Embracing the synergies of science

Eco-scientist and veterinary surgeon Dr Mark Penning presented a fascinating and entertaining talk at Eden Grove recently, putting a human spin on the subject:“The Evolution of Public Aquariums into Centres of Science and Conservation”.

The JLB Smith memorial lecture was introduced by the recently appointed director of the South African Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), Dr Angus Paterson. JLB and his wife Margaret Mary were, according to Dr Paterson, “the most formidable team in ichthyology”, discovering a myriad species as well as identifying the first coelacanth seen in 65 million years.

Dr Penning illustrated his talk with a fascinating collection of images depicting his involvement in numerous educational and conservation initiatives. Apart from being an active vet, he is the Executive Director of the South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR) which meets the challenges of marine conservation through its three divisions, uShaka Sea World, the Oceanographic Research Institute (ORI) and the Sea World Education Centre. 

uShaka Sea World is the largest aquarium in the Southern hemisphere and makes a significant  contribution to educating the public about the environment. “When 2000 kids stand there, so in awe of the marine creatures that you can hear a pin drop, then you know you are doing something worthwhile with your life,” says Dr Penning. With an intake of 15 postgraduate students in 2011, “the ORI has strong affiliates with UKZN and, to a growing degree, Rhodes University,” said Dr Penning. A cornerstone to the aim of the centre is to educate and inform people on how to create sustainable livelihoods from the sea and coastal areas.

Dr Penning and his team have revolutionised animal care by designing and building a decompression chamber which makes it less stressful for large fish to be transported. The chamber is powered by generators and serves as a quiet, enclosed capsule for the animals to regain their equilibrium while in transit. He has also helped develop the ingenious method of using target training to help save the lives of animals all over the world. The animal is led onto a clearly marked target lured by a morsel of its favourite food, where anything from being weighed and measured on a special custom-built scale, to taking blood or urine samples to administering medication is carried out. It takes between 20 to 30 training sessions to target train a wild animal. Dr Penning showed some funny and endearing images of animals patiently co-operating with their care-givers, including a hippopotamus “usually known as a homicidal maniac” as Dr Penning joked having his teeth brushed.

Discussing the interface between nature and mankind, Dr Penning said: “We are messing this planet up quicker than it can recover, bunching together in cities and excluding nature. What this means to me is that all animal populations must be managed, regardless of how much space they may or may not have.”

He emphasised the importance of zoos and aquariums, which are instrumental for bringing species back from the brink of extinction. Through his work for the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (Waza), formerly extinct species have been released back into the wild. Waza spends over US$ 350 million on programmes and does more field work than the World Wildlife Fund.

Dr Penning is confident that such species will prosper, provided that the reason they became extinct in the first place is sufficiently dealt with. “Science is critical to conservation, especially the social sciences, which help us to understand mankind in order to help nature,” he concluded.  “I believe in telling good news stories, which help to build bridges between different disciplines; creating synergies...”

From left to right: Dr Mark Penning and Dr Angus Paterson, new Director of SAIAB.

By Anna-Karien Otto



Please help us to raise funds so that we can give all our students a chance to access online teaching and learning. Covid-19 has disrupted our students' education.  Don't let the digital divide put their future at risk. Visit www.ru.ac.za/rucoronavirusgateway to donate