Professor Colleen Downs is the most recent recipient of BirdLife South Africa’s Gill Memorial Medal Award established more than seven decades ago to recognise outstanding lifetime contributions to ornithology in southern Africa.
Downs, the South African Research Chair (SARChI) of Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, joins a list of eminent ornithologists from Southern Africa and is one of 27 recipients, only four of them women, to receive the award.
A renowned zoologist, Downs has worked on the conservation, ecology, physiology, and behaviour of a wide range of terrestrial vertebrates to inform conservation activities. She is UKZN’s top-published female researcher with more than 430 publications to her name, including a book she edited with Dr Lorinda Hart titled: Invasive Birds Global Trends and Impacts, which won The Wildlife Society’s Wildlife Publication Award in the Edited Book category in 2022.
An alumnus of UKZN, Downs’ research explores the impact of changing land use, especially urban expansion, on biodiversity. Her work shows that in the under-researched Global South, rather than simply leading to a decline in biodiversity, wildlife can persist in urban and agricultural areas with mosaic landscapes where natural and managed greenspaces are interspersed.
She prioritises integrated, interdisciplinary research, particularly from the African continent, and encourages researchers to publish, collaborate, and persevere. She acknowledges her postgraduate students, collaborators, funders, and administrative and technical staff for supporting her research.
A special focus for Downs has been the conservation of the Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus), South Africa’s only endemic parrot species and BirdLife South Africa’s Bird of the Year for 2023. With fewer than 1 800 in the wild, these residents of Afromontane Southern Mistbelt forests are threatened by land use change and habitat loss, illegal trade, and disease.
She has chaired the Cape Parrot Working Group (CPWG) at UKZN for 25 years, where she co-ordinates academic research and citizen science programmes, and oversees and contributes to management plans, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) listings, practical conservation programmes, and the hosting of the annual Cape Parrot Big Birding Day.
The citation for Downs’ award highlighted her human capacity development; having begun her career in the Science Foundation Programme at UKZN in mid-1994, she has trained and graduated more than 130 postgraduate students, encouraging them to pursue work that interests them which has resulted in her supervising diverse projects on fauna that range from freshwater fish to hippos, crocodiles and various raptors, in locales that include protected areas, farmlands and urban landscapes. She has taught countless undergraduate classes and arranged undergraduate vacation apprenticeships.
Downs is an Honorary Fellow of the American Ornithological Society, a Fellow of the International Ornithologists’ Union, a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, and a recipient of a National Science and Technology Forum-South32 Award for Research Capacity Development. She also received the Zoological Society of Southern Africa Gold Medal and served as BirdLife South Africa’s Honorary President for four years.
She has been widely recognised in her field, including in a book titled Female Heroes of Bird Conservation by British ornithologist Rosemary Low.
Dean and Head of the School of Life Sciences Professor Ademola Olaniran and College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science Dean of Research Professor Neil Koorbanally congratulated Downs on receiving the Gill Memorial Medal.
‘We are very proud of the outstanding work that you and your team are doing,’ said Olaniran. ‘Thank you for continuing to fly the University’s flag very high.’
Words: Christine Cuénod