A life in the bush

2012-01-05 00:00

DEEP in the bowels of the maze of passages that the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife building at Queen Elizabeth Park feels like to an outsider, there’s a particular corridor that is the natural habitat of various types of “envirofundis”. The distinctive characteristic of that particular passage is the aroma of ground coffee that always seems to hang in the air. Several years after first discovering that environment, I got to meet the man behind its fragrance.

Dr Pete Goodman has retired after 36 years with Ezemvelo, latterly as head of biodiversity and conservation planning. He attributes his passion for the outdoors that translated into a career in nature conservation to attending Hilton College. “I was captivated by the estate where we could roam freely. With a group of three others, I was inspired to do a three-year study of birds of prey. One of my best friends was Adrian Carr, son of Norman, a ranger in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia. Adrian was interested in snakes, so I had friends with similar interests and they influenced me too.”

Goodman did his year’s national service in the parachute battalion, during which he enjoyed time “in the bush” establishing a base at Kutima Mlilo in the Caprivi Strip. He then studied zoology and botany at Wits University and went on to do an honours degree in wildlife management at Pretoria University. He moved to what was then Rhodesia where he did a masters degree in tropical resource management at the university in Salisbury, now Harare. “I went on a field trip to the Natal Parks Board and remember driving past Mkuze Game Reserve on the way back and telling myself one day I would work there. It was an intuition or a premonition because shortly after that I saw an advert for the post of ecologist at Mkuze. I applied and was appointed.”

Goodman went on to spend 22 years there, from 1975 to 1997, as the regional ecologist for northern Zululand, which included Kozi Bay, St Lucia, Ndumu, and the Sodwana state forest after the military left the area. While at Mkuze he became well known for his work with black rhino. He moved from being a regional ecologist to co-ordinating biodiversity research because “the authorities felt I needed to play more of a regional role in the management of research.”

Goodman laughed and readily admitted that his long service at Ezemvelo was uncommon as the average time people spend in one job today is about five years. “It is unusual to stay so long in the same job, let alone the same organisation, but ecology is not something you can learn overnight. You cannot function effectively in an organisation like Ezemvelo until you have had a lot of experience. You have to understand the organisation’s systems and structure and what it’s possible to do. The scientific tools we have for managing nature are in advance of our ability of to manage it. I led the effort to try to apply good science to the management arena, which is an ongoing challenge.

“I don’t think you can be an effective ecologist until you have had 10 to 15 years of field experience which earns you some credibility among the managers. This is critical to being able to guide management and effectively tackle the complex problems of wildlife biodiversity as there are no simple answers, and there is always another problem to solve. The more you invest in nature conservation or research, the less profitable it is to change direction or organisation. It’s like a pension — you get limited benefits if you pull out early. If you stay longer, you get 80% of what you have invested in a life-long investment.”

Apart from teaching his colleagues to drink lots of good free-trade coffee and thus being the inspiration behind the aroma in the corridor, Goodman is justifiably proud of his numerous career achievements (see box).

He feels “a deep sense of personal fulfilment” about his career. “From the age of 16 I dreamt of having the kind of career that I have enjoyed. I was very clear about what I wanted to do: be a game ranger. My dad was an engineer and said ‘no’, but I’m glad I managed to have a career in nature conservation. It has been hugely stimulating.” As to future plans, Goodman said he is taking early retirement because he looks forward to getting back into the field after 10 years of “a huge administration load”.

“The admin is such that I can’t do science anymore. I have generated a lot of research data that has not been written up and published. I would not get that done if I stayed another four years. I intend to publish that research. It is also time to move over for a younger person to apply new energy and ideas to this post. There is never any harm in having fresh ideas and new energy.”

No doubt Goodman will also continue to generate that deliciously distinctive aroma as the process of writing up his research will undoubtedly be accompanied by many cups of good coffee.

Career Highlights

GOODMAN has been acclaimed for his contribution to nature conservation. These include the following.

• Developing international understanding of savannah ecosystems and how they should be managed.

• Pioneering the inclusion of communities surrounding conservation areas in managing them, which is now part of conservation “best practice”.

• Co-ordinating the first strategic environmental assessment of the KZN province.

• Spearheading the establishment of a huge electronic database on conservation in KZN: “I do not know of another organisation that has the kind of resources that we have built.”

• Creating biodiversity reporting systems for KZN.

• Developing black rhino reporting and status and trend monitoring in KZN.

10 Questions for Pete Goodman

1. What motivates you to get up every day?

• The abundance of natural life around us and the thought that I can discover, document, understand and hopefully make a contribution towards conserving it for future generations.

2. Pet hates?

• People who say “I can’t” or “you can’t”.

3. Advice you give to your children?

• Enjoy life and confront your challenges.

4. Any regrets?

• Not having enough time to do everything I want to do.

5. Last book you read?

• In a Different Time byPeter Harris — wow!

6. Favourite food?

• Thai curry.

7. Bad habits?

• Procrastination.

8. On your ‘bucket list’ to do before you die?

• See a bongo and a Sumatran rhino in the wild, visit Angkor Wat and the Great Wall of China.

9. To relax?

• In good company watching the sun go down over a natural landscape with a glass of red wine.

10. Want to be remembered for?

• Being slightly extraordinary.

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