FOR world-renowned reptile and amphibian expert Dr Bill Branch, who retired this week from Bayworld after 32 years employment there – it all began in 1969, on the shores of a lake in East Africa. It was one of those “bum in the butter moments”, he told The Herald, that changed his life forever. Born a cockney in the bomb-blasted down-trodden Eeast end of London after the war, he moved with his parents when he was still a youngster to live in Crawley, a model new country village in West Sussex, developed by the British government.
There, for the first time in his life, he had access to forest and streams and he became not only a fledgling naturalist but also a fanatical angler.
Having finished school he won a bursary offered to kids from disadvantaged families and, having scrutinised his study options in terms of where the best fishing was, he settled on the University of Southampton (with the Hampshire Avon in suitably close proximity).
Young Bill enrolled to study molecular biology and, now and again during semesters, he got to fly to East Africa courtesy of a hefty discount offered to his Dad, who worked in maintenance in the hangars at Gatwick Airport.
In 1969, his destination was Kampala (for £24 return) and from the Uganda capital he hitched north-west to the border with what was then Zaire to Lake Albert where he had heard about a strange fish called polypterus, “a kind of fresh water coelacanth”.
He pitched his tent on the lawn of the Ginger Yacht Club (where he had heard a superb chicken curry was served) and got talking to the barman, an old English sailor.
The extraordinary thing happened when they got onto the subject of polypterus, he recalled.
“He told me, ‘hang on half a minute,’ and picked up the telephone and after a while I heard him say, ‘hi George.’
“George turned out to be the great icthyologist Prof George Brown. We were calling from a pub on the shores of Lake Albert in the heart of Africa – and he was in Seattle in the US.”
Brown was also the founder of an organisation called the Society for Protection of Old Fishes, and he was very interested to hear of a youngster who was right that moment at Lake Albert on a mission to find polypterus.
“My friend the barman passed across the phone to me and in no time I had made a deal with the professor to try to catch him some live specimens.”
Using a rod and line and wading into the swampy areas of the lake, Branch achieved just that. The species breathes air so travelled quite well in specially prepared water-tight crates. He flew back to London with his cargo and from there was able to forward 20 specimens to Seattle.
With the £400 he was paid by Prof Brown, he decided to go big – spending it all on an engagement ring for his then first wife.
Shortly after the grand purchase, however, standing on the pavement outside the Portabello Road jewellery store – he started to seriously feel ill.
“I thought it was as a result of having spent so much money, but then I fell unconscious. It turned out to be a bad case of bilhartzia which I had contracted in Lake Albert. So Africa really had got under my skin.”
With a doctorate in molecular biology from Southampton, Branch returned to Africa in 1970 via a job in Pretoria with the Atomic Energy Board on a medical team that was researching liver cancer, which was worse in SA at that time than anywhere else in the world.
It was a “schitzophrenic time”, pressured by the Apartheid government’s suspicion’s about a Communist threat, and it became clear in hindsight that the work of this team was a front for more dubious behind the scenes activity developing an atomic bomb.
Branch at the time, however, was a young scientist preoccupied by his research into liver cancer. He and his team discovered that the high prevalence of the disease was linked to the mould which grows on maize stored in the dry season in underground pits, a common practice in rural SA at the time.
After four years, he was sick of lab work and Pretoria, where the fishing was useless. Bored of “sweating by the swimming pool” he returned to the field work he had started in Uganda.
His interest especially in snakes grew “not for the macho danger of being bitten by the venomous ones, but because of the amazing things a sausage can do”, he said.
“I realised that snakes have been stripped to the minimum: no legs, no arms, just one lung….. Yet they are one of the most successful groups of reptiles.”
Having collected specimens he started recording them and studying them using a molecular approach amplifying DNA and, in some of the earliest work of this nature, “revealing the relationships of life”.
He was forced to return to England but, because of this work, he then received an invitation from Port Elizabeth. Newly appointed director John Wallace wanted a research-orientated herpetologist to join his team and had been trying to get the great Don Boardley on board. Boardley elected to stay on in Rhodesia – but referred Wallace to Branch, a young snake specialist with whom he had been in correspondence.
Branch arrived in PE in 1979, happy to return to Africa but “naively concerned” that the extensive field research already done in the PE region by John Hewitt and FW FitzSimmons might have left little to discover and, in biological terms, it might turn out to be a bit dull.
“I could not have been more wrong.
“With five biomes (broad habitat types) and two different weather patterns all smashed together at this point, the result is a unique range of animals and plants. Port Elizabeth was and still is a biological wonderland.”
Another “fortuitous collision” occurred in getting to know Harold Braack, who had just taken over as warden of Addo Elephant National Park. Braack wanted all the species in the park to be documented including the reptiles and amphibians. He contracted Branch to do the work and a long-standing collaboration began.
When Braack moved to Karoo National Park and then to the Richtersveld, he applied the same approach, once again involving Branch, who thereby got the opportunity to explore completely different terrain and habitats.
The partnership led to what is still today possibly Branch’s favourite of the 27 new species he has discovered in his career. He found the paradise toad in Paradys Kloof in the Richtersveld, a deep incision in that desert landscape, nurtured by a tiny system of springs.
Since the political transition in 1994, the world has opened up for SA-based researchers and Branch has since travelled to 20 African countries, returning just last month from a multi-national research expedition to Largo Curambo, a lake in north-east Angola where he discovered a new water cobra.
Besides numerous scientific papers, he has written seven popular books. Among the many honours he has received, he is the youngest recipient of the African Herpetology Association’s “exceptional and, in 2001, he presented the keynote address at the world herpetological association’s meeting in Indiana in the US.
But the honour he treasures most, he said, is the name post doc field students have for his book on Southern African reptiles: “Uncle Bill’s Bible”.
Commenting on the state of museums in South Africa, he said his chief concern is that as decision-makers seek to introduce greater quotients of entertainment and education to make these institutions “pay for themselves” – the great value of their natural history archives is being neglected.
“We must not throw the baby out with the bath water. These archives are what define a museum. They are not colonial anachronisms, they are not guided by arbitrary or personal idioscynchrisy. They are the thing that underpins our understanding of biodiversity; the what and the where of all things.”