WORDS Colleen Blaine PHOTOGRAPHS Vernon Gibbs-Halls

Vernon Gibbs-Halls is passionate about the natural environment and absolutely committed to maintaining the Garden Route’s diverse ecology.

South visits Vernon at his home in Hoekwil, where we sit at his kitchen table. His devotion to the natural world is heart-warming and so genuine that my own commitments pale in comparison.

I expected to have a long discussion about the mammoth duties facing Vernon in his capacity as chairman of the Garden Route Initiative and environmental officer at Eden District Municipality. Instead he smiles at me and says: “Working with nature is not hard work because nature is not about hard work.”

His love affair with nature began at Arendhoogte Wildlife Sanctuary outside Riversdale, which he co-owned, and through the years he realised that working with animals and the environment was not just his job, it was his whole life.

In addition to his many duties as environmental officer for Eden District Municipality, Vernon became chairman of the Garden Route Initiative in 2008, which has as its main purpose the establishment of the Nelson Mandela Biosphere Reserve. The project has already secured R200 000 grant funding from the World Wildlife Fund, which is being used for an extensive public participation process, consultation with municipalities and other role players, and on-going awareness and education campaigns.

The envisioned reserve is expected to incorporate the furthest boundaries of George all the way east to Cape St Francis in the Eastern Cape, and should include the entire coastline and marine environment, lakes, rivers and estuaries, the Outeniqua Mountains and the Baviaanskloof – and will border important sister reserves such as the Gouritz cluster.

“On the Garden Route we are blessed with such a diverse spectrum of biomes in a relatively small area, which is in fact one of the last remaining pristine natural corridors for animal and insect movement. The need for this biosphere reserve is like the need for sustainable living; it is not a nice-to-have it is a must-have.”

Vernon explains that the biosphere reserve will ensure the rapidly declining natural wealth of the Garden Route will be protected, which in turn will safeguard its associated tourism industry and related economy.

The stipulations of such a reserve will inform matters of future development, agricultural practices, the establishment of natural corridors, cultural preservation initiatives, education and awareness programmes, and more.

The draft application, which is being made through the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) Man and Biosphere (MAB) Programme, has at its core the need for communities to become custodians of this reserve. In effect it means hundreds of hours of Vernon and his team’s time in sharing their vision with others – and countless locals to make that vision work on the ground. Fortunately this is already a very big part of what he does as his involvement in environmental education projects throughout the Garden Route is extensive.

“The only way to learn about the environment is by interacting with it directly. We take children up rivers and onto beaches so that they can experience and then understand nature with all their senses. If they touch it, feel it, smell it and see it, they understand why they need to preserve it.”

Vernon’s on-going efforts have also earned him several conservation awards, most recently the National Kudu Award and Green Champion of the Western Cape Award. “While I am honoured to receive awards such as these, the true reward for me will be when the biosphere reserve finally becomes a foreseeable reality. We still have a long way to go, but I know that in the end it will be worth the time and effort. I really believe that the people of the Garden Route have it in them to make this goal happen.”

Members of the public, conservation and community organisations, and all other interested and affected parties are encouraged to get involved in the many aspects of establishing this reserve.

Vernon Gibbs-Halls
072 670 5108
[email protected]