Conservation is triage | Saving South Africa’s flora with botanist-conservationist Rupert Koopman
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic I was fortunate enough to steal an hour of time from Rupert Koopman, the Conservation Manager for the Botanical Society of South Africa (BotSocSA).
Prior to this role Rupert spent more than a decade as a botanist with CapeNature, focusing on Fynbos, threatened species and habitats in the Cape Floristic region of South Africa. Filling various roles with CapeNature, he ended his time there as a Resource Ecologist, doing everyday field botany as well as the applied usage of plants and the permitting around this.
Rupert now works for BotSocSA as the Conservation Manager where he spends his time, among other ways, trying to find paths to make botany and conservation more inclusive for all South Africans, getting to know BotSocSA members from all walks of life and then involving these members in real conservation and citizen science work.
He integrates all of these activities towards achieving the targets of the Botanical Society’s Conservation Strategy. This is drawn from and supports the South African Plant Conservation Strategy which aims to protect the diversity of South Africas’ flora.
Rupert is a very positive person as he radiates hope for the conservation of South Africa’s flora, while at the same time holds the understanding of the enormous and very real threats facing it every day.
Studies and recommendations
Rupert studied at the University of the Western Cape, and majored in both Botany and Environmental Science. When asked if he’d recommend this route into the conservation sector he answered:
“There is no best way into conservation, I studied and others got practical experience from the beginning. You get trackers who have few if any qualifications and are masters in their field, and then you get people who have years of theoretical studies and are less equipped for fieldwork. It is important to aim towards a place in the middle, where you get the experiences that you’re needing and also the qualifications and theoretical frameworks that will help you too. At university, few people tell you that some of your weekends, holidays and days off should be spent volunteering.”
Rupert believes that you do not have to study conservation to be a conservationist and that there is space in conservation for the hobbyists and the citizen scientists. To demonstrate this he tells the story of the Erica verticillata, a species extinct in the wild and subsequently found in a botanical gardens all over the world. The plants were brought back to South Africa and through this the species was saved.
“It worked out for this one, but we don’t want to leave this to chance in the future. At BotSocSA we’re working with CREW (Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers) on a plan for GREW (Growers of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers); this will allow people who may be, as an example, accountants, but love growing plants, to play their role in saving species. People will join training sessions on how to grow these plants and then return them when we are needing the plants at certain sites.”
What conservation needs of its’ future generations
“I would not be able to tell you what conservation needs on a global scale as most of my work has been based in one biome, but I can tell you what I think we need in the Fynbos biome and a bit in South Africa too. One thing we need to stop doing is to stop the silo-effect in the conservation sector.”
One of the greatest assets conservation has, according to Rupert, is the diverse skills and interests that people entering the field have. This diverse group of people is one of conservations biggest advantages and should be embraced.
Rupert says that, while this is an advantage, the conservation community is often guilty of creating silos. Keeping like-minded and skilled people in their small groups and not embracing the more diverse opportunities that could come from allowing different people and different skills to work on a problem together.
This, Rupert says, is something desperately needed for the future of conservation in the Fynbos biome and, I am sure, all over the world. We need to start inviting others to the table; economists, data analysts, engineers and politicians need to join conservationists.
Why conservation? Why plants?
“It started at home, my dad studied botany, he was a biology teacher by training and his uncle had a nursery. My parents also made sure we spent a lot of time outdoors as kids. So, my love for plants came from there. Why conservation? because one can eventually see the result of your work. In some fields you work, work, work and make profits for someone else. Here, you work on the things you care about and there is a direct link between your efforts and seeing your results. It’s results driven (but the timescales are slow). This is really cool!“
When Rupert was younger he assisted others to create the species list for Harmony Flats Nature Reserve, a small often overlooked reserve in Cape Town with over 200 flowering species present. When Rupert arrived the species list was 80 species.
“When I left after one Spring,” he says, “the list was near to 200 already. The area is also statutorily protected now, and it’s cool to see ones work in action. As I worked in the stewardship field, I also think it is cool when you see the change in the mindset of a group of landowners who you have been talking to and trying to get on board for years, suddenly come around.”
Career highlights (so far)
“The thing that was one of my biggest highlights, early on in my career, was attending the Fynbos Forum, meeting the people who wrote the textbooks and sitting next to them at dinner, just talking to them. Sharing office space at the Kirstenbosch Research Center with conservation organisations was great too, and lead to some amazing experiences. For me, 2006 was a great year, this is when during fieldwork, I refound a species thought to be extinct in the wild, Lachenalia liliiflora, this made me realise the possibilities of working in Fynbos.”
“I have always loved working with people, multidisciplinary teams working to conserve areas and oversee stewardship. This is a highlight of my work too. I do not think that land-use has to be a choice between conservation and development. It is about how we develop in a way that gives nature a fair space. The part I have enjoyed the most is being able to make a difference, really work hard as part of a broad team which sets regulations and action in place.”
“The biggest downside to this work is the ecological grief that comes from knowing too much of the ecosystems that we are losing. One of the times this was evident was the drought when Cape Town came near to Day Zero (when municipal water supply would have to be shut off). Many emergency permissions were granted for boreholes and other water infrastructure, that was depressing, boreholes were put into nature reserves and went straight through sensitive areas where there are few remaining individuals of certain species left. This was a lot to deal with.
“Another tough part was losing some of our top botanists and friends in 2018, in our sector when this happens a large amount of knowledge is gone. I also haven’t written down a lot of what I know, and if I die tomorrow, a lot of my knowledge will disappear too. We need to get better at documenting the things we learn and observe.
“In summary, the toughest part of the job is loss, loss of colleagues, loss of natural areas, loss of a species, especially when it seems no one cares.
“I try not to dwell on the negatives, you know, what’s the point. I do think, though, future conservationists need to think and work on mental resilience from day one. Start finding ways to really deal with this loss, see a therapist or talk with family or colleagues about it. Burn out is very real in our sector and that can be hectic. This field is not a bed of roses, there is always a struggle; for resources, for funding, for space. Having to often communicate with people who don’t get it.
“The conservation sector must steer away from the ‘conservation hero’. Working towards a model where there is never a complete hole if someone dies or leaves, but make sure that there is a lot of overlap in knowledge and skills, rather have redundant people and positions than a complete loss”
Covid-19’s impact on conservation
“Conservation is sometimes seen as less important than other sectors, so budget cuts will impact conservation sectors around the world. Models that rely heavily on tourism to support them are especially vulnerable right now.
“One of the big positives of the pandemic is that many millions of people have come to really appreciate natural, outdoor spaces. Having been confined, people have now seen the benefits of the large open spaces now. This is great.
“We’ve also seen more realisation that if we do not buffer natural areas or nature reserves we open ourselves up for more of these zoonotic diseases in the future. This is important, and will hopefully be pulled into policy as some people now see that there is a delicate system that we need to keep in balance.
“Hopefully people will see that there is maybe no need for the areas rich in biodiversity to be turned into agricultural monocultures, mines or intensive livestock areas, there are other places to put all these things. Certain places need to be left in their natural state, all this are some of the things I see as having been benefited from the pandemic. A wake-up call to us.”
Certainly a wake up call that is needing to be heard by all eight billion people in the world.
Having had the opportunity to chat to Rupert in an honest and insightful way, I wished that many other conservationists could have sat there and listened too to all that this knowledgeable and hopeful conservationist has to say. While speaking frankly there is much that can be learned from those currently on the forefront of the conservation battle.
The future is hopeful and this can be heard and seen in conservationists like Rupert.
If you’re interested in becoming a botanist yourself, check out our Ultimate Guide How to become a botanist.
Author profile | Michael Henshall
Michael is a South African conservation student, currently working as the On-site Manager for the Inkawu Vervet Project, based on the 11 000ha Mawana Game Reserve (MGR) in South Africa. He has had experience working in the environmental education and human-wildlife conflict sectors for 6 years and is currently completing a Masters in Conservation Sciences, looking at the predator populations on MGR.