In Celebration

The Wildlife & Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA) – originally known as The Wildlife Society – has been in existence since 1883 and was formally incorporated in 1926 with the objective of creating a body of powerful public opinion to pressure the government of the day to establish a National Parks Board (now known as SANParks). This was to ensure the proclamation of the Kruger National Park and to advocate for the forming of other national parks in South Africa. From these roots, arose the strong, membership-driven organisation that was responsible for raising funds to finance many much-needed environmental projects and initiatives. 

The Wildlife Society was fortunate to have the support, involvement and leadership of many inspiring and committed individuals. Over nearly 95 years, thanks to these early eco-warriors, the achievements of the Society have been many and varied and it has played an integral role in the environmental history of South Africa. This Remembrance page is dedicated to these early members of The Wildlife Society, many of whom became legends in their own time, and although they have passed on, they will continue to inspire and guide us. They will remain in our hearts as we recognize their outstanding contribution to people and planet, and their tireless efforts to defend and care for the Earth. 

Our first dedication is to Keith Cooper, who passed away unexpectedly on Saturday, 20 June 2020. There have been many messages, reflections and reminiscences of the Wildlife Society with Keith at its helm as National Conservation Director from 1972 to 2002. We hope to be able to collect them here, not only as a personal tribute to Keith but as a valuable historical record of the phenomenal work undertaken by the Wildlife and Environment Society and its inspiring stalwarts who led the way in forming a movement that could effectively take a stand against the destruction of the environment. 

An iconic tree has fallen Keith Henry Cooper (1937 - 2020)

By Margaret Burger on behalf of the Wildlife and Environment Society, KwaZulu-Natal

A thesaurus search finds no word synonymous with iconic. This term, which describes someone or something that is one-of-a-kind, is an apt epithet to pay tribute to a remarkable human being. Keith Cooper was indeed remarkable.

Keith Henry Cooper, born in 1937, passed away suddenly on Saturday, 20 June 2020. He leaves behind his wife Mae, his children Christopher, Richard, Patricia, Jennifer, their spouses, and their families. Although Keith began his working career at the Standard Bank in Mtubatuba, from an early age he had a passion for conservation and this ultimately  guided his career path. He became involved in conservation in 1961 when he joined the Oceanographic Research Institute in Durban as an administrative and scientific officer. In 1972 at the age of 35, Keith became the National Conservation Director of the Wildlife Society, a position he held for thirty years, a quite extraordinary achievement in the 70s.

Paul Dutton writes: “Keith was smitten by the immense desire to become a game ranger but Colonel Vincent – director of the Natal Game & Fish Preservation Board at the time – urged him to rather use his passion for conservation, including wildlife and wilderness, outside of the constraints of  a provincial department.” Perhaps this advice stayed with Keith in his expansive conservation career, during which he lobbied to save habitats; secured wilderness areas; and documented, photographed and produced rich research material, particularly on the flora of southern Africa.

At the 90th celebration of the Wildlife and Environment Society in 2016, Keith Cooper was awarded the Gold Medal Award for his conservation work. From left to right: John Green (Chairperson of the Western Cape), Keith Cooper, Dr Richard Lewis

As conservation director of the Wildlife Society, Keith’s deep understanding that conservation without involved and committed communities would fail, stood him in good stead. He loved being with people while at the same time  working to conserve natural areas. He developed a passion for medicinal plants and their value to people. A recent project Keith considered was job creation through growing Nightshade or umSobo (Solanum reflexum) to make Umsobo jam. In addition, he advised growing uqadolo (Bidens Pilosa) for its nutritional value as a leafy green vegetable or imifino.

At a time when cannabis was illegal and the South African Police raided growers in rural areas, ultimately driving them into remote inaccessible locations to avoid detection, Keith made a public statement against methods used in the  eradication of cannabis and the resultant damage to environmentally sensitive areas. He was also able to state that cannabis income helped to uplift rural communities and knew of a village in the Transkei where a school was built funded by sales from cannabis.

Keith was ahead of his time in so many ways. He recognised that local communities are the best source of knowledge of local contexts and applied this approach when he formed Bergwatch in the uKhahlamba-Mnweni area. Timberwatch was a natural outgrowth to Bergwatch as wattle, pine and eucalyptus plantations encroached into catchments and private and state-owned plantations expanded into natural areas. He established Coastwatch KZN as a means of enabling local inhabitants to keep a watch on local issues, report and act. These grassroots movements were supported by the Wildlife Society’s conservation staff.

Keith was a committed environmentalist and sought justice for communities and the environment. Together with members of the Wildlife Society, Dr Nolly Zaloumis and staff of the Wildlife Society, he campaigned for St Lucia to become the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park (now the iSimangaliso Wetland Park) to minimise mining in critical biodiversity hotspots. Similarly, the Mapelane dune forests were preserved. On the Transkei Wild Coast, where illegal cottages were built in pristine coastal zones, Keith secured conditional funding that allowed the Wildlife Society to litigate successfully against illegal occupancy.

To protect the white rhino in Hluhluwe, Keith’s negotiations resulted in the incorporation of the iMfolozi Wilderness into Hluhluwe. The authorities at the time traded the iMfolozi Wilderness for Mkhuze, not realising the strategy of winning this round and then tackling the next, which was of course, to save Mkhuze as an additional wilderness area. 

Realising the critical need for environmental education and natural areas for bonding with nature, education centres such as Twinstreams in Mtunzini, uMngeni Valley in Howick, and Treasure Beach on the Durban Bluff became part of the Wildlife Society, enabling immersive nature education for a large range of participants. uMngeni Valley became the centre of environmental education after a year of fund-raising by members when the property was purchased in 1977 from Eric Humphries.

Keith also established the African Conservation Education (ACE) project, the first of its kind in South Africa. ACE was set up to educate black teachers in the field of environment and conservation. Mlindile Simeon Gcumisa ran the in-service training courses and supported the Wildlife Clubs (which later became Eco-schools). Keith lobbied widely, coordinating projects across local, regional, and national platforms. The ACE Steering Committee included Ian Garland, Dr Sibusiso Bhengu (previously National Minister of Education), Mr Zimu, a retired head of Education for KwaZulu-Natal, Dr Nolly Zaloumis and eventually with Dr Jim Taylor of WESSA.

In 2002, the University of KwaZulu-Natal conferred an honorary doctorate on Keith Cooper for his scientific contributions on forests. In 2016, at the 90th celebration of the Wildlife and Environment Society, the Gold Medal Award was bestowed on Keith for his conservation work, recognising his 30 years as director of conservation and his greater contribution beyond WESSA.

Keith intrinsically understood concepts such as: sustainable livelihoods; inclusive education; environmental education; trans-disciplinary; water security; research and data collection; and ethical leadership long before these became mainstream. Keith’s is a life well lived, but at 83 years of age, having completed the 10-year Forest Rehabilitation at Mbona Private Nature Reserve, Keith was about to embark on his next big project, the Conservation of Forest and Grassland in the Karkloof district of KwaZulu-Natal, now called the Potential Greater Karkloof Biosphere Reserve Project.

Keith has brought us together in ways he could never have imagined. I have had wonderful conversations this past week with several WESSA members who knew Keith personally and we will move forward inspired by Keith’s leadership across so many expanses. We hope to honour Keith by ensuring that his vision and legacy live on for future generations to appreciate and value our natural heritage as Keith demonstrated in so many ways.

Margaret Burger 
30 June 2020


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Cooper, K. 2020. Report on (A) Forest Rehabilitation Project at Mbona Private Nature Reserve, and (B) Conservation of Forest and Grassland in the Karkloof district of KwaZulu-Natal, for the year ending 31st December 2019.
Mail and Guardian. 2008. Pondoland paradise in the pipeline.
Owen-Smith, G. 2011. An Arid Eden: A Personal Account of Conservation in The Kaokoveld.
Smith, A. 1995. Cannabis confusion: criminalization and decriminalization revisited. University of Cape Town
Ryan, M. 2011. Wild at Heart. Sunday Tribune.
Ryan, M. 2018. A life well spent fighting for nature and all its inhabitants. Sunday Tribune.