SA wildlife champion mourned

Robbie Robinson

Former SANParks stalwart still working at time of death, aged 77

Regarded as a visionary in terms of crucial marine environment issues, former SANParks chief executive Dr Robbie Robinson, founder of the oldest marine protected area (MPA) in Africa, has died at the age of 77.

Armed with a marine sciences PhD from the US and 20 years’ service with the South African Department of Fisheries, Robinson hit the ground running when he was appointed to head the then Tsitsikamma National Park by SANParks.

He established the iconic Otter Trail and began work on the Tsitsikamma MPA.

Recognised as being light years ahead of his time by colleagues, he argued that creating a coastal no-take zone would benefit not only local marine species but also the South African marine environment and fisheries generally as excess numbers moved out of the MPA.

Backed by this now widely accepted scientific premise, the Tsitsikamma MPA was established in 1964 – the first of its kind in Africa and one of the first in the world.

In December, Environment Minister Edna Molewa declared that the MPA should be partially opened and recreational fishing rights awarded to the Tsitsikamma community applicants.

This was on the grounds that the applicants’ forebears used to fish the area before it was closed off, she said.

Speaking to The Herald shortly after the minister’s declaration, Robinson said he found it mindboggling and that even if some sections of the MPA remained closed they would also be negatively affected. Peet Joubert, who worked under Robinson at SANParks, said yesterday he would be sorely missed.

“He was a very intelligent man, light years ahead of his time in terms of conservation planning,” he said. “He did amazing stuff.” After Tsitsikamma, Robinson headed the establishment of the Mountain Zebra National Park and at Addo he took the landmark decision to remove fences to allow the elephants to roam freely.

Later, backed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Rupert Foundation funding, he went on to lead the establishment of the West Coast National Park and the Table Mountain National Park.

He was honoured by WWF International for the launch in 2003 of the Ai-Ais/ Richtersveld National Park, the first national park in the world at the time with a direct community share in running it.

Extending his condolences yesterday, SANParks chief executive Fundisile Mketeni said the organisation would be forever indebted to Robinson for the role he had played in expanding the country’s national parks system.

Having ended 32 years of service with SANParks, including seven as chief executive, Robinson kept on working after retirement – including in Uganda where he helped to stem wildlife poaching.

Robinson’s wife Joh, said her husband had never stopped his fight for environmental protection.

“Besides the work he was doing trying to stop fishing in the Tsitsikamma MPA he was worried about offshore gas exploration, which he said was killing dolphins and whales,” Joh said.

“One of the last things he did was write to the Department of Energy opposing one of these projects.”

Robinson died in Knysna Hospital on Monday. He leaves two sons and four grandchildren. He will be buried at the weekend after a private ceremony.

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