Richard M. Cowling, Ph.D.


Richard M. Cowling, Ph.D.
Richard Cowling
Research Professor
Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University
Summerstrand Campus (South)
City, State, ZIP
P.O. Box 77000, Port Elizabeth 6031
South Africa
[email protected]
Award year


Project Details

Cowling utilized his Pew award to develop an extension program for communicating the economic and cultural benefits of the preservation and sustainable use of the extraordinarily diverse Cape Floral Kingdom (CFK) to multiple stakeholder groups throughout the area and internationally.

The CFK includes the highest known concentration of Red Data Book plant taxa in the world and it is well documented that the major threat to the region's biodiversity is alien invasive trees and shrubs.

Another threat, however, is the a lack of appreciation by all sectors of the population of the numerous benefits of the region's biodiversity. Through the Institute for Plant Conservation, Cowling has institutionalized outreach efforts in the area. To accomplish this, much of his emphasis was to employ ecological economics to assess and value the biodiversity and ecosystem services of the region including: the ecological and economic impacts of alien plants in fynbos ecosystems; the importance of the flora and vegetation of the CFK as an ecotourism resource and the benefits of establishing reserve systems in lowland fynbos and succulent karoo.

These activities contributed to numerous outcomes. The "Working for Water Project" was initiated by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry after Cowling presented an audiovisual show about the importance of removing alien plants from mountain watersheds. Research has shown that in alien-infested catchment areas water production can be reduced by as much as 50-80 percent. The Working for Water Project, designed as both a poverty alleviation and conservation program, has employed more than 30,000 people in 200 projects to remove alien vegetation in all of South Africa's nine provinces.

Cowling has applied various media and the initiation of tours to demonstrate the economic value of ecotourism to different sectors of society and to popularize the greater Cape Flora. He has produced three books and numerous articles as well as many conservation planning documents. In addition, his fellowship efforts have resulted in the establishment of one national park and IPC is now aiding the formulation and planning for four additional protected areas.


Richard Cowling has devoted a majority of his efforts over the last decade to the conservation and management of plant biodiversity in the species-rich Cape Floral Kingdom of South Africa. He launched the Institute for Plant Conservation (IPC) in 1992 and in studies through 1997 Cowling and his collaborators focused on the fundamental differences in the growth form mix and species-richness between winter-rainfall (fire-prone) fynbos and succulent karoo communities and summer-rainfall karroid and non-fire-prone vegetation. The major contribution of this research has been to demonstrate the importance of, and interaction between, contemporary and historical ecological processes in explaining patterns of diversity at different scales.

IPC research for the period 1998-2002 focuses on three major issues: optimal reserve systems in the succulent karoo; community structure, plant form and function and disturbance ecology in the Namaqualand-Namib domain of the succulent karoo; and patterns, rates of spread and ecological and economic impacts of alien plant species in fynbos ecosystems.

Cowling is also scientific advisor and trustee to a fund established for the purchase of land to conserve the huge succulent flora of South Africa. In this effort, he focuses on establishing an effective reserve system that not only conserves extant biodiversity efficiently, but also includes habitat gradients (evolutionary templates) and ecological processes (including those at the landscape scale) that are responsible for the genesis of biodiversity.

Throughout his career, Cowling has been active in extending research findings to local communities and applying these to the conservation and resource management problems they encounter.



Ph.D., University of Cape Town
1983: Plant Ecology, South Africa

Bachelor of Science, University of Cape Town
1978: Botany, South Africa

Bachelor of Science, University of Cape Town
1975: Biology, South Africa


Table Mountain National Park Committee

Leslie Hill Succulent Karoo Trust
1995-Present: Trustee

Botanical Society of South Africa
1993-Present: Council Member and Member of Flora Conservation Committee

Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve Conservation and Education Trust
1993-Present: Trustee

Friends of the Cape St Francis Nature Reserves
1993-Present: Ecological Adviser and Honorary Member

Kommetjie Environmental Action Group
1993-Present: Advisory Board

Red Hill Landowners Conservation Group
1993-Present: Honarary President

Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve
1992-Present: Advisory Committee

Cape Peninsula Protected Natural Environment
1992-1996: Management Advisory Committee and Scientific Subcommittee Chairman

Department of Water Affair & Forestry, Working for Water Project
1994-1995: Steering Committee

Catchment Management Systems for the Cape
1992-1995: Advisory Committee


Marine Fellow
1994: Pew Fellows Program in Conservation and the Environment

Cape Times Centenary Award

Special Performance Award
1993: University of Cape Town

FRD President's Award for Outstanding Young Scientist


International Association of Mediterranean Ecologists
1997-Present: President


  • Cowling, R.M. and R. Costanza. 1997. Introduction: The valuation and management of the South African fynbos ecosystem. Ecological Economics 22(2): 103
  • Cowling, R.M., D. Kirkwood and S.M. Pierce. 1997. Invasion and persistence of bird-dispersed, subtropical thicket and forest species in fire-prone costal fynbos. Journal of Vegetation Science 8(4): 475
  • Cowling, R.M., R. Costanza, and S.I. Higgins. 1997. Services supplied by South African fynbos ecosystems. (Daily, G. ed.). Island Press, Washington D.C.
  • Holmes, P.M. and R.M. Cowling. 1997. Diversity, composition and guild structure relationships between soil-stored seed banks and mature vegetation in alien plant-invaded South African fynbos shrublands. Plant Ecology 133(1): 107
  • Mustart, P.J. and R.M. Cowling. 1997. Flower power. The Western Cape's underrated eco-drawcard. Africa - Environment and Wildlife 4(5): 12--14
  • Mustart, P.J., R.M. Cowling, and J. Albertyn. 1997. Southern Overberg. South African Wildflower Guide No. 8. Botanical Society of South Africa, Kirstenbosch
  • Midgley J.J., R.M. Cowling, P. Desmet, K. Esler, H. Hendricks, and P. Rundel. 1996. Tree succulents in the Richtersveld. Veld & Flora 82(3): 74-75
  • Cowling, R.M. and D.J. McDonald. 1995. Towards a profile of an endemic mountain fynbos flora: Implications for conservation. Biological Conservation 72(1): 1
  • Cowling, R.M. and D.M. Richardson. 1995. Fynbos: South Africa's Unique Floral Kingdom. Ferwood Press, Cape Town, South Africa
  • Esler, K.J. and R.M. Cowling. 1995. The comparison of selected life-history characteristics of Mesembryanthema species occurring on and off Mima-like mounds (heuweltjies) in semi arid southern Africa. Vegetation 116(1): 41
  • Cowling, R.M. and E.T.F. Witkowski. 1994. Convergence and non-convergence of plant traits in climatically and edaphically matched sites in Mediterranean Australia and South Africa. Australian Journal of Ecology 19(2): 220
  • Cowling, R.M. and M.J. Samways. 1994. Predicting global patterns of endemic plant species richness. Biodiversity letters 2(5): 127
  • Cowling, R.M., K.J. Esler and M.A. Honig. 1994. Plant functional diversity, species diversity and climate in arid and semi-arid southern Africa. Journal of Arid Environments 27(2): 141
  • Cowling, R.M. 1990. Diversity components in a species-rich area of the Cape Floristic Region. Journal of Vegetation Science 1(5): 699
  • Cowling, R.M. and S.M. Pierce.Namaqualand: A succulent desert. Fernwood Press, Cape Town, South Africa
  • Cowling, R.M. Mediterranean-climate regions. Conservation. In: Encyclopedia of ecology and environmental management (Calow, P. ed.). Blackwell Scientific Press, Oxford, UK
  • Rundel, P.W., K.J. Esler, and R.M. Cowling. Biodiversity and conservation biology of coastal transition zones from mediterranean to desert ecosystems: an intercontinental comparison. In: Landscape degradation in mediterranean-climate ecosystems (, P.W., G. Montenegro, and F. Jaksic eds.). Springer-Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany

Search Pew Scholars