Sudden exit of conservation leader Andrew Zaloumis raises concerns

04 September 2017 – 15:23 By Tony Carnie
Field guide Mandla Buthelezi from the Wilderness Leadership School and Andrew Zaloumis out walking on the shores of Lake St Lucia.

Field guide from the Wilderness Leadership School and Andrew Zaloumis out walking on the shores of Lake St Lucia.
Image: Paul Ash

The sudden exit of veteran conservation manager Andrew Zaloumis has raised concerns about the future management stability of South Africa’s first world heritage site.

Zaloumis was chief executive officer of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site for nearly 20 years. He has been honoured locally and internationally for his pioneering work to safeguard the natural environmental treasures surrounding Lake St Lucia‚ while also working to ensure economic upliftment for rural communities living around the 240‚000ha park in KwaZulu-Natal.

National Environmental Affairs minister announced his unexpected “departure” to pursue sustainability studies at Cambridge University in the UK in a statement on Sunday evening‚ praising Zaloumis for his role in turning iSimangaliso into a world-class tourism destination – but without providing a detailed rationale for the sudden exit.

Close colleagues indicated that his sudden departure came as a shock to the tightly-knit staff of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park when an announcement was made on Friday.

While iSimangaliso business director Terri Castis has been appointed acting chief executive on an interim basis‚ the wetland authority has a very small full-time of less than 35 people‚ several of whom have worked closely with Zaloumis for many years. Coupled with the sudden nature of his departure and his strong leadership record in standing up against threats to the park‚ some observers have raised concern around the authority’s long-term management stability in the absence of a suitably-respected‚ full-time incumbent.

Several sources have suggested there could be “political factors” that influenced his departure before the expiry of his contract within a few months‚ however Zaloumis could not be reached for comment.

Zaloumis and his staff have been involved in several high-profile court battles to prevent illegal property development within the World Heritage Site along with a major showdown with  during a World Bank project to restore water supplies into Lake St Lucia – Africa’s largest estuarine lake.

Mavuso Msimang‚ former chairman of the board of SA National Parks and the board of iSimangaliso who worked closely with Zaloumis for nearly two decades‚ described him as a man who “stood his ground in a low-key but certain manner”.

“Andrew is a somewhat shy man‚ but he always defended the rights of the park to be operated in the correct manner – even at the risk of being isolated or not being liked.

“He is the best conservation manager I have had the good fortune to work with in my entire career. Extremely knowledgeable‚ empathetic to staff and very supportive to community development and empowerment. He never stopped telling visitors about the Park’s cultural heritage mandate.”

However Msimang also noted that Zaloumis had also been involved in several skirmishes with a number of interest groups.

Earlier this year‚ Durban High Court judge Mohini Moodley dismissed a legal application by Umfolozi Sugar Planters Limited and cane farmers Paul van Rooyen and Petros Maphumulo. The farmers wanted the court to force iSimangaliso to bulldoze open the mouth of the Mfolozi River whenever rising water threatened to back-flood their cane fields.

iSimangaliso argued that artificially breaching the river mouth into the Indian Ocean would rob the lake of vital fresh water and would also be a major setback for a multimillion-rand plan to restore the natural ecology of the lake.

Ruling in favour of iSimangaliso‚ Judge Moodley said the case pitted the “selfish and outdated” interests of a small group of farmers against the declining ecological health of Lake St Lucia and the surrounding World Heritage Site.

Zaloumis and his staff also won several court battles to prevent illegal resorts and holiday homes by Gauteng developers and local residents‚ mainly in the northern Kosi Bay section of the park.

Msimang said: “Andrew always tried first to persuade such developers to back off‚ but if negotiation failed‚ he went to court. This is the calibre of person the park is losing.”

Di Dold‚ a former board member of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and conservation co-ordinator of the Wildlife and Environment Society‚ said Zaloumis’ contribution to conservation had been “absolutely amazing”.

“We had some arguments in the beginning‚ but he has turned St Lucia around into an international tourist hub. His departure is a tremendous loss to conservation in northern KZN and I tip my hat to him.”

Ann McDonnell‚ provincial spokesperson for the Democratic Alliance said: “It is very sad news that this dedicated conservationist has been moved from his life’s work. He was also renowned for the work he did in uplifting and empowering the community while protecting the very sensitive eco-system.”

Molewa praised him as “an outstanding leader in the field of conservation for over 20 years”.

“Under his tenure‚ Mr Zaloumis pioneered development-focused conservation at the Park. Examples of this include the recent reintroduction of game last seen a century ago on the banks of St Lucia; the separation of commercial forestry plantations from the park as a way of ensuring that these two businesses operate without negative impact on one another and the systematic rehabilitation of the Eastern and Western Shores of iSimangaliso.

“Much of this work has been undertaken using labour-intensive methods‚ creating a significant number of temporary jobs in the area.”

Locally and internationally‚ Zaloumis has been honoured with several awards‚ including the Worldwide Fund for Nature “Living Planet Award”‚ the National Heritage Council Golden Shield Award for World Heritage Site of the Year and the 2017 KfW Bernhard-Grzimek-Preis Award.