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2 May 2023 | By University of the Free State
“Growing up in the tiny town of Robertson – a strange little Klein Karoo village – I had a grandfather on my mother’s side who took me by the hand every week, put me in a wheelbarrow, and pushed me out of town because we did not have cars. He systematically, and with infinite patience, taught me his view of nature, which has never left me.”
Dr Dave Pepler recalls these memories with his grandfather, stating that this time with Oupa Boy le Roux, whom he describes as illiterate but with a vast reading knowledge, is one of the biggest reasons for his passion and love for nature today.
“He sensitised me to a specific optic of looking at nature. The excitement that he instilled in me has stayed with me to this day. I will never forget the days in the veld with my grandfather, teaching me the ways of the veld.”

On 21 April 2023, the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of the Free (UFS) conferred an Honorary Doctorate in Zoology upon Dr Pepler – nature enthusiast and conservation philosopher – for his significant contribution to society as ecologist, naturalist, and environmentalist.

In his acceptance speech, Dr Pepler said, “I accept this honour with deep gratitude and a hell of a lot of pride.” Paraphrasing President John F Kennedy in Berlin in 1963, he said, “Jetz, bin ich ein Kovsie.”

He holds an MPhil in Zoology from the University of Cambridge and is a Research Associate of the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology in Stellenbosch.
Dr Pepler has published many peer-reviewed articles and contributed chapters in academic literature. Some of his recent work has been published in Violence against Nature and the Morality of Ecology.
“The latter sounds like a contradiction, but it is the only way we could protect nature – by giving nature human status. We can be ethical but never moral it if is not a legal person. By granting systems, landscapes, rivers, and mountains human rights, we can start defending their rights,” he said.
He has also been consulted on many projects throughout Africa, sharing his knowledge on biodiversity and conservation management, among others. As a specialist tour guide, he has conducted expeditions to Iceland, Borneo, India, Ethiopia, Egypt, Morocco, Uganda, Rwanda, and Madagascar. He was particularly captivated by the beauty of nothingness that he found in Iceland and Namibia.

My interest in ecology is purely incidental. I am infinitely more interested in architecture, philosophy, aircraft, but my bread and butter are ecology. – Dr Dave Pepler

During his lifetime he received numerous awards and high honours, including the Molteno Medal from the Cape Tercentenary Foundation for his outstanding contribution to conservation, the Stevenson Hamilton Award from the Zoological Society of Southern Africa, and the South African Habitat Council Life Achievement award.

For many South Africans, Dr Pepler is a well-known face as presenter of the environmental documentary programme, Groen (and for the young ones, Groentjie), giving a close and personal experience of nature. Besides his 81 000 followers on Facebook, he also made numerous contributions to the Radio Sonder Grense radio programme, ‘Hoe verklaar jy dit?’.

Receiving his honorary degree in person, Dr Pepler had the opportunity to visit the Bloemfontein Campus of the university. After meeting with academics in several of the departments in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, he expressed his admiration for the different centres of excellence at the university, stating, “You have much to be proud of.”

Later in the day, he inspired graduates at the Faculty’s Academic Awards Ceremony, urging them to find their own voice, especially in a world where artificial intelligence is now finding its foothold in society. According to him, the glory of scientific writing lies in an individual voice – the writer’s voice ringing through his work uniquely. He encouraged the graduates to go out and develop their own voice.

Dr Pepler also stressed the importance of reading, and – on a lighter note – quoted an English dictionary writer from 1962, who said, “The children of today is not reading anymore.”

“Read, not binge-watch series on Netflix,” he appealed to the audience.

“Connections, connections, connections. The more you read, the more connections you can make. This not only holds true for science, but also the arts,” he pointed out.

Dr Pepler impelled the group of alumni to become anything they wish to achieve.

“Go out and do it,” he concluded.

Dave Pepler (Photo: University of the Free State)