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.
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.
“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 320 km long iSimangaliso.
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.
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 Buyane 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 encyclopedia 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!”