Tony Dechant Award

Tony Dechant Obituary

EC naturalist leaves legacy of enthusiasm, achievement

Dechant: he made a huge difference

Tony Dechant

A Lynchpin of environmental NGOs in the Eastern Cap, lover of birds (the feathered kind) and cricket, Commander of the British Empire (CBE) and family man – Anthony John Dechant, 81, has passed on. (1 May 2002)

But let’s go back a little to another time and place. Travelling home to Harrogate from Newcastle, one day in the early ‘70s, more sick than he knew, with a combination of pneumonia and hepatitis, Tony passed out at the wheel of his vehicle. His car overturned, and he was almost killed.

Recovering from his illness and unable to get back to his desk, he began taking long walks on the Yorkshire moors around his home, something he never had time for before.

As his son described to me this week, his father suddenly became aware of nature.

It was a beginning of a second life for him.

In 1979, he completed 42 years of service as a senior official in the British department of employment, interrupted only by the Second World War, in which he served as a transport and logistics’ unit captain.

He returned to the department to tackle tours of duty in first Uganda and then Singapore, and was eventually awarded the CBE for outstanding service to the British government, capping an illustrious career.

Tony, his wife Reneé, arrived in the Eastern Cape in 1980. One attraction was the warm weather which would ease Reneé’s rheumatism and grand-daughter, Nicola, who already lived in Port Elizabeth.

Tony threw himself into NGO work, specifically focussing on the environment.

As metro nature conservation director, Dr Paul Martin notes, the perpetual headache of voluntary organisations was and still is finding competent leaders and committee members prepared to give of their time freely. When Tony arrives, they struck a goldmine.

Always a lateral thinker and innovator, he brought his considerable organisational and leadership skills to bear.

During the next 20 years his hard work, efficiency and unselfish public spiritedness spearheaded the growth of these often unstructured groups into the respected institutions they are today. Birds became his special passion and he was elected chairman of the East Cape Wild Bird Society (“the bird club”, which is now officially called BirdLife Eastern Cape) from 1982 to 1989, and returned for a second stint from 1992 to 1995.

He was appointed president after that, a position which he held until his death.

He initiated the Eastern Cape Bird Atlas, which was the precursor to the national project; he instigated bird identification courses and the upgrading of the organisation’s magazine and he organised a number of successful events including the international Birds of Evergreen Forest symposium in Knysna in 1987.

His years with the bird club overlapped with a two-year stint as national chairman of the then Southern African Ornithological Society, growing it, shaping it and establishing strong new conservation values.

For a foreigner to have achieved this position so soon after his arrival speaks of respect he commanded and the empathy for the country locals obviously sensed in him.

Despite his ability to see the big picture, he never lost sight of the details.

Incumbent bird club chairman Patrick Brett recalls that Tony would not think twice of driving to Somerset East, for instance, to give a talk on birding to a local club or group of school children.

It wasn’t only birds. He worked with the Eastern Cape branch of the Wildlife and Environment Society (Wessa), serving it as chairman in 1987-88 and 1997-99.

As former branch manager Val Hunt recalls, he established the society’s strong support for the Greater Addo National Park and provided great balance on controversial issues.

He was strongly critical of a number of aspects of Coega, but his concerns were always couched in concern for people and well-being of the region.

He founded the Baakens Trust in 1988, and the Cape Recife Environment and Education Trust, and was the first person to talk about a penguin rehabilitation centre.

When Tony was not saving the environment, he made doll’s houses – a skill inherited perhaps from his Austrian father, who was a carpenter. A lover of classical music, he was a special fan of his granddaughters, Nicola, who plays tuba and double-bass in the Eastern cape Philharmonic Orchestra.

A reasonably skilled slow left-hand second-change bowler in his day, he was a great cricket enthusiast and, according to Val, would forego most commitments for the pleasure of watching South Africa do battle at St George’s.

His son, John, remembers his dad as a very intelligent man who always got a lift out of helping others, which echoes what I knew of him. His support for this column encouraged me greatly. Tall and stooping with a dry, self-deprecating humour, he was a hugely civilised man, and a mentor and friend to many.

Beyond the value of the NGO sector, it would be a supreme nation-building move I think if our government could issue a call to people like Tony whose skills, experience, enthusiasm and unquestionable integrity could be put to great use.

The funeral service at the packed Walmer Chapel on Tuesday was led by renowned minister George Irvine, who spoke of the “rhythm of live”: that there is no life without death – a key theme, in turn, of both Christianity and nature.

Tony never took a job unless he felt he could make a difference, and he invariably did.

There’s a lesson here, of course, about the power of the individual to make change. But beyond this, as Martin says, if there were more Tony’s the world would be a more efficient and more environmentally, socially and economically stable place. To use the buzz word, it would be much more sustainable. There could be no finer legacy.

Written by: Guy Rogers

Through the club's monthly e-newsletters and bi-annual magazine, the Bee-Eater, we aim to stimulate continued interest in birds and their habitats.