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The South African conservation community is mourning the loss of one of its most generous but modest and unassuming benefactors, Dr Roelof van der Merwe.
The evening before his death, van der Merwe had sent a festive season email message to his friends and acquaintances, urging them to greater conservation efforts in the coming year. “Christmas time in 2015 seems to be rather more gloomy and ominous than in previous years. World-wide there are danger signs flashing and I think, of great concern to all of us, the threat to the natural environment is also growing,” he wrote. “However, I am not despondent because I know the calibre of the recipients of this message and I am confident that we will all continue the fight to preserve our natural heritage.”
Committing his family’s continued support, through the Trust, for conservation efforts, he added: “If you are not already heavily committed to nature conservation we urge you to join the battle to preserve the last wild places and species on Earth. We have no time to lose!”
Dr Morné du Plessis, chief executive officer of WWF-SA, described van der Merwe's passing as “a massive loss for conservation in South Africa” and particularly the marine conservation sector. “The Trust funded many important marine conservation projects, but perhaps none as important as that related to the ultimate establishment of Africa's first offshore MPA, the 180 000km2 Prince Edward Island Marine Protected Area that was approximately the combined size of the Free State, Lesotho and Swaziland,” he pointed out.
Van der Merwe and his family trust had also generously supported BirdLife South Africa’s seabird conservation work, the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s raptor conservation work in the eastern Karoo, as well as conservation work on the Southern Ground Hornbill.
Van der Merwe trained as a geologist and was on the staff of the Geology Department at the University of Pretoria before taking early retirement to manage the Trust and pursue his passions of conservation, travel and wildlife photography. However, he remained an Extraordinary Lecturer in the department.
An accomplished birder and photographer, he travelled widely in pursuit of his passion, including several times to Antarctica. His favourite poet was Pablo Neruda, aka the Chilean poet-diplomat and politician Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto.
Van der Merwe is survived by his wife Willene, step-daughters Rachelle and Nini, sister Elizabeth van der Merwe (Betsie), and elderly mother Miems.