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SANBI Head Steps Down

8 January 2007

Brian Huntley officially stepped down as chief executive of the SA National Biodiversity Institute at the end of December. He takes on a new role as a senior policy adviser to the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism until his formal retirement in early 2009.

The institute, known widely as SANBI, came into being following the promulgation of the Biodiversity Act in 2004 and was the successor to the Kirstenbosch-based National Botanical Institute of which Huntley had been appointed chief executive in 1990. Huntley has overseen it's unprecedented growth to comprise eight national botanic gardens, three research centres, four major bio-regional programmes and more than 100 school-based environmental greening projects, with a budget that has soared from just R19 million in 1990 to R310m last year.

As yet, however, no one has been appointed in his place.

"I recommended to the Sanbi Board in 2004 that they should start the process to find a young black successor to me, as I was keen to step down to accelerate our transformation process," Huntley explains.

"It is, of course, not unusual to have the heads of public entities in South Africa left open for extended periods due to recruitment difficulties, but the 26 months in the case of Sanbi must be a national record," he adds.

However, he doesn't see this as major problem for the organisation - yet.

"Sanbi is in excellent health, and although the board has yet to appoint a successor, we are fortunate in having a young, strong and dynamic leadership team," he says.

Lifelong Associations

Despite his many executive duties, Huntley has remained a biodiversity expert, with experience going back decades.

Huntley started his association with South Africa's greatest botanic garden as a 17-year old, when he won a national Kirstenbosch-sponsored essay competition for a piece on the alien invasive plant Chromolaena odorata.

"Over the course of 45 years, my involvement with the various institutions that today form part of the Sanbi family has been quite profound," Huntley says.

After several years of wildlife research, including four years in Angola planning the development of national parks, he returned to South Africa and worked for the CSIR in Pretoria as co-ordinator of its savanna ecosystem project, while based at the National Herbarium. He then worked at the Foundation for Research Development - (now known as the National Research Foundation) - before being appointed to the Kirstenbosch-based role in January 1990.

New Role

A key aspect of his new policy advisory work will be to help translate South Africa's excellent environmental legislation into effective on-the-ground reality.

"We've got a whole lot of legislative instruments, not only in terms of the biodiversity act but many other positive conservation-oriented pieces of legislation," he notes.

"Compared to any other country, we're in a unique position of having a really good package of legislation and institutions to achieve biodiversity goals.

"But it's not 100% cost-effective, perhaps, in terms of resource allocation and resource use. What they want me to do is to look across the board and make recommendations on how we can improve even more what we've got.

"So my new work will cover things like investment in research, implementation, carrying through legislation and generally gearing up our systems so that we can get to an even better use of resources - especially human resources and stimulating the development of a new generation of biodiversity professionals."

"Otherwise, I just want to have a bit of time to do reading, research and writing," he says.

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