College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

From left: Zoologist, Ms Rosemary Low with UKZN’s Professor Mike Perrin during a visit to KwaZulu-Natal in 1996 as a representative of the World Parrot Trust and Professor Colleen Downs.

UKZN Zoologist a “Female Hero of Avian Conservation”

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Professor Colleen Downs, South African Research Chair (SARChI) of Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, is the subject of a chapter in the book Female Heroes of Bird Conservation by British ornithologist and parrot conservation champion, Ms Rosemary Low.

Low – the first to author a book on endangered parrots – promotes improved conditions for captive birds in her work to curb the demand for birds captured from the wild. She has promoted parrot conservation in several ways, including writing books and other publications.

An interview with Low on the Psychology Today website about her new book touched on her foray into parrot conservation from her beginnings in aviculture, and how the changing landscape of conservation as more women entered the field, led her to meet inspirational individuals who had dedicated their lives to protecting a wide range of threatened bird species.

Low said telling the stories of under-recognised female luminaries whose conservation achievements were remarkable, was an effort to save those stories from being forgotten, and to inspire younger women to bring their much-needed qualities to the field of conservation.

Downs is one of 30 diverse women from various walks of life across the world whose stories are told in this volume, with Low remarking on the passion shown by women who have initiated conservation efforts with minimal support, particularly those who began this work later in life.

Downs has worked extensively on the conservation, ecology, physiology and behaviour of a wide range of terrestrial vertebrates to inform conservation activities.

A special focus for the keen ornithologist has been the conservation of the Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus), South Africa’s only endemic parrot species. 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.

Since 1998 Downs has chaired the Cape Parrot Working Group (CPWG) at UKZN, work that involves co-ordinating academic research and citizen science programmes, and overseeing and contributing to management plan developments, CITES listings, and practical conservation programmes. The CPWG has hosted annual Cape Parrot Big Birding Days (CPBBD), where citizen scientists assist with recording counts of the bird in several areas. The CPWG will host its 25th CPBBD on 7 and 8 May 2022.

Low has visited Downs and her research team on several occasions, with particular interest in the work of the CPWG.

One of South Africa’s most eminent zoologists, Downs is UKZN’s top-published female researcher and focuses on producing integrated, interdisciplinary research. She 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 has also received the Zoological Society of Southern Africa Gold Medal and served as BirdLife South Africa’s Honorary President.

In August this year, Downs and colleagues at UKZN will host the world’s largest summit on avian biology – the International Ornithological Congress.

Downs, who has been at UKZN for nearly three decades, also focuses on science education, developing research capacity, and the empowerment and mentorship of other women in research and academia. She is an exemplary supervisor and encourages her students to publish their work.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Supplied