Close to home

2010-02-05 00:00

JASON Londt’s new book is soberly titled Suburban Wildlife in KZN but it could equally be called A Guide to the Game Park in Your Own Home. Readers of Londt’s regular Witness column “Concrete Jungle”, from which the book is in the main compiled, will know they can expect chatty and informative writing on the wildlife we encounter on a daily basis: geckos, shongololos, stinkbugs, spiders and Christmas beetles — and not forgetting Londt’s favourites, robber flies.

“People see things around the house,” says Londt. “Why write about something you can only see elsewhere, or in the Kruger National Park. Writing about the species found right where you live brings it closer to home.”

Londt graduated in entomology and zoology from Rhodes University and got his doctorate working on the biology of cattle ticks in the Eastern Cape. He was awarded a post- doctoral fellowship at the University of London (Kings College) where he worked for a year in 1974 on British ticks. On his return to South Africa he took up a post at the Veterinary Research Insitute, Onderstepoort, again working on ticks. Meanwhile, he was also busy researching and cataloguing Hangingflies and his work in this area was instrumental in his being appointed to the post of assistant director at the Natal Museum in Pietermaritzburg in 1976. There Londt changed his research focus from ticks to robber flies and he is now a world authority on this large group of predatory insects. He was appointed director of the museum in 1994, a post from which he retired in 2003. He is now director emeritus of the Natal Museum and honorary research fellow of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and continues his research on flies.

Londt says the inspiration for his Witness series was Jeff Huntly’s Veld Sketchbook, a regular feature on the Monday leader page for over 20 years. “When he stopped writing his column in 2006, I thought ‘I’m going to miss this guy’,” says Londt. “There is a place in a newspaper for items that are not hot news but are simply of interest.”

When it became clear no one was stepping into the gap left by Huntly, Londt offered to write a natural history column focusing on animals that could be encountered in the suburbs of KwaZulu-Natal’s towns and cities.

“I thought it was something that people would be interested in,” says Londt. “And I knew from my years at the museum — the various queries I would get — that people were interested! They would phone up and say, ‘I’ve got this yellow thing with spots on it’ or bring in dead creatures in bottles.”

Londt’s offer was accepted and the first “Concrete Jungle” was published on June 4, 2007. Initially the column ran twice a month, and now it appears monthly.

Londt sees the series as both entertaining and educative. “I’ve always been interested in public education,” he says. “Over many years, I have seen human populations mushroom and wilderness areas shrink. There is no doubt that our precious diversity is under great threat and that only one thing can save it — a proper appreciation of its true value.

“I hope the series, and now the book, will strike a chord with people and that when they read about a particular creature they will think ‘I’ve seen that’, and next time they see it they won’t automatically reach for the Doom or the swatter.”

Similar motivation has seen Londt produce two previous books: A Beginners Guide to the Insects (1984) revised and reprinted in 1994 as A Guide to the Insects of Southern Africa. The previous year saw the publication of Talking of Creepy Crawlies, drawn from his three-year stint on the radio programme Talking of Nature. Both titles, as is Londt’s latest, are published by the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa).

The book is copiously illustrated with colourful and detailed photographs. Londt admits that compiling the column and the book saw him improve his skills in macro photo­graphy. “Digital cameras makes macro photography that much easier,” he says. “I’m not after a photographic art image but a photograph of a creature in which you can see all the salient features so that you can identify it.”

Asked if he has any favourite out of all the creatures in the book, not surprisingly Londt replies “robber flies”. Londt has transformed knowledge of this group and discovered 500 new species. “There are 2 000 species in Africa and around 1 000 in southern Africa. This one family of flies is bigger than all the birds put together.

“But I’m also interested in Hangingflies,” he says, and they also feature in the book. “I cut my teeth as a researcher with work on Hangingflies. There are only about 50 African species, 30 of which occur in southern Africa.”

Whether he’s writing about flies, frogs, lizards, snakes, monkeys or yellow-billed kites, what Londt’s writing shares with Huntly’s is a sense of wonder and an anecdotal approach largely absent from most of today’s rather clinical field guides. Where else would you learn how to sex a millipede or find out that stink bugs have a permanently built-in drinking straw and are partial to wet lizard dung?

• Suburban Wildlife in KZN by Jason Londt is published by Wessa: KZN Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa.

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