Professor Richard Cowling is a globally renowned vegetation ecologist and conservation scientist. During his 35-year career as a professional botanist, he and his colleagues have conducted ground-breaking research in community ecology, plant diversity and evolution, conservation science and palaeoecology. Much of this has translated into applied outcomes in areas such as conservation planning, degradation ecology, ecological economics, ecosystem services, invasion biology, natural resource management, restoration ecology and social marketing.
He obtained a BSc from the University of Cape Town, followed by his honours and PhD in botany. He accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at Curtin University in Australia then moved to the University of Port Elizabeth (now Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University) as a senior research associate. He spent a year working as a scientific co-ordinator for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) National Programmes, before returning to UCT as lecturer and eventually associate professor in botany. He also served for eight years as UCT’s Leslie Hill Professor of Plant Conservation and director of the Leslie Hill Institute for Plant Conservation. He is currently a distinguished professor and research professor at NMMU, as well as an honorary professor in botany at UCT.
Cowling has become a household name in conservation ecology in South Africa due to his untiring efforts to help safeguard the biodiversity of the Cape, succulent Karoo and subtropical thicket hotspots; his interventions led directly to the proclamation of over 100 000 hectares of threatened natural habitat as protected areas. His research on the restoration of degraded subtropical thicket is guiding programmes in the state and private sectors to restore hundreds of thousands of hectares via the carbon market, using spekboom (Portulacaria afra) for carbon sequestration.
He has mentored 26 PhD and 32 master’s students, and published over 350 papers in peer-reviewed journals such as Nature, Biodiversity and Conservation, and Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, together with four books and 59 articles. He is listed on Thomson Reuters ISI HighlyCited.com among the 250 most cited researchers in ecology/environment in the world.
He has served on the editorial boards of various journals, including Conservation Biology and Conservation Letters, and has reviewed papers for publications such as Nature, Science, and PLOS Biology.
The extent and depth of Cowling’s work over the years has garnered him considerable recognition, such as the Cape Times Centenary Award (Conservation), the Gold Medal Award from the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, and a Distinguished Service Award from the Society for Conservation Biology in the US.
Cowling is also an elected foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences (US).