Article written 10 Jan 2016
20-year-old John is Birding Ecotours’ youngest bird guide. But that’s not all – John is also the world’s youngest person to see 800 bird species in Southern Africa in one calendar year (and only one of six people to do so). John’s eccentric passion for wildlife (especially birds), coupled with his strong belief in the role of education for the success of preserving our planet’s amazing ecosystems, has made him a role model for many young nature enthusiasts. Our guest blogger Rachel decided to get to know this excellent bird guide a bit better.
Rachel: Tell us about your childhood and family?
John: I was born in the small, windy city of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. It wasn’t long, however, until our family moved to the Highveld interior and to a much bigger, less windy city, Johannesburg. Although being based in the city, it most certainly did not stop my family from continuing to fuel the fire that was their love for nature and the wilds of Africa. Ever since the tender age of eight months I was exposed to the wonders of the Kruger National Park and various other reserves across Southern Africa. Sadly, I was not one of those children who were raised in the heart of the African bush, having hyena’s, buffalo, elephant and a plethora of snake species visit my garden, but instead I lived through stories similar to these from the confines of the school library. I attended St Stithians Boys College for 13 years of my life; a magnificent school that helped fuel my passion for nature and conservation. My teachers would often get rather irritated with me as, from a young age, I would often have my field guide to mammals of Southern Africa (or some or other wildlife-related book) hidden behind my allocated school text book whilst the teacher taught up front; it was no wonder I never did quite grasp the Pythagorean theorem!
As well as attending an incredible school, my family’s undying love for all things wild and the privilege of being able to visit the bush on an annual basis, I was exposed to a gentleman who would shape my life and give my passion for conservation both focus and determination. The original “Crocodile Hunter”, or more commonly known as Steve Irwin, would have me sitting behind the family television on a daily basis as a kid, watching wide eyed, mouth slightly agape, as he shared his treasured knowledge in his attempt to spread the message of conservation worldwide. Today I find myself constantly relating back to two famous quotes of his:
- “I believe that education is all about being excited about something. Seeing passion and enthusiasm helps push an educational message.”
- “My job, my mission, the reason I have been put onto this planet is to save wildlife…”
R: What formal training have you undertaken?
J: I am a qualified Level 1 Nature Guide and National Bird Guide through the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa and am currently working to further these qualifications. I am also studying, through the University of South Africa, for an LLB degree, which I hope to couple with my passion for conservation and wildlife and hopefully make a difference in some way or another in the near future with regards to the fight for conservation.
R: If you could describe yourself in only three words, what would they be?
J: Enthusiastic, eccentric, passionate
R: How has birding enriched your life so far?
J: Birding is not just a hobby or passion. Birding is s a lifestyle, and a life-changing one at that! I know of so many stories where birding has literally been the life-saving factor in people’s lives, steering them away from conditions such as depression and giving them something to focus all of their attention on and opening their eyes to a new world. Birding is no longer dominated by khaki-wearing, elderly people, but instead by young, passionate conservationists who cannot help but admire the avian wonders we are privileged to have on this planet.
Through birding I have also had the amazing opportunities of travelling to countries I would probably not have visited anytime soon. These include Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia. Not only have I been graced with incredible sunsets, amazing scenery and fascinating cultures, but my eyes have been opened to the true wonders of Africa and, more recently, the world, making my skin itch at the prospect of exploring the various other wildlife-diverse countries across the globe.
R: What are your life list and year list so far?
J: My world list is nothing spectacular, as I have been focussing more on my Southern African life list, which currently sits on 811 species. My 2015 year list, also is nothing spectacular, but that’s understandable after I spent 2014 doing a Southern African Big Year, where I attempted to break the record for the youngest birder to see 800 species of birds in the sub-region in one calendar year. I am pleased to say I ended the year having seen 803 species, becoming only the sixth ever birder to join the “Southern African Big Year Ranks”, so I look at 2015 as my year off.
R: Do you have a life “motto” or message that you would like your life to reflect?
J: Often people underestimate the power of education in conservation, and thus it is important that we do not forget how much of a crucial role it in fact plays; for if we cannot educate, we cannot protect, if we cannot protect, we cannot preserve and if we cannot preserve then we may just lose it all.
R: Favourite book?
J: “The Jewel Hunter” by Chris Goodie: Chris takes a year off in his quest to find all 34 species of pitta worldwide. A read which you will not be able to put down, as it swallows and captivates you from cover to cover!
R: Do you have a favourite bird/bird family?
J: A question I truly dread, as there are so many families and species of birds out there, which are all special and unique in their own way. But having said that, if I had no option but to choose it would probably be the pitta family, even though I have yet to see any of the buggers. I am also a fan of nightjars and I can’t help but have a soft spot for the elusive African Finfoot, which occupied the magical number 800 during my Big Year. I have no doubt, though, that as the years go by my “favourites” will vary as I hopefully see new weird and wonderful species.
R: Other hobbies and interests?
J: I am interested in all forms of wildlife and nature as a whole. The order Chiroptera (or for English speakers “bats”) is also a major passion of mine. Ever since I was a kid it was always the bat section in my mammals field guide which sparked the most interest, and it’s been an ongoing personal mission to help change people’s perceptions of these incredible mammals, which serve crucial roles in our environment. But that aside, I always enjoy a good book, spending time with my family and friends, and keeping active and living a healthy lifestyle by regularly going to gym and both coaching (school-boy level) and playing rugby.
R: If you had one more day left on this earth, how would you spend it?
J: Without any hesitation I would spend it with my family and loved ones, relaxing on the banks of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, enjoying the grunts of hippos and being serenaded by Greater Swamp Warblers and Chirping Cisticolas, all of this with a nice cold St Louis Lager in hand.
R: What is at the top of your birding “bucket list”?
- Bird the following countries: Ecuador, Madagascar, Uganda, Ethiopia, Ghana, Peru, Thailand and Australia.
- See all species of pittas!
- Either through sheer dedication or a slight case of obsession reach 8 000 species on my world list.
- Be the first, of what I hope to be many, to complete an “African Big Year”.
- Be an inspiration and role model, mentor and friend to aspiring birders worldwide