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DR KEITH HENRY COOPER 1937–2020

Keith with Tony Ferrar and Liz Taylor on the Geo-Trail near Barbeton in Mpumalanga (2016).

Dr Graham Avery

The forest is echoing with sad silence and shock at the passing of a great South African conservationist. He was passionate about our trees and forests, and it can indeed be said of Keith Cooper that a great tree has fallen.

Keith was one of a band of conservationists mentored by the likes of Dr Ian Player, Dr Ian Garland, Prof. Eugene Moll, and Dr Nolly Zaloumus, who were closely allied to The Wildlife Society (WESSA). The seeds grew.

Keith was respected by authorities, NGOs, and ordinary people, and became a legendary pioneering force in WESSA for the sustainable conservation of South Africa’s animal and plant biodiversity, and terrestrial, marine, and urban environments. He remained active in conservation and was always willing to help when asked, giving of his time and experience freely. Many of us grew into our conservation jeans or slacks at his feet. He coordinated WESSA’s Conservation Committee (CONCOM) including leading academics and conservationists; together the group formulated WESSA’s scientifically and socially sound conservation policies and kept long-standing interpersonal and inter-NGO links. CONCOM meetings were a wonderful classroom. Keith pioneered many conservation principles that are now deeply embedded in our country. He received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2003 for his scientific and conservation work in preserving South Africa’s biodiversity, and in 2016 received WESSA’s highest award for his contribution to conservation.

He was an avid birdwatcher and, while stationed in Mtubatuba, the young Cooper fell among the local Wildlife Society members and teamed up with bird ringers. Later, as Administrative Officer of the Oceanographic Research Institute where he worked for 11 years, his interests in biodiversity conservation were further nurtured. Keith joined the Committee of the then Natal Branch of the Wildlife Society and represented them as a National Councillor. In the mid-1960s, he was asked to become a full-time Wildlife Society employee to run the National Office as the Director (1972). The position of Director did not fit comfortably with Keith, however, and he moved sideways to become the Society’s Director of Conservation in 2002 and dedicated his life full-time to biodiversity conservation, with the support of his more than able assistant Di Dold and wife Mae.

In the early days Keith and Eugene Moll produced several fieldwork reports on areas that later became Nature Reserves, and they led monthly excursions to places of interest for Natal Branch members’ families and kids (with numbers sometimes up to 100 people).

Keith was ahead of his times. During his WESSA tenure he set up many conservancies, nature reserves and protected areas around the country and helped communities next to conservation areas to develop eco-tourism and associated conservation projects. He established and developed the Society’s ACE (African Conservation Education) project (the first of its kind in South Africa, set up to educate black teachers in the field of environment and conservation); in this he worked closely with Mr Simeon Gcumisa who was later employed by the Society.

His survey of forests in KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State, Transvaal, and Transkei included all flowering plants, particularly those with medicinal value. The consummate citizen scientist, he was a prolific recorder of observations, authored two forest surveys, many WESSA field reports, and was editor with Prof. Mike Bruton of the book Studies on the Ecology of Maputaland. He drove the project to identify all important areas for conservation in Natal and Kwa Zulu in 1978 and was instrumental in the development and final production of the Kwa Zulu Natal Environmental Atlas — the first such undertaking in South Africa, and a valuable tool for Iand-use planning.

While Keith’s contributions were primarily in KZN and the Eastern Cape (Transkei), they extended significantly to other areas of South Africa and all Society regions, branches and members through direct interventions and by example. Keith was a strong, highly respected master in lobbying decision makers, politicians, State and Provincial authorities, local authorities, local communities and other NGOs; he was Chairman of the Kwa Zulu Natal Branch of the Society from 1970 to 1972 and was generous in sharing his experience and providing informed advice and inspiration to  others.  He surveyed the indigenous forests of the Transkei and wrote an extensive series of reports on proposed conservation areas in Kwa Zulu-Natal, Transvaal, QwaQwa, Transkei, Lebowa and other areas. The raw data he collected have been digitized by Prof Timm Hoffman’s group at UCT for future research on vegetation changes over time (something we could all consider in order to save our unique personal records for future research). Keith and Prof. John Grindley of UCT initiated proposals for marine and estuarine reserves in South Africa. Indeed, there have been few South African conservation plans that have not benefited from his insights.

After retiring Keith and Mae continued to be actively involved with black communities in both rural and urban areas in Tongaland, Maputaland, the Pondoland coast, Drakensberg, and informal settlements around Durban. He served on many conservation committees and Trusts. He completed a botanical survey of the Mbona Private Nature Reserve. His Karkloof projects doubled the area of conserved Afro-montane forest – another huge commitment over many years.

All this and more from an astute, humble, and real gentleman.