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Change the world

25/10/2022

Green Scorpions director Dr Div de Villiers was the guest speaker at the inaugural Breakfast Club at the Nelson Mandela University Business School last week in Gqeberha, hitting out at greed and poverty and highlighting the role of leadership.
Nelson Mandela University, in association with the Mantis Group, kicked off the Breakfast Club @Business School, new series of regular conversations, with the conservation warrior, a leader in his field, at the School’s Auditorium.
 
Dubbed “The Big Protector”, De Villiers is the director of the Compliance and Enforcement unit of the Eastern Cape Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism.  
 
Also known as the Green Scorpions, the unit fights conservation crimes such as rhino poaching, illegal sand mining, indigenous plant smuggling and more.
 
Business School academic Prof Paul Poisat and author, motivational speaker, historian and The Herald columnist Dr Dean Allen were in the hot seats interviewing De Villiers.
 
“The two things that drive environmental crime are greed and poverty,” said De Villiers.
 
“The key thing is to learn your law because everything is based around that. We have excellent laws in South Africa but the implementation in trying to ensure compliance is lacking, big time.
 
“Leadership is key not just in conservation but in everything. You do not need to be the best player in the team to lead,” he said, crediting the Green Scorpion’s success in the Eastern Cape to having a strong and dedicated team.
 
Poisat echoed this point, saying that in the drive to develop business leaders for tomorrow, the University also strove to develop steward leadership, in service of society.
 
Faculty of Business and Economic Sciences Executive Dean Professor Hendrik Lloyd said the Breakfast Club was a new series to bring together academia, business and the community through relevant and topical events. 
 
Environmental stewardship was one of the University’s core values, said Prof Lloyd, and it was therefore important to engage with society in tackling conservation issues.
 
The first rhino lost in the Eastern Cape 
 
De Villiers vividly remembers the first rhino poached in the Eastern Cape, just a year after the launch of the Green Scorpions.
 
“It’s an incredibly emotional experience the first time you see a dead rhino.  
 
“We’ve lost around 100 over the years, and that’s a small drop in comparison to the Kruger and other places up in the north.”
 
De Villiers is the first to admit that funding conservation of a charismatic or flagship animal such as rhino, however, is easier than raising cash for cycads, a plant that is endangered in this region.
 
“When I started as a baby ranger in 1983 there were only four species that were endangered, then the boffins realised how big the trade was going to be.”
 
Today, all cycads in the province were endangered and “we’ve lost thousands and thousands of plants”.
 
“The rarer they are, the more expensive, but they are very slow growing so, for very rare species, you are talking about thousands of rands per centimetre of height.”
 
To date, the Green Scorpions have brought down several poaching syndicates, hitting criminals hard. However, budget cuts make it tougher all the time.
 
“Government just does not have the money so we have to look into partnerships,” said De Villiers.
 
Wise use of natural resources
 
“Conservation is the wise use of natural resources for the benefit of present and future generations. But it goes deeper than that, it’s something that I believe in,” he said.
 
It started with parents who taught him to love nature, and a school principal who took her classes birdwatching on bush walks.
 
Later, De Villiers did his South African military service with the old SA Defence Force’s 31 Battalion, venturing deep into the Caprivi bush with Khoi trackers.
 
Then, when the young “troopie” was discharged, he enrolled at Rhodes University for a BSc although his studies unexpectedly were cut short. 
 
An unfortunate laboratory incident where he “messed up a science experiment, trying to impress some classmates” led to expulsion after only three months.
 
Undaunted, young De Villiers applied for a job in nature conservation – where he has been ever since. Incidentally, he has also studied almost incessantly along the way with his most recent qualification a 454-page doctorate in Biodiversity Conservation at Rhodes.
 
“Thirty-eight (38 years) later I got my PhD from that same university – so it was a long journey!”
 
Working for the people
 
Over the lifetime he has worked in this field, De Villiers has learnt as much about human nature as wildlife.
 
“In conservation you think you’re there for the plants and animals but the reality is if you really want to make a difference, you’ve got to work for the people.”
 
Whether it is down-and-out Koos the prawn pirate or a Xhosa king, “treat people with dignity”.
 
• Diarise Thursday, November 10, for the next Breakfast Club @Business School. Further information from kimw@mandela.ac.za
 
 
Conservation warrior Dr Div de Villiers was the first guest at Nelson Mandela University’s Breakfast Club @Business School. Image: MICHAEL SHEEHAN
 
 
Breakfast Club hosts Prof Paul Poisat, left, and Dr Dean Allen, right, interviewed Dr Div de Villiers at the launch. Image: MICHAEL SHEEHAN
 

Contact information
Ms Zandile Mbabela
Media Manager
Tel: 0415042777
Zandile.Mbabela@mandela.ac.za