Last Word: Otch Otto on names


Otch Otto discusses the confusion created by renaming plants and trees…

One of the things you can be sure of in life is that you will receive a name. There is also a chance of landing a nickname. Some people, like movie stars, even change their names.

Ironically, the selection of a name for a new baby is often the first hint of some differences in matrimony, but once synergy is reached, the name is cast. And in this name you will be educated, loved, prayed for, rooted for on the sports field, and mentioned when you are reprimanded. Reprimands often go with the full name, like Catherine instead of Cathy.

But at the end of the day your popular name will be who you are. It’s the same with nature: we talk about impala rather than Aepyceros melampus, and apple leaf rather than Philenoptera violacea. We do not call people by numbers, yet we give them to trees, birds and animals. And we have popular names too, some rather novel, like calling an old buffalo bull a ‘dagga boy’.

Our ancestors had a lot of time for contemplation. The Mkhulu, Natal mahogany, rooi essenhout and Trichilia is the same tree. The golden oriole and the swartkop wielewaal is the same bird… A sea cow can be a bull; an oxpecker is millions of years older than oxen. A tick bird does not eat ticks, it eats grasshoppers, and a grasshopper bird does not eat grasshoppers, it eats commando worms.

When computers and cellphones arrived and the opportunity came to order it all, I had to master technology at a fairly advanced age. To remain sane in this technological race, the best place to go was nature.

To know all the details when it comes to mammals can be challenging, but trees, birds, insects and reptiles can really expose the brave part-time conservationist. The remedy is time spent in the bush, looking and listening to everyone who loves the outdoors. The collective of what can be poached from top class rangers and guides is amazing.

One of the most common trees around my bush environment is the apple leaf. It had a number, and in 1990 my daughters would tell me it was designated Lonchocarpus capassa. When we went on our afternoon game drives on the local river system, I casually picked up that the apple leaf is tree number 474.
A recent walk on a riverbank with a young scientist raring to learn something from me was spoilt when we walked past Lonchocarpus capassa and I announced it as such.

No, that is a 474 Philenoptera violacea, he replied. Yes, they changed the name. I was informed that even Acacia (in Africa) is now unpopular. So, what Acacia nigrescens is now I do not know. Scientists have
erased the only memory I had.

Botany has always been the nightmare of conservation study, and the latest renaming event is a contribution that will ensure it stays there.

Imagine working at reception at a leading tree chip company and client number 474 rolls up to the reception desk. “Ah, hello Lonchocarpus capassa…”

“Excuse me, but I am not Lonchocarpus capassa. I am Philenoptera violacea.”
“Oh, sorry… the violacea must be because of your beautiful spring flowers?”

Is this the beginning of the master programme that will clear our precious memory bank of the previous millennium? Is it the end of the bull shark, buffalo weaver, firefox, fox bat, black-backed side-striped or lesser-spotted whatever…?

Imagine arriving at the Pearly Gates and being questioned: “Who are you and why do you deserve to be here?”

“I am Lonchocarpus capassa from the lower Nwanetsi south bank, close to the Sweni confluence in Kruger Park. I nested 23 vulture reproductions, shaded millions of impalas, rested various leopard and diverted a lightning strike in 1962 that surely saved 16 elephants…”

“Sorry, Lonchocarpus capassa was discontinued in the early 20s. Our records state that since your conversion to Philenoptera violacea, you entertained poachers six times, and competed with a young Combretum imberbe that was worthy of a better deal than being oppressed by your shade…”


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