (endangered), Botha’s Lark (endangered and endemic), and various threatened and endemic species such as the golden mole, frog and cycad.

Over the next five years, Little wants to establish a large grassland and forest escarpment protected area, in accordance with South Africa’s national targets, which are in line with the Convention on Biological Diversity.

“The focus is to help protect what remaining wild areas we have. Not only for the benefit of wildlife, but critically also for people, through protecting the ecosystem services provided by natural areas.

“My project aligns strongly with the revised Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, where, ‘by 2050, biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and wisely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people’.”

Among some of his other projects, Little also aims to achieve the formal protection of properties using South Africa’s Biodiversity Stewardship process.

“Stewardship is a tool used by the Department of Environmental Affairs, with whom we work closely in this respect, to encourage private landowners to have their properties proclaimed as formally protected areas, while retaining ownership and management rights, according to a negotiated management that benefits the conservation of biodiversity,” he added.

“I will also prioritise farmers whose properties have been identified as having high conservation value, as well as critical ecosystem service value.”

He added that some landowners had already shown commitment, with over 10 000 who had committed verbally.

Little is also tackling the legislation around environmental impact assessments in South Africa, as he believes they are ineffective, and is in the process of establishing a task team to take this forward.