Podcast: Mark Anderson | BirdLife South Africa

With over 800 species of birds in South Africa and over 100 of them threatened, where do you start with trying to conserve them?

Growing up in South Africa, Mark Anderson was taken out into the bush for days on end by his grandfather and from an early age he knew that he wanted to be a conservationist. He studied hard and now works even harder as CEO of BirdLife South Africa.

In this BirdLife South Africa podcast we talk about Mark’s career to date, how he stays focused and motivated and what he looks for when hiring new staff. We also discuss what it’s like to be CEO of an organisation which is recognised internationally and nationally for its success in the conservation of wild birds and their habitats. 



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Audio Transcript 

MARK: I’m Mark Anderson and I’m the chief executive officer of BirdLife South Africa. 

NICK: And for people who don’t know who or what BirdLife South Africa is, maybe… could you just paint like a bit of a picture or describe the organisation to them please?  

MARK: So BirdLife South Africa has been around for a really long time, since 1905 in fact, initially as the South African Ornithologist Union and it became the Southern African Ornithological Society in the 30s and then BirdLife South Africa in 1996. And BirdLife South Africa is one of 115 BirdLife partners, there’s 115 organisations around the world in 113 different countries that work together to conserve the world’s birds and BirdLife South Africa has the responsibility of looking after South Africa’s birds. 

NICK: And how important is South Africa for birds? Have you got many species, or species of importance, down there? 

MARK: We have 850 species, it changes all the time so it’s, you know, not quite 10% of the world’s birds but certainly a wide diversity of birds and the worrying fact is 132 of those 850 are listed in the Regional Red Data Book, essentially threatened with extinction, and that’s why we have our work cut out. We’ve got to try and conserve all of those very critical species. 

NICK: And what are some of the biggest challenges faced by birds within South Africa? Can you just give us an idea of, you know, what are the kind of key threats to the bird life and the things you’re trying to tackle? 

MARK: Ok so there’s a number of threats. I suppose the biggest one anywhere is, you know, land use changes. We’ve seen that as well, agriculture, mining, urbanisation, certainly have the impacts and that affects a, you know, range of birds. And then there’s other threats, there’s a whole load of anthropogenic threats, you know. Collisions with power lines, electrocution on power lines, that’s, you know, mainly the raptors, the large terrestrial birds that’s a problem. In the fisheries we have a problem with by-catch, you know, birds, albatrosses, petrels and other seabirds inadvertently, accidentally being caught on fishing lines, caught in nets, that’s a problem too. There’s a whole suite of threats, which actually does complicate things because then you’ve got to prioritise where you should be putting in your time and your attention as well. So we try and be scientific in our approach and we try and invest our time and energy where it’s most needed. 

NICK: So which of the threats that you’ve started to describe there have you actually prioritised and organised projects and programmes around, could you maybe just give us an idea of some of your kind of flagship conservation programmes that you’re working on in country at the moment? 

MARK: Ok so there’s quite a few projects that are important to us. The sea bird conservation work has been very important over the last decade and a half and there we’ve been very successful. So in the trawl fishery, the ‘hate’ fishery, about 15 years ago we were losing 14,000 albatrosses a year just in our waters. We found very simple mitigation measures to address the threats, that’s entanglements in the nets and the cables, we reduced those mortalities to 100 birds a year. So from 14,000 to 100. That’s been a really tremendous success. And then the other fishery which was a long-line fishery, and that’s the, essentially the tuna fishery, had also quite extensive mortalities and we’ve been testing various mitigation measures, sinking the lines quicker, sinking the lines at night and so on, using various devices such as the ‘Hook Pod’, and there we’ve been able to reduce the mortalities by about 80%. So there’s been great success. And in the terrestrial environment, we’ve been focusing our attention on habitat protection, particularly protecting our 113 important bird and biodiversity areas. So we have these 113 IBAs, as we call them, we start losing those we’re gonna start losing some of our threatened, some of our endemic species. So we’ve been working with land owners to ensure that these sites are protected. And there’s actually provision in the South African legislation, the protected areas legislation, for land owners to protect these sites through an agreement with government and in fact the land owners can derive financial benefits, tax benefits. So we’ve put quite a lot of emphasis into protecting these sites and we’ve been focusing our attention in the grasslands as well. Grassland biome is our most threatened biomes, a lot of our staff have been working in the grassland biome. And then increasingly we’re looking at threats to specific species, one being the white-winged flufftail. We’re not sure how many individuals are left but perhaps 250 individuals left in the world. So one of the world’s most endangered species, in fact listed as critically endangered. It only occurs in Ethiopia and South Africa, apparently it migrates between the two countries. But we’ve been putting a lot of effort into understanding the biology of the species and also protecting the sites where they’re left. We’ve been developing guidelines for landowners and we’ve been working, engaging with the landowners to ensure that these sites are protected. Another species which is critically endangered is the southern banded snake eagle, which only occurs in the eastern parts of South Africa, 30 individuals left in South Africa. They do occur further north as well so we’ve been working with a number of stakeholders, including forestry, to ensure that the remnant patches of forest that these snake eagles are using are protected. Just a couple of examples of some of the project we’re involved with.  

NICK: It sounds like you’ve really got your work cut out down there with 800 species, more than 100 globally threatened and the sorts of projects, and even just finding hugely rare species like the white-winged flufftail, you say there’s 200 individuals left thereabouts? So just finding them to study must be a huge challenge for you. 

MARK: Yeah, it is a challenge actually. We’ve been very innovative in the way we do our work so one of the things, so obviously we follow a very scientific approach. We employ a really top scientist, top conservation biologist. And we’ve been doing a lot of what we call ecological mesh modelling to try and predict where these species occur and it’s been very useful with species like the white-winged flufftail but also some of the larks, starks lark, skaters lark, Rudd’s lark, Botha’s lark, birds which are endemic to South Africa but also are very limited ranges and are very low numbers. Because once we understand what the habitat requirements are, we can start using remote-sensing methods to try and determine where other similar habitat occurs. And it’s been so useful and so effective that once we go and ground-truth these sites where we predict that species will occur, lo and behold, there they are. And that has also enabled us to determine if, you know, these birds have very little habitat remaining. Some of them we see in the transformation of the habitat that they use, some of them have very specific habitat requirements. So we’ve lost that, you know, a lot of the habitat. But now the work is how do we convince the landowners to manage that habitat in a way which benefits these very threatened, and also very range restricted species? 

NICK: And presumably maintains the livelihoods of the landowners also that might be linked to those sites. So your role is the chief executive officer of BirdLife South Africa, CEO, so maybe we could just talk about that a little bit. How would you describe your role to people who don’t know what being a CEO is, like what are your duties, I don’t know, day to day, week to week? 

MARK: Well, best way to describe it is exceptionally busy. (laughter) It’s rewarding, it’s incredibly rewarding but it is time consuming and at times exhausting. But I wouldn’t stop this job for anything in the world, being able to make a difference. But, you know, each day involves a variety of things. We’ve got a staff complement of about 40 people and so there’s a lot of engagement on a daily basis with our managers, and we have a few senior managers so there’ll be regular, you know, daily engagement with them. And the next level of management is, you know, programme managers, I talk to them regularly. A lot of the work is engaging with the staff as well. And then of course then you have the board as well, and the board is the sort of ultimate authority of the organisation so I will be engaging with my chairman either in a one-to-one meeting or remotely, phone call or a Skype meeting or email exchange, once a week. And then a very important part of the job is fundraising. So fundraising is often left to, you know, fundraising managers in organisations, but you know, I think the biggest success is when the head of the organisation, the CEO, is involved in fundraising. We engage with the heads of banks, big corporates as well, and they generally want to see the head of the conservation organisation so a lot of time is taken up engaging with these people, but of course this is actually quite an enjoyable part of the job. You’re getting to meet people that you wouldn’t necessarily have access to, unless you were the head of a conservation organisation. You know, another part of my job is the engagement with role players. So other conservation NGOs, you know, senior government officials, so we do work very proactively and very strategically with government, we collaborate with other conservation organisations, so there will be a lot of interactions on a daily basis with these organisations. And of course, being part of the BirdLife International partnership, I have I’d say probably daily engagements with the head office in Cambridge and then the regional office in Nairobi in Kenya, and that does take a bit of my time but of course, as a partner, you know, we’re there to work together with other organisation in our 112 sister organisations around the world and it’s what we commit to do. And of course that engagement is also a pleasure. 

NICK: What do you find most challenging in your role? You obviously enjoy the impact and diversity and the access and opportunity it provides for you, but what are the kind of… the big downsides that, if you could, you know, get rid of them you would? 

MARK: Well I suppose the biggest downside is actually just seeing the rate at which we’re losing biodiversity and natural habitats on earth. I mean that’s something that keeps us awake at night. And also the numerous threats that our birds and biodiversity are facing, climate change being one, human population growth, demands on natural resources, it’s kind of worrying. Of course we’re not going to lose too much sleep about that because we need to get on with the job and do the best we can to address the threats. I suppose the challenges that I face personally is actually finding the resources to keep the organisation going, that is a challenge. I mean it is difficult to fundraise in the current economic climate. And you know, you have a large number of people that are dependent on us raising sufficient funding to keep them employed. And we need to grow actually, I mean we’re not big enough, we need to be bigger if we’re going to even be more successful. So raising funding is a challenge. And I suppose, you know, one of the other things that does bother me is that we don’t, we haven’t reached out to everybody to make them aware of the importance of birds, the importance of biodiversity, you know, the importance of protecting our natural environment, and that is a challenge, you know, we’re reaching a fraction of society. And that’s not only South Africa, that’s elsewhere in the world, and that is a big challenge. So we’ve been quite innovative, I suppose, as BirdLife South Africa in our marketing, advertising, our awareness work, thinking about how we reach the people that have not yet converted. For example, we’ve just branded a few buses in Johannesburg. We’ve managed to get this donated, so there’s buses now driving up and down the streets of Johannesburg and Pretoria with very clever branding on them and already people I see on social media saying they’ve seen this branding and it’s, you know, really good and we hope to be able to reach people that are not that aware about birds through some of these very clever marketing and advertising methods. 

NICK: So you see opportunity to do lots more. Do you feel optimistic about the future? I think we all sense the challenges faced by wildlife and biodiversity globally are enormous and we’re actually losing the battle significantly at the moment, but do you as a conservationist feel optimistic about the future and what we can still do to kind of tackle some of these issues? 

MARK: I’m probably almost the wrong person to ask that question because I’m the eternal optimist. I’m probably one of the most positive people that I know. And you know, we at BirdLife South Africa focus on success and focus on the positives and try and be optimistic. As an example, when we have our annual staff meetings, we use the analogy of playing cricket and where we’ve scored 4s and 6s and centuries and how we are becoming the up side in the league. But it is difficult, I suppose, to be optimistic because we are losing lots and lots of natural habitat. We are losing biodiversity, you know, literally daily. But we cannot become despondent. We have to continue to work hard at achieving our goals, and then we can’t throw in the towel. And I’ve spoken to some really top conservationists, you know, global conservationists about this and that’s the common view that many people have, people that have dedicated their life to the cause. But we have so many successes, we have a little jpeg which we insert in emails which gets sent to all of the staff, including to our bird clubs and board, when we have a success and when we have a 4 or a 6 or we’ve scored a century. We brag about those successes, we focus on them as well. One can’t ignore those important successes, you know, the ones that are small. So you know, focus on those successes. And also, I suppose it’s really important to prioritise and to make sure that you’re expending your energy and your resources where they’re needed most. But I suppose at the same time, not to ignore that there are some low-hanging fruits that one needs to tackle as well. Because it is important for one’s self-morale to be able to show that there have been some successes. So we’re very strategic, pretty scientific in our approach and how we select what we do and what needs to be done. But sometimes there’s just some low-hanging fruit and we say, well this is gonna take a few days, let’s do it, it’s not gonna cost much money, and we’re guaranteed a success and that’s good for the organisation to show that we’re able to achieve something. 

NICK: And it’s really inspiring to kind of hear your energy and your enthusiasm, but also your methodical approach to work and that you bring to BirdLife South Africa, too. Thinking of our inspiration, and maybe rewinding the clock a little bit, more to kind of your early beginnings if you like, what inspired you to get involved in nature conservation? Where did that passion come from? 

MARK: It goes back a long time and I think us South Africans, we’re very fortunate. We spend a lot of time in the bush. I was very fortunate to have a grandfather who was passionate about the bush and the environment, and I was the eldest grandchild and so I used to go away with him quite regularly, monthly, to visit some properties that he’d bought, which were… he was conserving to look after their wildlife and their biodiversity. And he was very interested in the environment and very passionate about conservation so, you know, that was the inspiration that I initially had. And, you know, a lot of credit must go to him for taking the effort to teach me and to take me away with him. And there was really no other career for me, it was always going to be a career in conservation. 

NICK: Right, that became clear. I mean, growing up in South Africa, you have, it sounds like, well privileged access to incredible wildlife. Do you have any particular memorable encounters with wildlife, either in the early years or more recently that you’d like to share? 

MARK: Early trips to Limpopo River Valley with my grandfather to this massive property that he’d acquired where we were protecting, you know, the wildlife and restoring the property and the environment. And there were some very memorable occasions there, you know, we used to go up for three, four days and not change our clothes, we used to eat mopane worms for meals and we’d call down the black orioles to join us for breakfast, he was good at mimicking birds and then bathing in the river instead of in a bath or a shower. Those were memorable occasions. But we then also, he acquired another property next to Kruger National Park, which we’ve actually just recently sold. And I’ve spent the last 40 years visiting there on a regular basis, at least once a year, sometimes three, four times a year, and my children were able to experience this property. My wife and I spent a lot of time walking on this property and in winter we’d walk amongst bird parties and just follow the bird parties and watched how birds joined and left the parties, and just watched their behaviourNow this is big five country, so we’d be walking without a rifle amongst lions and elephants and buffalo and rhinos, it’s probably the best time of my life is being able to experience the wild African bush like that, you know, just with a backpack with a bottle of water, an orange and an apple, pair of binoculars around my neck and just walking aimlessly with my wife for hours and hours on end and just appreciating and experiencing nature. So that’s been pleasurable and in the latter years we’ve become very interested in wildlife photography. So our time these days is spent with cameras and big lenses trying to photograph wildlife from small portable hides that we’ve placed strategically or driving around, putting ourselves in positions where the action may happen and then trying to document what we see through our images so… I mean, it’s been a very privileged life and those are just, you know, a couple of things that immediately come to mind. 

NICK: It sounds wonderful. I mean, does maintaining that connection to wildlife and creating space for yourself, you know, each year to get out, enjoy it and experience it, is that really important to you? To keep you focused on your day to day job also? 

MARK: It is, Nick. And I tell you it is a challenge, because once you get into a management position, then you spend less time outdoors obviously. My job is demanding, you know, you’re working very, very long hours and you’re often working evenings or weekends so it is important to get out there. We make a special effort, an opportunity just arose for us to travel to south America next month for a meeting, so we’ll take some time off and you know, go up into the Andes or down into the Amazon and it is important and we prefer doing it on our own as a couple, and just wander around and just watch and just appreciate and enjoy. And it’s not for us a race. So when we were in Peru last year, we went down to the low Amazon for the very first time, and one could probably, with a bit of effort, in a week see 400 bird species. We thought, well we don’t want to see 400 bird species, we want to see 100 bird species well and better, we’d like to watch them in their natural environment and try and understand, you know, their behaviour, their biology a bit more. And that’s what we did, we got to, I mean, probably 200 species but there were 100 that I think we spent quite a lot of time watching and observing and learning. 

NICK: Yeah, that’s a nice philosophy to have. Going back from your early days then with your grandfather, taking you out once a month to where you are now as CEO, what have been the key steps that you’ve taken in your career when you kind of look back that have been really important to get you to where you are now?  

MARK: Not an easy question to answer I suppose but I think getting a qualification was important so when I realised there was gonna be only one career for me, it was going to university, you know, studying zoology and botany and doing some post-graduate degrees, and that was essential. I think it was also important to do well at what I did, that wasn’t only in my studies. My wife was in my class at university so we worked exceptionally hard, often on Saturday nights when other people were going to parties and going drinking, we were working, because we wanted to be top of the class. I think, you know, doing well at your studies is absolutely important and I think we then went on and became biologists, we worked in the Kalahari Desert for about two decades, two and a half decades, and there we also tried to do our very, very best. And I think we did, hopefully, contribute something. I suppose getting this job now as the CEO, which was now almost 11 years ago, and I often wonder why they chose me, actually when I arrived for the interview, I actually saw, mistakenly the chap in the parking lot showed me the allocated parking space and everybody else who was coming for an interview that was listed on that sheet, when I looked at the names I wasn’t meant to see them I’m sure, I thought well I’ve got no chance, I’ll just turn around and leave right now but they still offered me the job, and you know, still today I’m not sure why and I’m grateful that I was given that opportunity. Now there could be a couple of things I suppose that did help but I think that just showing that you’ve actually worked very hard and you’ve been dedicated and you’re passionate, I suppose that does come across well when they do interview. 

NICK: When you kind of meet conservationists now, maybe members of your team or maybe from the wildlife, BirdLife partnership and you see people who are doing really well in their career, really impactful, what are the sort of attributes do you think that these sorts of people havethe successful conservationists in the world, you know, what are the things that they’re doing really well that others can kind of learn from? 

MARK: Number one is passion, I think passion and enthusiasm is really important and I think that’s… goes more important than literally anything else. I hope that that’s what I have, that’s helped me in my career. The other thing is, hard work I suppose. You’ve got to knuckle down. This is not an 8-5 job, it’s much more than that. You know, when I… when we interview people, and we do a lot of interviewing and recruitment, I’m always interested to see the people who have volunteered in the past, who, as they were studying, maybe when they were at school, looked at opportunities to gain experience, to learn, and volunteered, whether it was the local NSPCA or local park or the local veterinarian, I think that does help to show that there was this interest for a long time. But it’s so easy to pick up when somebody is passionate or not. For me, that passion and enthusiasm counts literally more than several post-graduate degrees. 

NICK: Do you employ people who are, we call them career switchers, they’re sort of, they’re not necessarily coming straight out of university, you know, with their degree and with their relevant qualification but what they’ve done is followed a different career path, perhaps they’ve gone off and worked in something which is related, say fundraising or communications or marketing or something like that which could be transferred into conservation. Do you look to employ those sorts of people who have perhaps the skills but maybe not the wildlife, biology, zoology training background? 

MARK: We do but not in, you know, in conservation positions. But certainly in other positions, and in fact, I had a really enjoyable meeting day before yesterday with somebody who’d love to work for us and she’s followed a totally different career path. She’s still relatively young but I tell you what, I met my match in terms of enthusiasm. She has unlimited energy and enthusiasm, you know, and I’m potentially going to look at employing her. And one person that we have really recruited is our finance and operations manager. And he is a qualified chartered accountant, he was involved in the corporate world, I think he was doing fairly well, he’s relatively young. If he had his life over he would have chose a career in conservation and he’s been with us for six years now. And he’s one of the most passionate conservationists I know and probably one of the most knowledgeable persons on the ecology of the Kruger National Park. So he’s now in his dream job, with his qualifications. Obviously too late for him to study zoology and follow a formal career in conservation. The fact that he now works for a conservation organisation, essentially second in charge of BirdLife South Africa, and in fact this week he’s away with our conservation team, they asked him to go along so he’s been in the bush. It was a non-decision, he was there like a shot.  

NICK: (laughter) That’s great, so he’s applying his skills and training but into a conservation context now, he must be pretty happy yeah. So what I’d quite like to do is just to ask you some open questions actually just to kind of round the podcast off. When we look to the conservation movement globally actually, and some of the challenges that conservation is facing, you look on the land, half of native forests are gone, in the sea 76% of fisheries are exploited or over-fishes, you know this well and in the air, something you know also very well, 40% of migratory birds are declining globally. What do you think needs to be done to significantly improve the chances of conservation success by organisations like yourself, what are we doing wrong or what do we need to do more of, do you think?  

MARK: I think one of the challenges is political apathy, so we’re not seeing the support from politicians. I used to look to the West, I suppose, at some of the developed countries, first world countries, and we’re certainly not getting support there. That is changing, I mean there’s some really inspiring leaders now in Europe, in particular and I think that is a challenge as well. Once you have the political support… I was very fortunate, two weeks ago I had a meeting with our new Minister of Environment, wrote to her when she was appointed and she invited me to a meeting a month after she appointed to her position and I had an hour-long meeting with her, one-on-one meeting and that was very encouraging. She’s very passionate. I suppose, you know, political will I think is important, and that is our big challenge. It’s interesting to see now how the youth now have a much louder voice, the demonstrations around climate change, Greta Thunberg, really, really impressive lady, I follow her on Twitter and see she’s off to a demonstration this morning on the train. And there’ve been lots of demonstrations in South Africa, schools literally closing for the day when there’s demonstrations about the government’s inaction around climate change. So I think there’s two levels, you know, I think right at the top governments, presidents, heads of governments, heads of environment departments, I think there needs to be, you know, more of a commitment there as well but then also the youth, and I think the youth can be quite convincing. I mean they’re saying, you know, we also want a healthy environment, one day when we get to your age. And I think the turning point for the world is going to be next year at the Convention of Biodiversity Conference of Parties in Chinawhere the new biodiversity framework targets are going to be set and hopefully they will buy, be buy-in from the governments, the secretaries to the Convention of Biodiversity and I think that’s going to literally be the turning point for the future of the planet. If we can’t set targets which are going to turn things around and which are going to be achievable and which mean there’s gonna be commitment from the respective governments, I think we’re going to see an increasing loss of biodiversity. So I think we’re all waiting with bated breath for next year and I think that’s gonna be the turning point for the future of the planet. If we don’t achieve some really good targets next year, I’m going to become despondent, I’ll maybe lose my positive and optimistic attitude. 

NICK: Well I hope… let’s hope that doesn’t happen (laughter). Good luck for next year with pushing through those targets as part of the global movement that you’re leading from South Africa. Mark, it’s been a great pleasure to talk to you as always, it’s nice to catch up. If people wanted to find out a little bit more about BirdLife South Africa, maybe get involved, maybe support your cause, where should we point them? 

MARK: Ok, they can just go to our website, BirdLife.org.za, and we’ve got a really good website, we’re very proud of it, it’s a relaunched website, there’s lots and lots of information there. And also on the website you’ll see there’s contact details for all the relevant staff, even my contact details. Anybody who’s interested in our organisation is welcome to drop us a mail and we’d be happy to reply and provide the information that’s requested. 

NICK: That’s fantastic, thank you and we’ll drop links into the podcast of course so people can kind of link through from there. Mark, it’s been a great pleasure to talk to you, thank you so much for your time. 

MARK: It’s a pleasure, Nick. Ok, we’ll talk soon. 

NICK: Ok well I hope you enjoyed that everyone, if you did then please do hit that ‘subscribe’ button to get notified when new episodes are live and also give us a rating as it really helps us to get in front of more people. If you enjoy the interviews we’ve collated the best advice from over 400 professional conservationists into a free e-book, which you can download from the bottom of our website. And finally, if you’ve got any questions or suggestions for the podcast, please tweet them to @ConserveCareers, we’d love to hear from you. Ok, till next time guys, this is Nick signing out. 


Main image credit: BirdLife South Africa.

Careers Advice, Podcast, Senior Level, Organisational Manager