Obituary: Ornithologist Dr Steven Piper, wagtail and vulture expert

2009-03-18 00:00

One of the most respected members of the South African ornithology community died on Sunday, just weeks after celebrating his 64th birthday.

Steven Edward Piper was born in Durban on February 28, 1945. He spent most of his life there before venturing around the rest of the country and finally settling down in Pietermaritzburg.

Piper went to school at Westville and Kearsney College and went on to study a B.Sc. in chemical engineering at the then University of Natal, an M.Sc. in applied statistics (cum laude) at the University of Witwatersrand and a Ph.D. in applied mathematics at the University of Cape Town.

Passionate about birds, he pursued his interest in ornithology, both as a pastime and later as a career.

He joined the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in 1977 where he stayed for 28 years as a lecturer, senior lecturer and associate professor.

During his time there, Piper held posts in mathematical statistics, surveying and mapping, psychology and biological and conservation sciences.

On his arrival at UKZN he initiated two long-term demographic studies, one of the Cape Griffon Vulture and the other of the Long-tailed (now called Mountain) Wagtail. They have run for 32 and 29 years respectively.

Piper published over 35 papers in scholarly literature — many in his specialisations and some with other scientists. Many of these papers arose out of collaborations with scientists in southern Africa and abroad.

His scholarship was recognised when he was asked to contribute the bulk of the vulture and wagtail species texts for the seventh edition of Roberts Birds of Southern Africa.

Piper, who is survived by his wife Andrea, two children and two grandchildren, also wrote English and Afrikaans children’s books in the 1980s.

He worked long past his retirement in 2005, and kept close ties with the academic institution he spent most of his life serving.

Keeping to his love for birds, Piper invested in a tourism venture that he called Pied Piper Expeditions.

The company, based in Underberg, took visitors into the uplands of KwaZulu-Natal, the Drakensberg and into Lesotho via Sani Pass, Ramatseliso’s Pass and Qacha’s Nek to see the natural wonders of the region, its endemic and special birds, alpine flowers and San rock art.

Piper’s business partner at Pied Piper, Elsa Pooley, said he was a man who was always willing to accept changes — and, more importantly, to learn.

“He was well read and widely travelled,” she said. “He was well organised and professional … He was an excellent academic, but he was also good company.”

Professors Mike Perrin and Colleen Downs of UKZN described Piper as “unique, talented and joyously eccentric”.

“He always had a smile and an anecdote. Kind, generous and well informed, he always had time for students and colleagues alike.

“Birds were his passion, especially vultures and wagtails, while numeracy and statistics set him apart from many ornithologists and twitchers. He was a charming gentleman and delighted delegates at conferences with wit, humour and science,” they said.

Piper will be buried after a service at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Westville at 11 am tomorrow. A remembrance service will be held at Kenmo Lake in Himeville on Friday at 11 am.

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