Esri Community Member Spotlight: Mervyn Lotter

12-22-2023 01:53 PM
Esri Community Manager
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This series of member spotlights features you and your peers here in Esri Community—the people playing a role in finding solutions, sharing ideas, and collaborating to solve problems with GIS. We’re doing this to recognize amazing user contributions, to model how Esri Community’s purpose is being brought to life, and to bring depth to this group of incredible people who may never meet in person, but who benefit from each other’s generous expertise.

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Watch Mervyn's video interview in Kaltura


The Fragile State of Earth's Biodiversity


The future for many plant and animal species has grown increasingly uncertain due to suffocating conditions created by shrinking habitat, over-fishing, pollution, climate change, and a series of other environmental pressures. The Living Planet Index, a measurement of global biological diversity, estimates an average 69% decline in the relative abundance of monitored wildlife populations around the world has already occurred between 1970 and 2018. Unless robust actions are taken to reverse these trends, some scientists anticipate that half of all the world’s estimated 8.7 million species of plants and animals will be completely wiped out in the next century.

Growing awareness of this complex problem and the staggering scope of damage already underway has led to greater investments aimed at protecting biodiversity. Some such efforts have even demonstrated that there’s still time to preserve biodiversity and prevent the worst impacts species loss are expected to have; including those that will endanger humanity in a world robbed of diverse and richly habited ecosystems. Sadly, human behaviors that contribute to hostile conditions for a great many species still far surpass the reach of efforts made to protect them. The message is clear: Fully equipped and empowered conservation programs are needed now more than ever.

As a Biodiversity Planner and GIS Manager for the Mpumalanga Tourism & Parks Agency in South Africa, Mervyn Lotter knows well the uphill battle he and his peers in the field of conservation face. He also understands the grave consequences likely to unfold endure should humanity fail to rise to the challenge before us. Thankfully, the need for new, stronger methods of addressing the biodiversity crisis has been met in part by the powerful capabilities of modern GIS.


GIS-Fueled Conservation in Mpumalanga Province


The Mpumalanga province is home to thousands of diverse plant and animal species, including 313 species of flora and fauna which are either Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered. An additional 310 are Species of Conservation Concern. The province further hosts three centers of endemism and a fourth is proposed. These centers of endemism host a high number of endemic species (usually plants), meaning that they’re found nowhere else on the planet. The rich diversity and unique genetic material in these special areas makes identifying and delimiting them vital so that they may receive appropriate conservation attention to ensure their protection.

Through his work with the Mpumalanga Tourism & Parks Agency, Mervyn directly supports the agency’s commitment to preserve and protect all animal and plant species in their province — going beyond the protection of those that are either threatened or of conservation concern.

Building awareness of the local environment is central to Mervyn’s work as he manages his organization’s spatial databases and GIS, and coordinates the collection of species data being gathered by scientists in the field using ArcGIS Survey123 and ArcGIS Field Maps. With this information, he’s able to run a systematic conservation plan for the Mpumalanga province and bring together all the spatial data they’ve gathered on species, ecosystems, threats, and areas currently under protection. Displayed or used to derive new datasets using ArcGIS software, the field data is included within the agency’s systematic conservation plan where conservation targets are being set, and the extent to which each target is met within protected areas is assessed. Where targets are falling short, additional areas outside of existing protected areas are prioritized for conservation. Clear identification of these shortfalls informs the team’s planning and are combined with knowledge of the surrounding landscape, demystifying where limited resources should best be directed to expand protected areas in support of the most vulnerable species and ecosystems.

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ArcGIS Dashboard showing Species of Conservation Concern in Mpumalanga. Explore more maps Mervyn has authored to provide spatial education around Mpumalanga’s biodiversity here.

Having reliable, detailed information about their environment’s needs isn’t only for internal guidance. It’s also essential for attracting partnerships, building public support, and securing financial support in an area of the world where conservation funding is in decline. Mervyn recognizes that the way data is presented can matter as much as the data itself, and that maps and webapps are an effective vessel to get important messages across.

“If you want your products used and you want it to be considered by municipalities and the likes, then you need to make the data available in a format that they can use and access and understand,” Mervyn states.


Run Fast or Run Together


Despite the challenging realities of his work, Mervyn’s demeanor is warm and he speaks with calming thoughtfulness.

Mervyn’s career at The Mpumalanga Tourism & Parks Agency began as a botanist in the mid-90s. Later, after a mentoring colleague introduced him to GIS by demonstrating how ArcGIS could be used to predict the distribution of plant species, a new realm of possibilities opened up. Eventually, Mervyn would move into the post his mentor had filled after they resigned and the role had not been filled for some time. His GIS knowledge was still at a young stage and he was without access to a teacher.

"Through the Esri Community, you’re much more able to reach out
to a broader network to get their advice, their support,
and learn from where others are stumbling."

Mervyn became aware of a scholarship program offered by the Esri-supported Society for Conservation GIS (SCGIS) non-profit organization, which supports scholars around the world who don’t have easy access to GIS training. In 2011, he joined 16 other recipients in receiving the SCGIS scholarship, which included training in ArcMap and the opportunity to attend Esri User Conference as well as SCGIS’s own conference.

“No other training event had had such a positive impact on my life ever.” Mervyn says.

There was still plenty more to learn, though, and his ongoing need for education found a ready resource in Esri Community.

“I would never have been able to learn to use GIS to its full potential on my own.” Mervyn describes of those days. “Through the Esri Community, you’re much more able to reach out to a broader network to get their advice, their support, and learn from where others are stumbling.”

Mervyn smiles as he reflects on another way to describe the role Esri Community continues to play in supporting the success of GIS professionals. “There’s a lovely African proverb,” he shares, “which is: If you want to run fast, run alone. But if you want to run far, run together.”


Giving and the Spirit of Ubuntu


Now the better part of three decades into his conservation work, markers of Mervyn’s community-mindedness are told in part by the hundreds of Kudos he’s received for his Esri Community messages and the numerous answers he’s provided to other members’ questions. He’s also served as a Board Member for the Society for Conservation GIS for the last decade, and as a Train-the-Trainer, helping others in conservation achieve needed GIS training just as he had received.

Within Esri Community, Mervyn has been inspired along the way by other members, a few of whom he lists by name like @DanPatterson@IsmaelChivite, and @CodyBenkelman. “There’s a lot of real stars who go out of their way to help others, and I think it’s just in their personality to want to help others.” Mervyn says. “I admire them, both the Esri staff and the non-Esri staff.

Mervyn captures his philosophy around giving back to the GIS community by sharing another African term: “[It’s] called ‘the Spirit of Ubuntu,’ which is taking care and having care and concern for your neighbors or your community.” 

“That’s kind of where I see a little bit of Esri Community having that Spirit of Ubuntu — of helping one another, because you can’t do everything on your own. We need to help and support others.”

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Mervyn Lotter is a Biodiversity Planner and GIS Manager for the Mpumalanga Tourism & Parks Agency in South Africa. Until recently he also served on the Board of the Esri-supported Society for Conservation GIS, and has a Ph.D. in Forest Classification and Systematic Conservation Planning. Using GIS, he works with his agency to protect and conserve biodiversity within the Mpumalanga province of South Africa.