iSimangaliso bids farewell to Andrew Zaloumis

4 Sep 2017

After some 20 years of outstanding leadership and a career dedicated to people-centred conservation, Andrew Zaloumis has stepped down as CEO of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. He will pursue his studies in sustainability at Cambridge University UK and continue to contribute to Southern African conservation and development.

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Andrew Zaloumis on the edge of Lake St Lucia, centrepiece of the iSimangaliso World Heritage Site, in the early 2000s; Walking in the Tewate wilderness on a guided trail – one of the rare places where one is at complete peace with nature.

Recognised in the international and domestic arena as a visionary in his field, Andrew has received a host of global awards for the implementation of a conservation model for protected area management that puts communities at the centre of conservation strategies.

Respected by his staff and people who worked with him as a leader who translated ideas into tangible life-changing benefits to the lives of the communities he served, Andrew leaves behind a living legacy that few South African’s would have had the courage and strength to pull together. He met his mandate and proceeded to do more.

Not only was he instrumental in the establishment of South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, he also transformed the region from a declining tourist economy into a flourishing and growing tourism destination capable of competing with some of the finest global attractions.

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Zaloumis was honoured to receive the WWF Living Planet award in 2015; Receiving an ‘Ingwazi (Legend) Award’ from the Land of Legends Association, one of many awarded to Zaloumis and iSimangaliso for outstanding work during his term of service; One of the regular payments made to the Bhangazi Land Claimants through the revenue sharing process; Handing over equipment to Thandi Masuku as part of the Park’s Rural Enterprise Programme.

“Under his tenure, Mr Zaloumis pioneered and institutionalised development-focused conservation at the Park,” comments the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Dr Edna Molewa, and during his leadership, Government has delivered significant benefits across the iSimangaliso region, both through the Lubombo Spatial Development Initiative and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority.

These include the construction of the Hluhluwe to Mozambique road, upgrades to the N2, the implementation of a malaria programme that reduced malaria incidence by 96% in KwaZulu-Natal, as well as the listing of iSimangaliso on the World Heritage role and the promulgation of the World Heritage Convention Act, the consolidation of 16 parks under one banner and management system, the investment and construction of Park roads, bulk services, tourism accommodation and day-visitor facilities in the 320km long iSimangaliso.

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During the past 17 years iSimangaliso has embarked on an ambitious rewilding programme to reintroduce all historically existing species as well as boost current populations. Above: A rehabilitated green turtle and a rescued serval are released into the Park.

In his drive to recreate the wholeness of nature and to begin the process of rewilding the Park, Andrew managed the reintroduction of historically occurring game last seen a century ago on the banks of Lake St Lucia, the removal of commercial forestry plantations from the Park, and the systematic rehabilitation of the Eastern and Western Shores sections of iSimangaliso.

Well ahead of his time, however, Andrew recognised that the cornerstone of rewilding iSimangaliso involved a dimension way beyond the rehabilitation of nature. He understood that in order to recreate this wholeness, it was imperative to create a place where people and nature could reconnect and flourish. So Andrew and his management team set about to explore – and implement – every possible avenue to create opportunities for access, equity and economic empowerment of local communities.

Most of the land rehabilitation work is undertaken using labour-intensive methods, creating a significant number of temporary jobs in the area, and some 8 000 permanent tourism jobs have been created. There are three community-owned tourism lodges in the Park, as well as community-owned and operated boat cruises, turtle tours, game drives, and other excursions in the Park under licence. The Higher Education Access Programme has provided 87 young people with financial and other support for their university studies. The first 50 graduates are charting a path for themselves in conservation-related fields. The Rural Enterprise Programme has mentored and supported 215 small businesses, 106 of which have been given seed capital and 3 000 odd crafters, artists, and tour guides have been trained.

The work in iSimangaliso has translated into a reversal of a negative tourism trajectory. The number of establishments in the iSimangaliso region has grown some 86%. The region has outperformed other KwaZulu-Natal destinations in numbers of arrivals, both domestic and international, and average spend by tourists has increased.

Last but not least, under Andrew’s inscrutable direction, iSimangaliso has achieved 15 consecutive clean audits, helped to raise millions with the establishment of the iSimangaliso Rare and Endangered Wildlife Species Fund and enlisted the financial support of the World Bank’s Global Environment Fund, for the rehabilitation of the Lake St Lucia Estuary – arguably the biggest estuary rehabilitation project in the world.

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Above: The opening of the Western Shores section to the public in 2012; Zaloumis participating in the Mandela Day ’67 minutes of service’ where staff removed alien trees from the Lake St Lucia Estuary.

The awards given to Andrew and iSimangaliso include the SAICA 2015/16 award for Public Sector Audit Excellence, the WWF Living Planet Award, Mail and Guardian Greening the Future Award for youth leadership and job creation, the National Heritage Council Golden Shield Award for World Heritage Site of the year, and the KFW Grizmek (for people-centric conservation practices). iSimangaliso was also a finalist in the World Travel and Tourism Council Tourism for Tomorrow Awards and in 2016, Andrew was given the honour as a John P McNulty Laureate for the Rural Enterprise Programme.

“He is a legend in our lifetime”, says Buyani Zwane, Chairman of the iSimangaliso Board. “Not many in our nation have demonstrated selflessness, dedication to grooming leaders, managers, professionals, and entrepreneurs in rural settings to world standards with unquestionable love for the country as recently retired founding CEO of iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority. He remains a towering gentle giant despite his size. He is a walking encyclopaedia on whom conservationists, researchers, media, conservation enthusiasts, amateurs, professionals and others will continue to call on. We are privileged to have worked with him as a Board over the past two years and are professionally richer and wiser for the association. I know I speak on behalf of many that in Andrew we have a patriot, professional, and a dedicated South African whose contribution will outlive him and many generations to come. There are many lives that have changed for the best forever because Andrew touched them. We wish you greatness as you venture into an even broader world beyond the confines of iSimangaliso and KwaZulu-Natal to the global stage. You’re a hero – go shine!”

Accolades for Zaloumis’ management of the World Heritage Site have poured in since the Minister broke the news publicly last night, and former Board Chairperson Mavuso Msimang had this to say: “As chairperson of iSimangaliso, I can say without any fear of contradiction that Andrew is the best conservation manager I have had the fortune to work with in my entire career. Extremely knowledgeable, empathetic to staff and very supportive to community development and empowerment. He never stopped telling visitors about the Park’s cultural heritage mandate. Thanks to the far reaching perspectives of Andrew and his fellow leaders in the Park, iSimangaliso today boasts in excess of 80 university graduates whose studies were directly funded by iSimangaliso.

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Zaloumis was actively involved in the conservation side of iSimangaliso’s activities together with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. These included the historic reintroduction of lion into the Park after an absence of 44 years (above left). Due to an increase in the threat of rhino poaching in vulnerable parts of the Park, dehorning has been undertaken as one of the measures to protect the population (centre). Zaloumis experienced a couple of close shaves with wildlife during his time in the Park, most recently an altercation with a buffalo while walking on the Eastern Shores (above right).

“This self-effacing, almost shy man, however, would not brook any violation of the Park’s integrity by persons pursuing illicit commercial interests. Andrew will be a very hard act to follow.”

Past Board Vice-chairperson, Karen Mathebula added her thoughts: “People like Andrew are rare… and because of his humility and selflessness, we would not know what we had, until he is gone. The great thing is that wherever he goes, wherever he serves – and he will – the world will benefit from his unique insight, drive and above all his humanity. Go well Andrew, and know that there are many who will still benefit from your extraordinary legacy in that north eastern part of our country.”

And the last word goes to Andrew Zaloumis who said that “None of this great work that we have achieved in iSimangaliso would have been possible without the good, solid team that we have had in place over the past two decades and I am deeply grateful for their support.”

For more information on the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, follow us on TwitterInstagramFacebook and Youtube, or visit our website at www.isimangaliso.com.

For media enquiries and photographs contact Bronwyn Coppola on 083 450 9111 or bronwyn@abetterworld.co.za.