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pathbreaker, trailblazer and no-nonsense taker Don Pinnock

We are excited to announce Sapmok’s newest ‘Environmental Heroes Series’. A series where we will be talking to South Africa’s leading nature conservationists, entrepreneurs, researchers and the media who are inspiring positive change for the environment. Here at Sapmok, we are fired up to playing our part in saving the Earth. Yes, saving the Earth! What better way than learning from the experts so that collectively we can gain momentum in saving our Home on this Planet. 

Our first interview is with the pathbreaker, trailblazer and no-nonsense taker Don Pinnock. Pinnock is an environmental journalist and writer for The Daily Maverick and former editor of Getaway Magazine, who is not afraid to call out the ‘bad guys’ in order to speak up for the ‘good guys’ i.e. all creatures great and small. His expertise and experience stretches further into the field as a criminologist, a photographer and published author of an astounding 17 books!

Don’s journey to becoming a passionate and no-nonsense voice for the Earth follows a winding path full of rich experiences and challenges. He started as a bored junior engineer at the SABC. Exposure to the news sparked a flame within him and after persuasive nagging Pinnock received a transfer to the news department at half his salary. This was the start of his career pivoting from electronic engineer to, shall we say, Earth Spokesperson?! He sums up some of his life and career experiences as follows:

“I worked on yachts in the Med, lived for a while in Morocco and the Canary Islands, got a job on The Herald in Rhodesia, came back to SA eventually, did a few degrees (MA in criminology, PhD in Political Science), got a job as deputy head of Rhodes Journalism then deputy editor of Getaway magazine, learned how to take photos and discovered the wonder of the environment. When I left Getaway (as editor) I became a fulltime environmental journalist. Phew! Life hey?”

Do you get into trouble for your investigative and ‘no-filter’ writing style?

Always! When I worked on The Teacher I had to interview Maggie Thatcher every 2 weeks. She was then Education Minister. Nasty lady. When she withdrew school milk I wrote the story and headlined it Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher. Every other paper picked that up and it became a meme. She hated me after that. When teaching journalism at Rhodes U in the 1980s they delayed my tenure for two years because I was writing about the unfolding revolution and teaching kids to see what was happening under the state of emergency.

On Getaway I was banned from Malawi for revealing that the Minister of Agriculture sold the country’s whole grain supply (held in trust for peasants) to Kenya. More recently I discovered the private parks like Timbavati (with no fences between them and Kruger) were hunting Kruger animals. It made a huge splash and ended up in a Parliamentary inquiry. I was reliably warned that if I ever went there I’d be shot. Right now I’m working on a story about rhinos with a colleague. She was told by a rhino farmer that he wouldn’t talk to her if she was working with me because I’m ‘the devil incarnate’. So it goes…

If you were forced to choose, which of your 17 books are you most proud of?

It’s a hard call, they’re all so different. The book that took the longest is Gang Town (roughly 40 years of info gathering on and off) and it has had the biggest impact. The Last Elephants which I put together with Colin Bell is just such a beautiful book – it’s been called the Elephant Bible. It was published worldwide (by The Smithsonian in the US) and was part of the lobby that had CITES ban the export of elephants and elephant parts from Africa. The book I had the greatest fun writing was a novel, Rainmaker, about San magic and rites of passage – written for teenagers.

pathbreaker, trailblazer and no-nonsense taker Don Pinnock

Do you have a writing practice or routine that has assisted you to have written so many wonderful and various books?

I write in the mornings. Anything I write after 12 noon is generally crap. I get my inspirations in the middle of the night and make sure I write them down by going to sleep again. I have an obsession with intro sentences and paragraphs. I can take as long to craft an intro paragraph as to write the whole rest of the article. They set the compass of the meme. If an editor messes with my intro I am quite prepared to withdraw their right to publish. For the rest, I appreciate editors.

Please will you share your favourite photo that you’ve taken? What makes this photo so special?

I have taken hundreds of thousands of photos – that was my job for 13 years after all and to do it I travelled all over the world. So it’s a hit and miss answer. But two I took of leopards stand out for how they happened. I was in the Okavango Delta with a brilliant guide called Ona Masamane. He tracked a leopard through thick bush by listening to the alarm calls of francolins and monkeys. We came across a large male mating with two females. One female objected and ripped into him as he mounted her. You seldom see leopards in the bush but you almost never see them fighting. The other pic came a little later when the male climbed a tree to survey his kingdom.

pathbreaker, trailblazer and no-nonsense taker Don Pinnock

What is your aim with the articles you write in The Daily Maverick? Personally, most of your articles make my blood boil and heart ache for the environment and animals.

My aim in environmental writing is to make humans aware of the damage we are doing to biodiversity on this beautiful planet. And if that means calling out the villains so be it. These days I’m often at odds with government. I ache for the animals we cause to suffer and it makes me furious. Much of my environmental writing is driven by anger underpinned by love. Strange but true.

How would you rate the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) for being supportive allies for the environment in South Africa?

DEFF are locked into the concept of ‘sustainable use’ of wildlife. That means you keep wildlife alive in order to use it. That’s just bullshit. Creatures are sentient and have equal rights to this planet and are not put here for our use. We do enough damage to cows, pigs, sheep and chickens. We should leave wild creatures to live they way they want to. More than 100 wild animals in SA are now listed as farm animals under the Meat Safety Act. Excuse me?

With your experience in the field, which animals need humans help the most?

All animals. We are appalling stewards of Planet Earth. There is no ‘most’ about this. Each and every one is the outcome of millions of years of natural selection and crafting and are absolutely amazing. I even try to avoid stepping on ants.

How do you suggest can Sapmok take more action to be an environmentally conscious brand? In other words, what can Sapmok do to co-operate with and support the environment?

You know Ursula there are all sorts of ways people can help the environment – money, joining campaigns or environmental organisations. But at root the most important strategy is to get people to understand and love the natural environment in which they live. Cities have sealed us off from the wild places in which the human species spent 98% of its time on earth. It’s been said of the environment that if you lift up the corner of anything you’ll find it’s hitched to the rest of the universe. Get people to pick up that corner and the rest will be there for them in abundance. You just have to start somewhere.

The alternative is that we will lose the planet as a habitable home. Can’t people see that?

Show Don some love

Written and interviewed by Ursula Botha

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