CRISIS AT NATAL MUSEUM
rk000005 at PIXIE.CO.ZA
Wed Jun 11 15:53:08 CDT 1997
TO ALL CONCERNED ABOUT THE FUTURE OF TAXONOMY/
BIODIVERSITY RESEARCH IN AFRICA.
The survival of the Natal Museum as a research organisation is under
serious threat, and the support of overseas colleagues is desperately needed.
For several decades the Natal Museum has played a small but
significant role in the study of world faunas, particularly
Mollusca, Oligochaeta, Diptera, Myriapoda, Arachnida and Amphibia.
Many researchers around the world have made use of our collections,
which are often among the most comprehensive for our region in
existence. For example, it contains the most fully representative
collection of southern African and Mozambican molluscs in existence;
indeed this is worldwide in scope, and is by far the largest mollusc
collection in total on both the African continent and the entire
Indian Ocean rim (our molluscan type collection alone contains 2 633
Although this message is written from the viewpoint of the
department of Mollusca, the issues and concerns expressed below can
be extrapolated to all our Natural Science Departments. At a global
level we appear to be among the relatively few surviving institutes
still actively undertaking taxonomic research on their faunas.
The Natal Museum has until now been funded as a national (state)
museum. Political restructuring of South African museums has decreed
that only two museums will remain nationally funded, leaving the
entire eastern part of the country without a national museum. It is
planned to devolve the Natal Museum to the KwaZulu-Natal provincial
authorities, where it will fall under the Department of Education
and Culture. All personnel involved in drafting this plan have
exclusive Arts and Culture backgrounds (see the journal "Nature"
vol. 377 p. 5, Sept.1995), and have no understanding of the research
carried out by museum natural scientists or its significance, and
show no interest in its perpetuation. In fact this action displays
total disregard for the aims of our Biodiversity Green Paper of 1996
(now at the White Paper stage), which officially expresses concern
at the existing threats to taxonomic collections in South Africa.
Thus, no inquiry as to the nature or significance of the Natal
Museum collections has been made prior to the decision and we have
never been allowed to participate in the policy-formulation process.
Since the portfolio of Science & Technology, and currently
developing biodiversity initiatives are to be retained as national
responsibilities, reducing the Natal Museum to a provincial level
will isolate its scientists from their spheres of relevance to
these. Worse still, within provincial structures there is no
provision for, nor obligation towards, scientific collections or
research, and there is no certainty whatsoever that these will
continue to be funded.
Ironically, Drinkrow et al 1994 (S.A. J. Science 90: 477) showed
that per-capita output of scientific papers by Natal Museum
zoologists EQUALS that of one of the two institutes destined to
remain national, and EXCEEDS that of the other!
Already KwaZulu-Natal - the poorest and most densely populated
province - is underfunded, and during 1997 it cut its allocation to
the running costs of the provincial museum service budget (devoted
to running small town museums) by over 51%, and the provincial
library services by an even greater amount! Provincial education is
already reported to be the equivalent of US$100,000,000 in the red!
Research initiatives at the Natal Museum, already financially
strapped, will not long survive the inevitable funding cuts.
Although its staff would attempt to keep it going, with no funding
for literature, research and publication (the "Annals of the Natal
Museum" would not be supported), the future for malacology at the
Natal Museum is bleak.
We plead with anyone who has ever used or might one day need our
collections or other facilities, who has read a paper in which they
are cited, or who has the foresight to appreciate the consequences
of the irretrievable loss, to send messages of protest to our
government bodies, appealing for the collections of the Natal Museum
to be recognised as both a national and an international resource,
which merits funding from the highest government level, and should
under no circumstances be side- lined to provincial custody.
Please fax your protest to the Minister of Arts, Culture, Science
and Technology (012 - 325 2768) (or write to The Director-General,
Department of Arts, Culture, etc, P.O.Box 894, Pretoria 0001). An
e-mail message ("pd05 at acts1.pwv.gov.za") is an option, but
unfortunately these are very easily deleted and ignored.
We would also be MOST indebted if you would FAX copies addressed to:
(1) the South African Embassy in your country (we list their fax
numbers below), (2) the Minister of Environmental Affairs and
Tourism, Pretoria, South Africa (012 - 3222 682), postal address
P/Bag X883, Pretoria 0001, and (3) the Office of the State
President, Pretoria, South Africa (012 - 323 8246), postal adddress
P/Bag X83, Pretoria 0001.
We feel that the downward movement, even of the same message,
through different levels of the government hierarchy might assist in
drawing attention to its contents, as the officials directly
concerned might attempt to ignore them until it is too late (the
bill may be rushed through parliament in August or September).
Apart from the above information, points that can be made are: (1)
South Africa has ratified its signature to the Convention on
Biological Diversity and its government consequently has a
responsibility towards the implementation of the commitments
associated with this. This is acknowledged in the draft White Paper
on Biodiversity currently under final review by a South African
parliamentary committee. This White Paper admits (we quote from the
Biodiversity Green Paper on which the White Paper is based) that (a)
"Taxonomy.... is the core... knowledge base upon which all
discussion of biodiversity rests" [p. 49], but (b) "There is
however a dire shortage of suitably trained people" and "South
Africa's museums.... are facing serious funding problems which
threaten existing collections and the future of their professional
staff" [p. 50]. The S. A. Government further undertakes [p. 50] to
"Maintain or enhance the capacity of museums and other institutions
which undertake biodiversity surveys, and which classify, describe
and which store collected specimens"!
(2) The proposed provincialisation of the Natal Museum directly
opposes the spirit and aims of this parliamentary document. The
Natal Museum is the only institute in South Africa able to carry out
inventory and other taxonomic/systematic work on major groups such
as Mollusca, Oligochaeta, Diptera and Myriapoda. Side-lining the
Natal Museum as a unwanted provincial responsibility will run
completely counter to such ideals.
Please give our plight a few moments of your time.
FAX NUMBERS FOR S. AFRICAN EMBASSIES/CONSULATES/ ]
U.S.A. Washington (Embassy): 202 986 5712
AUSTRALIA/NEW ZEALAND: Canberra (High Commission): 6 273 3543
BELGIUM: Brussels (Embassy): 2 285 4487
CANADA: Ottawa, Ontario (High Commission): 613 7411 639
DENMARK: Copenhagen (Embassy): 31 18 4006
FRANCE: Paris (Embassy): 1 45 55 4146
GERMANY: Bonn (Embassy): 228 36 2971
HONG KONG: (Consulate General): 2890 1975
INDONESIA: Jakarta (Embassy): 21 574 0661
ITALY: Rome (Embassy): 6 85254 300/301
JAPAN: Tokyo (Embassy): 3 3265 1108
NETHERLANDS: The Hague (Embassy): 070 346 0669
NORWAY: Oslo (Embassy): 22 44 3975
PORTUGAL: Lisbon (Embassy): 1 353 5713
SPAIN: Madrid (Embassy): 1 577 7414
SWEDEN: Stockholm (Embassy): 8 660 7136
SWITZERLAND: Berne (Embassy): 22 849 5432
UNITED KINGDOM: London (High Commission): 451 7283.
Dr R. N. Kilburn
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