Professor Paul Skelton (Distinguished Old Rhodian Award)

Professor Paul Skelton has been largely responsible for the establishment of the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) as a national facility and internationally renowned marine research platform in South Africa, and the leading collection-based centre for ichthyology in Africa. He is a world authority on aquatic biology and is regarded as one of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Freshwater Fish Specialist Group’s (FFSG) most active participants. His work has reviewed the status of freshwater fisheries in Africa and brought the plight of the numerous endangered species to the forefront of conservation biology and policy changes. 


Skelton first enrolled at Rhodes University in 1967 to study Zoology and Entomology. He then did an Honours year in Zoology before becoming the first postgraduate student at the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology. In 1976 he upgraded his MSc and became the first student with a PhD in Ichthyology.


After a stint as Freshwater Ichthyologist at the Albany Museum with Dr Rex Jubb as his mentor, Skelton joined the JLB Smith Institute as the Curator of Freshwater Fishes. He is a meticulous laboratory and field worker who has pioneered many fields of research in freshwater fishes in southern Africa. He has 78 peer-reviewed scientific publications to his name, 126 popular scientific and other publications, 32 research reports and 425 citations. In the late 1980s he researched and wrote A Complete Guide to the Freshwater Fishes of Southern Africa, a substantial work that has gone through several editions. In the early 1990s he received two special Merit Awards for Museum Researchers from the then Foundation for Research Development (FRD). At this time he also secured his first major contract research project to conduct a survey of the streams linked to the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, and to establish a fisheries unit to enable Lesotho to develop and manage its aquatic resources.


During tumultuous times that required leadership of the highest calibre, Skelton was appointed as the Director of the Institute in 1995 and successfully steered it into a new era as SAIAB, a national research facility. He continued to contribute in major ways to national and international research and conservation initiatives such as the Four Corners Project in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, and the IUCN Freshwater Biodiversity Assessment for Southern Africa Project. He was also instrumental in establishing and supporting the African Coelecanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP), the SAEON Elwandle Node and the Agulhas & Somali Current Large Marine Ecosystem (ASCLME) Programme here in Grahamstown. In 1997 he received the Silver Medal of the South African Society of Aquatic Scientists. He also continued to teach and supervise Rhodes students and he was appointed as a full Professor in a non-employment post.


Following his appointment in 1999 as Managing Director, his excellence as a leader, a negotiator and partnership developer came to the fore as he guided the Institute as a new member of the National Research Foundation (NRF) family. Having demonstrated its relevance to crucial conservation initiatives, SAIAB also began to play a role as an educational and training provider. The Bright Sparks Development Programme is a model to encourage and support disadvantaged learners to engage in freshwater science and to follow a career in science, thus contributing to capacity development in South Africa.


SAIAB itself underwent major infrastructural reconstruction and on his retirement in 2011 he left behind a state-of-the-art collections building, a new collections management centre, library facility, molecular biology laboratory and refurbished building. Such was his impact during his SAIAB tenure, that Skelton was made a Member of the Executive of the NRF. He is currently Managing Director Emeritus of SAIAB.


Over the years he has also served on several boards and held honorary appointments, including on the: IUCN Species Survival Commission, FFSG; CSIR Natural Resources and Environment, Research Advisory Committee; he was part of a DST/NRF delegation to Mexico to develop a bilateral agreement; he also serves on the ASCLME Steering Committee; and the International Barcode of Life Steering Committee.