for tomorrow



GLOBALLY renowned vegetation ecologist and conservation scientist and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan (NMMU) Botany Professor, Richard Cowling last night received a National Research Foundation (NRF) A-rating for the fourth time.

In addition, the brilliant pre-doctoral work done by Nasreen Peer  earned her the 2015 NRF Research Excellence Award for Outstanding Doctoral Candidates (Next Generation Researchers). Her research interest is focused on the diversity and ecology of true crabs (Crustacea: Brachyura) in the St Lucia Estuary.

On the basis of her outstanding performance, Peer was granted an upgrade from an MSc to a PhD.

Both awards were acknowledged by NMMU’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Engagement, Prof Andrew Leitch.

“These awards are due recognition of the significant contributions our researchers are making to the creation of cutting-edge knowledge for a sustainable future. Their research is ground breaking and highly relevant for South Africa at a time when so much of our natural environment inheritance is under threat.

“We are indeed proud of their achievements,” he said after accepting the award on behalf of Peer, who is presently overseas.

Peer’s PhD thesis, which she plans on submitting by the end of 2015, is centred on environmental change (both anthropogenic and natural) in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and the influence this has on crab dynamics. Her research on the freshwater and fiddler crabs of South Africa has been published in various national and international peer- reviewed journals

Professor Cowling and his colleagues have, during his 35-year career as a professional botanist, conducted ground-breaking research in community ecology, plant diversity and evolution, conservation science and palaeoecology. Much of this has translated into applied outcomes in areas such as conservation planning, degradation ecology, ecological economics, ecosystem services, invasion biology, natural resource management, restoration ecology and social marketing.

He obtained a BSc from the University of Cape Town, followed by his honours and PhD in botany. He accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at Curtin University in Australia then moved to the University of Port Elizabeth (now Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University) as a senior research associate. He spent a year working as a scientific coordinator for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) National Programmes, before returning to UCT as lecturer and eventually associate professor in botany. He also served for eight years as UCT's Leslie Hill Professor of Plant Conservation and director of the Leslie Hill Institute for Plant Conservation.

He is currently a distinguished professor and research professor at NMMU, as well as an honorary professor in botany at UCT. Cowling has become a house-hold name in conservation ecology in South Africa due to his untiring efforts to help safeguard the biodiversity of the Cape, succulent Karoo and subtropical thicket hotspots; his interventions led directly to the proclamation of over 100000 hectares of threatened natural habitat as protected areas. His research on the restoration of degraded subtropical thicket is guiding programmes in the state and private sectors to restore hundreds of thousands of hectares via the carbon market, using spekboom (Portulacaria aftah) for carbon sequestration.

He has mentored 26 PhD and 32 master's students, and published over 350 papers in peer-reviewed journals such as Nature, Biodiversity and Conservation, and Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, together with four books and 59 articles. He is listed among the 250 most cited researchers in ecology/ environment in the world. He has served on the editorial boards of various journals, including Conservation Biology and Conservation Letters, and has reviewed papers for publications such as Nature, Science, and PLOS Biology.

The extent and depth of Cowling's work over the years has garnered him considerable recognition, such as the Cape Times Centenary Award (Conservation), the Gold Medal Award from the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, and a Distinguished Service Award from the Society for Conservation Biology in the US. Cowling is also an elected foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences (US).

In recent years, Cowling has turned his attention to palaeo-studies, focusing on how modern humans evolved along the southern coastal regions of Southern Africa more than 120 000 years ago. Working with scientists from Arizona State University and other across the world, this research has led to the recent establishment of the Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience at NMMU.

Peer started her studies towards a BSc in marine biology in 2009 at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. During her first two years she was awarded a Dean's Commendation based on good academic results. Her third year research project, Flood Effects on Fish Diet in the St Lucia Estuary, South Africa, was published in the December 2013 issue of the African Journal of Aquatic Sciences. She also presented the paper at the 49th annual South African Society of Aquatic Scientists conference. She completed her honours in marine biology in 2012 and graduated summa cum laude.

It was during this time that she developed her research interest in the diversity and ecology of true crabs, initiating a project on this subject in the St Lucia Estuary. She presented the major findings at the Ezemvelo KZN Conservation Symposium, where she won an award for second best student presentation.

The crab biodiversity project was fully developed during her master's at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in 2013, where she began the completion of the species check-list and diversity survey under the supervision of the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) Chair in Shallow Water Ecosystems. Her research on the freshwater and fiddler crabs of South Africa has been published in various national and international peer-reviewed journals. 

Prof Richard Cowling

Nasreen Peer