UP alumna wins Environmental Law Association of SA prize for best undergraduate essay with paper on tensions between customary use of pangolins and conservation law

Posted on October 07, 2021

An essay in which UP Faculty of Law (UP Law) alumna Nicola Irving assessed the interplay between African customary use of pangolin and conservation law has won her the prize for the Best Undergraduate Essay in the 2020/2021 Student Essay Competition at the recent conference of the Environmental Law Association of South Africa (ELA).

The essay, titled 'Conservation crime and pangolin poaching: Tensions between customary use and Conservation Law', looked at the extent to which the existing legislative framework undermines the heritage value of pangolins for customary communities.

“Pangolins are the world's most illegally trafficked mammal and it is estimated that approximately 100 000 Asian and African pangolins are poached annually. However, pangolins are also highly sought after and used regularly in traditional medicine and divination in South Africa, which makes the study of their place within South African law particularly important,” said Irving, speaking about her interest in the topic of her winning essay.

“Owing to the status of customary law within South Africa's constitutional dispensation, including the rights to culture and cultural practices, I was interested in exploring the prevailing complexities between the conservation laws and customary use of pangolin in South Africa,” she said.

Pangolins are the world's most illegally trafficked mammal. Image: 2630ben/ Shutterstock.

The essay is an adaptation of her final-year LLB dissertation, which was completed under the supervision and guidance of Dr Melanie Murcott in the Department of Public Law.

"I am involved with pangolin conservation in my personal capacity and hope that an increased focus on the issues raised in my essay – especially from the academy and lawmakers – will enhance the protection of pangolins in South Africa, through the engagement with customary communities,” said Irving.

She expressed gratitude to UP for the academic support she has received throughout her time at the University and to the ELA for acknowledging her work.

“I am grateful to UP Law for equipping me with the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve at this level, as well as to Dr Murcott, in particular, for her kindness, patience and support over the past few years of my academic journey. Lastly, I am humbled to have been selected by the panel of expert and independent judges and extremely grateful to the Environmental Law Association for this recognition.”

Irving has demonstrated a passion for Environmental Law, having won the module award for Environmental Law (OMR 410) in 2021. She is also currently undertaking her LLM (Coursework) in Environmental Law.

She earned both her BA Law and LLB degrees with distinction and, during her time as a student at UP, was awarded prizes for the best student in the Law of Contract (KTR 211) and best academic performance in Medical Law (GRG 410), among others. Irving also served two consecutive terms on the Constitutional Tribunal (student court), as both a judge and senior judge.

She is currently serving her articles of clerkship as a candidate attorney at Lawtons Africa and intends on pursuing a career in commercial and public litigation, while remaining true to her strong academic foundations at UP Law.

ELA is a non-profit organisation aiming to promote and assist in the development and application of environmental law and governance in South Africa. Members of the ELA include legal practitioners, environmental management consultants, government officials, academics, students and environmental activists. Anyone with an interest in understanding the dynamics between law, governance and the state of the environment is welcome to join the organisation.

In her congratulatory message to Irving, Dean of the Faculty of Law Professor Elsabe Schoeman said: “It gives me great pleasure and pride to note that UP Law has achieved a hat-trick with UP Law alumni and students winning prizes in best essay competitions this year. An undeniable confirmation of the research and writing skills of UP Law students and graduates.” 

Prof Schoeman was referring to recent UP student awards including the Yunus Mohamed Public Interest Award for Law, Business and Ethics, and recognition at the South African Law Reform Commission Legal Essay Writing Competition.

“Nicola was and is an outstanding student of UP Law who has consistently excelled in her studies and involvement in the University of Pretoria's structures. She is a true UP Law asset and we are very proud of her achievements to date,” said Prof Schoeman.

- Author Faculty of Law

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