Highlighting the career of Prof Willem van Riet, directing innovative conservation initiatives in Africa, illustrating his experiences and approach through the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

An all-inclusive approach to conservation was instigated by numerous adventures on wild rivers in the 60’s and developed through academic research at Universities in Philadelphia (USA) and Pretoria (South Africa). GIS software, data and processes were harnessed throughout his career in support of planning, scientific analyses and fundraising.  Projects and programmes will be illustrated through a number themes. This approach was implemented during his years on the SANParks Board and on transboundary initiatives in Southern Africa during his 10 years as the CEO of the Peace Parks Foundation. Recently he has functioned as a consulted through the Swedish entity (Transboundary Conservation Foundation).

"I hope that the review of these conservation projects, as a journey of discovery through the use of GIS and maps, will be of assistance to conservation development in many parts of the world. I would like to iterate that the content of this site reflects my own personal point of view and is based on my personal experiences."

INSPIRATION behind my approach: Humanity needs nature, but nature does not need us. We receive provisioning, regulating, supporting and cultural service from the environment we live in. These ecosystem values and benefits are known as ecosystem services (ESS). These services are not always visible or understood, but our survival depends on their protection . They are best managed through a network of protected areas of various classes and tenure that transcend international boundaries.

Conservation through National Parks was originally developed in the USA to protect scenic values and features. Later on the value of tourism was realised and developed to utilize and support conservation Today, the protection of natural resources through the ESS approach, has expanded initiatives beyond park borders to the surrounding landscapes and the people that sustain themselves from the natural services they provide. The ESS approach has proven to be more successful in motivating and inspiring conservation inside and outside protected areas. My journey of the last 50 years has inspired me to talk about and demonstrate the invaluable lessons I learnt and make it available to partners and participants in this most important action of mankind.

The thin red line approach to the storyline. The concept of the thin red line of logic is used to tie the thoughts together. The basis for the thinking is that each step in the process of understanding is logical and leads to an understanding of the next step. This is a crucial principle in providing insight into a complex process.

My motivation for a life in conservation was based on people that inspired me and my passion for kayaking and exploration of wild places. This list of references from the past supported the establishment of principles that underpins my philosophy towards conservation and my professional life.

My first memory of wild landscapes comes from a reading of the book Jock of the Bushvelt written by the South African Sir Percy FitzPatrick introducing wild Africa and the life in the wilderness to my soul as an emotional experience and this initiated my life in conservation.


Towards the end of my school life I became interested in exploring rivers. After building a kayak I ran away from school and spent a week paddling down the Berg River through the farmlands of the Boland in the Western Cape. On rivers one is not exposed to development in the valleys, each turn and bend in the river introduces a new visual experience and leads you on, day after day. This enthusiasm also led to an interest in kayaking and connected me with Dr Ian Player the famous conservationist and canoeist of and of the DUSI canoe marathon and Rhino conservation fame. We became very good friends through conservation and served on the South African National Parks Board for many years together.


While studying for a degree in Architecture at Cape Town University I spent my free time going on kayak expeditions down various rivers in Africa, such the Orange, the Pongola, the Limpopo, the Sabi, the Okavango and the Cunene. These expeditions introduced me to the various landscapes of Africa. Prof Lester King the geologist and his book on ‘South African Scenery’ taught me the geological backdrop to landscapes and also the geomorphological process shaping the landscape of the rivers. The valleys, the rapids and the waterfalls all had a reason for being there and they assisted me in this understanding. Prof King was also one of the first to understand the concept of continental drift globally.


After completion of the degree in Architecture, I realized that my life in Africa directed me to further studies in Landscape Architecture. I met Dr John Phillips, one of the first ecological thinkers and scientists. Dr Phillips supported Smuts in writing the influential book by Jan Smuts on ‘Holism and evolution’, one of the first publications on ecology ever. DR John Phillips suggested and arranged a scholarship to complete my Masters at the University of Pennsylvania in Landscape Architecture in 1973 with Prof Ian McHarg of the ‘Design with Nature’ fame. The basis of his teaching is that nature knows best and that the planner should be able to see and understand natural forces before planning within the constraints of nature.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._F._V._Phillips / https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Smuts

Coming back to South Africa, I started to teach at the University of Pretoria in the Department of Landscape Architecture in January 1995. I became involved in GIS as a planning tool and developed the first South African GIS programs in Fortran. The basis to my approach was the same as that of Ian McHarg and the department of Landscape Architecture and its students became disciples of this approach to planning.


During this time I met up with Dr. Ken Tinley an ecologist from Natal and he became my mentor and introduced me to the Science of Ecology, based on the sequential understanding of all the components of Nature, driven by the importance of salient features. We spent many days together in the wilderness and produced a number of original planning studies for such as those for Maputuland, Pilanesberg Gorongoza in southern Africa.
During the year 2000, Dr Anton Rupert requesting a visit to Stellenbosch and an offer to develop and run the Peace Parks Foundation contacted me. This changed my life and for the next 10 years, I focused on the concept of conservation across boundaries. The boundaries of nature and that drawn by politicians are never the same and ecosystems should be managed across the boundaries. This philosophy was the driving force behind Dr. Rupert’s focus for the last period of his life. He had restructured his companies and handed control of his empire to his son Dr. Johann Rupert, he focused only on conservation and the creation of a network of Peace Parks in Southern Africa and the world.


He introduced his friend President Mandela to this philosophy and in turn all the presidents of the SADC countries supporting the establishment of these parks. With the weight of the politician support behind the foundation it grew quickly and with the sufficient funding support became one the most influential NGO’s in conservation. During this period of development of the Foundation we met often and once I was fortunate to accompany him to his farm in the Transkei, flying in the presidential jet, discussing landscapes.


One day I received a call from a Sir Richard Branson, at first I did not believe that it was his voice but after a while his enthusiasm and interest in our foundation led to our friendship and he joined the foundation as a patron. His enthusiasm for conservation and for the trans-transfrontier ideal was infectious. He introduced the idea of surrounding one with people more skilled than yourself and that became our philosophy.


Jack Dangermond from ESRI is the greatest figure in GIS and under his development of ARCINFO became the most powerful software in planning and management. It changed the science of Ecosystems and the methodology of research. His visit to the Kruger National Park and the Peace Park Foundation and the viewing for our 3d software gave me the Presidents reward at the conference in San Diageo during 2008. The science of GIS is still today the anchor platform of the foundation.


DMZ Meeting with Ted Turner CNN

DMZ Meeting with Ted Turner CNN


The Demilitarized zone is a strip of land between north and South Korea app. 4 km wide and 250km long. Due to the strong barrier fencing and the presence of a vast number of military from both sides, the landscape remains undisturbed for many years. During 2004 Dr Nelson Mandela, during a visit to South Korea, mentioned the idea of a Peace Park for the DMZ to the government in the South Korea. Later that year Prof Willem van Riet travel to South Korea to make a presentation at a conference on the idea of conservation area for the DMZ and some draft planning work he had completed. The concept was to expand the existing conservation areas in South Korea into a link across the DMZ into North Korea to form a conservation and tourism area in the north and to anchor the rest of the DMZ to this block. Other delegates at the conference in Seoul also mention the undisturbed status of the ecosystem due to absolute lack of any presence of people inside the 4 km strip of land stretching 250 km from south to north. We also met with the governor of the province bordering on the DMZ as well as Mr Ted Turner and spent two days traveling along the DMZ inspecting the landscape. Later that year I was called to a surprize visit to South African foreign affairs office for a meeting with a delegation to South Africa from North Korea. They had expressed an interest in this idea and wanted to enquire about the work we had done. They invited Prof van Riet and a South African delegation to visit the area but that did not materialise. After retiring from the Peace Parks Foundation I still retained strong interest in this concept and would really liked to play a part in the revitalization of this dream. I cannot think a more powerfull event to popularize the idea of Transboundary Conservation in the honour of Dr Nelson Mandela.

Click on the Images to enlarge.


Northern Mountains

Northern Mountians

View from the South-East and Seoel

View fromthe Southeast and Seoel

View from the North-East

View from the north east

Land cover

Land Cover



DeLorme base map and Conservation area

DeLorme base map and Conservation area

I have been fortunate on a few occasions to share many moments in the natural environment with Sir Richard Branson. It all started while I was sitting, at OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg, waiting for a flight to Mozambique to go to the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. I received a phone call from him explaining his interest in the Peace Park vision of the late Dr Anton Rupert and that he would like support the work that we were doing at the time.

This call led to a visit to his lodge at ULUSABA, from where we went on a 5 day helicopter flight to the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park and the MAPUTO Elephant Reserve and Transfrontier Park. What a wonderful and great person to spend time with. He was energetic, full of wisdom and knowledge and I enjoyed spending time flying across the incredible scenery of southern Mozambique, while flooding his senses with an endless stream of comments on what we where looking at from the air.

One of the most interesting and unique conservation areas in Africa. This is my story of my relationship with the establishment of the Park. This image of the Pilanesberg ring complex brought back many good memories of my days as a consultant to the North West Province (Baphutatswana) government. During 1978 Dr. Ken Tinley and myself were appointed by the provincial government to investigate and create a national park covering the total volcanic circle. See below for the full story map 

At the recent ESRI Africa Conference in Cape Town I was asked to present the Conservation group session with a presentation themed, Conservation and Ecosystem Services. The most interesting aspect of the conference was the meeting with Jack Dangermond the head of ESRI global as well getting exposed to the new direction the world renowned GIS company is taking. The most interesting was the movement to Cloud for data and software as well as the importance of Apps for user-friendly communication between all conservationists. One of the most interesting Apps was that of Story Maps. This App allows one to tell a story line with maps derived from the GIS platform in a most logical and interesting way. These Apps can be utilized on all platforms such as Apple. This is an approach I will be following as many people do not have access to GIS software or technology but would still like to derive benefit from geography. I have now placed the first of these presentations on Kazuma pan below. I hope you find the exposure to GIS technology interesting.


Click here to view the Storymap in full screen mode 

Story Map of a kayak expedition that I undertook during 1963 down the then unexplored Kunene River in southern Angola. The article in four pages is accompanied by clips from Apple Maps illustrating the important geographic features of this amazing landscape.


Introduction of the theoretical basis for conservation and ecosystem services as a support model for decisionmaking.

Conservation was originally seen as an act of protection for scenic beauty and tourism values. The culling of excess numbers of wildlife was and is still frowned upon. Management was seen as a necessary evil and protected areas became more and more isolated in the changing world. Pressure from immediate surroundings increased the importance of management. Management goals and objectives had to be adjusted when conservation changed from the protection of natural resources to a form of land use that benefits surrounding human populations. Various projects based on conservation and ecosystems services (ESS) as an indispensable element will be illustrated.

Planetary Boundaries

The discussion about the impact on the global ecological situation is based on the impact of humans on this earth. When looking at the map of the footprint on Africa the extent of this is very clear. Most of the high land use densities are linked to infrastructure and transport corridors.

This is an enormous subject and as a form of land use, conservation is becoming more and more relevant. As a background to the more detailed discussions of conservation areas and specific projects I wish to discuss the theory behind the concept of protecting biodiversity and ecosystem services as the motivation for the idea of conservation.

There are a growing number of projects and organizations focussing on the global situation, as well as the role and function of the global ecosystem and the importance of the earth as a home for humans.

This was personally one of the most interesting projects I have ever worked on. The planning for the Makhado Mine for Coal of Africa required a review of the Vhembe Biosphere reserve as well as the Nzhelele catchment basin and their ecosystem services. This review of all the mapped information was placed on a map composition in a sequence that would follow a thin red line of logic in one single map poster. It will require some detailed study by zooming in on each of the maps on the poster but will reveal the vast amount of information these maps contain. (see the download link at the end of this article for the full size version)

As the primary role of conservation authorities is the protection and management of biodiversity, it should also be involved in the identification and transfer of services, benefits and value distribution.

This can only done if parks and conservation areas are viewed as a form of land use, that needs to be integrated into regional land use patterns.

Should ecosystems and its services be valued? This question is foremost in the minds of conservationists today with the current debate on rhino horn and ivory and the trading thereof. This Guardian article comes to the conclusion that we have no choice but to so. The emotional approach has failed over the last 25 years and we have to follow a new approach if we are going to win this war.

This is however but a small part of the global discussion, where the identification of the important of ecosystem services has been increasing and the watershed study by De Groot and others on the value of global ecosystem services makes this very clear. Ecosystems and the services they provide have a capital component. It also indicates that payment for these services has to be included in government policies if rural communities are to derive benefit. Communities should be rewarded for the management they can provide.

The original work on the millennium development goals by Scholes and Biggs are still very valid and need to be implemented by the National Planning Commission if we are going to save our natural resources for future generations.

I have included the work by De Groot and others as this globally important work attaches economic value to ecosystems and its services and illustrates the vast economic benefit of nature.

The three references provide important platforms for the critical conservation debate of the role of conservation areas in the land use patterns of our country and how benefits are to be calculated. One slide by De Groot illustrates the holistic approach to nature and should be seen as the primary motivation behind the establishment of conservation areas.


Image Credit: Ecosystem Services by De Groot

Read the first chapter here

The concept of ecosystem services and its value to society has been touched upon a number of times in my website.

The principles behind this approach were established by the study on the SADC ecosystem services component of the Millennium development goals by Scholes and Biggs. De Groot and others took it onto the global scale in their global study on the value of ESS and its financial implications.

Click here for the pdf: Benefits of Forest Ecosystems in Zambia and the role of REDD+ in a green economy transformation

I also illustrated the mapping of Ecosystem services (ESS) on an SADC wide, South Africa and world heritage sites such as the Vhembe biosphere reserve.

We have become so used to the fact that man made structures can be proclaimed as historical monuments if ISIS does not destroy them. This article on the termites is fascinating.

During a period of working with a mining company on developing new methods of dealing with environmental impact, through identifying ecosystem services as the measure of the environmental impact, I often used the structure and functionality of in a termite mound as en example of ecological efficiency. When measured against the challenges a mine is facing when working underground these termites are amazing.

That their structures are now found to be long living and have survived over many years refocuses my attention onto these wonderful animals. In the era of only looking at large species these small species are often forgotten. In terms of biomass, termites are seen to be one of the most important species on earth.

Full Article: Click Here

Page 1 of 5