Sean O’Toole, journalist & art critic

A recipient of the South African National Parks Environmental Journalist of the Year Award, I’ve reported for leading African and international media for more than two decades. Aside from my long-term interest in the the polar regions, my global change features have been published in multiple publications, including the Sunday Times, Travel Africa and Daily Maverick – joint winner of the Global Shining Light investigative journalism award with 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa.

I have also worked widely in most other journalistic beats: politics, finance, arts & culture, sport and then some, producing content for The Times, Engineering News, Business Day, Getaway, Go, Africa Geographic, Weekend Argus, Sawubona, Taste, Khuluma, Dispatch, House and Leisure, Travel Africa, The Polar Times, The Lonely Planet Guide to Antarctica and more.

Standout projects include breaking the global news of potential links between pangolins and coronavirus, simultaneously with Xinhua News. The New York Times reports on my investigation, co-written with colleague Don Pinnock, here.

Peruse more highlights, hop over to my books page or read more on Daily Maverick.


2019 to present

Scales tip in favour of pangolins as hosts of Coronavirus ‘transition’

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit, with Don Pinnock

As the Covid-19 pandemic spreads its tentacles across all continents except Antarctica, scientists in China and the US are racing to pin down its biological origins. Source: Daily Maverick

Colleague Don Pinnock and I were the world’s first journalists to run an in-depth, exclusive report on the potential links between Covid-19 and its recombinant origins in pangolins, among the planet’s most trafficked and endangered mammals. This article revealed seminal initial findings by US scientists. Our report was published on the same day a Chinese university announced a similar preliminary hypothesis. A week later, the US team became the first scientists globally to share their study when they posted it to the preprint forum bioRxiv. Since then, the forum has been flooded with research, including the Chinese findings, on how the 2019/2020 pandemic strain may have used pangolins as an intermediate vector. Read the full story

Watershed for pangolins as China wipes scales off medicine list

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

Pangolin scales
Hong Kong Customs group head Benson Lee holds up endangered pangolin scales seized during an anti-smuggling operation in Kwai Chung, China. Source: Daily Maverick

‘Most significant conservation action decision ever made for entire pangolin order’, shows new era of conservation commitment. Read the full story

‘Show us the money from our mountain, SANParks’

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

A deluge of surplus revenue has left Table Mountain National Park, and recreational users want to know where the money has gone. Source: Daily Maverick

Irregular spending of R200-million at South Africa’s national parks entity trumps profits that have poured out of Table Mountain. Livid locals want the big chiefs to explain what they have done with the ‘cash cow’s’ funds. Read the full story

Pyrocene Cape: Inside the furnace of Table Mountain’s fire starters

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

A fire ravages the slopes of Table Mountain and Signal Hill in gale-force winds in Cape Town, March 2020. Source: Daily Maverick

Ill-timed blazes may be damaging the Mother City’s most famous natural landmark. And they have a lot to do with homeless campers, the roaming people who seek refuge on the mountain while the city sleeps below. Read the full story

South African seas up to 30m higher show a wet planet under siege

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

Researcher Mick O’Leary measures a 4.6-million-year-old wave platform at Papendorp in the Western Cape. Photo: Paul Hearty

The last time atmospheric carbon dioxide matched present-day levels, Earth’s oceans were remarkably high. It’s a warning to act, international research on the Cape coasts reveals. Read the full story

Apocalypse Miaow: ‘200,000-plus’ wild animals slaughtered in Table Mountain National Park by Cape Town cats each year

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

A single Cape Town house cat destroys about 90 animals a year. Source: Daily Maverick

Pet owners are blissfully unaware that, every year, their social media darlings may be slaying thousands of animals on Table Mountain, and about 30 million in prey across greater Cape Town. Read the full story

A sea change in China’s attitude towards wildlife exploitation may just save the planet

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

China provided the first act to a possible revolution when it slapped a ban on the consumption and sale of terrestrial wildlife. Source: The Eye of the Pangolin

In a global environmental leadership void created by US President Donald Trump, China could emerge as an unlikely saviour. Read the full story

CITES RHINO FILES: Death or glory for species on the ban wagon?

By Tiara Walters, for Daily Maverick

Care for Wild Rhino Orphanage
Refuge for a dehorned white rhino at Care for Wild rhino orphanage (location undisclosed). © www.jacquesmarais.co.za/ SONY

Rhinos may be in a worse state than South African government figures are willing to admit. With the planet’s biggest conservation meeting kicking off in August 2019, our last chance to save the species may be about to slip through our fingers. Read the full story

First image of black hole marks ‘breakthrough for humanity’

By Bloomberg, Tiara Walters and News24

First image of a black hole
A new window onto the study of black holes, their event horizons and gravity. © Event Horizon Telescope

‘Event Horizon’ scientists reveal the first-ever glimpse of a supermassive black hole. Read the full story


2004 to present

Working on assignment from Antarctica, Botswana, England, Germany, India, Kenya, the Prince Edward Islands and Zambia, I produced the bulk of my work between 2004 and 2018 for the Sunday Times. While at the Sunday Times, I worked in a variety of editorial roles, including as deputy editor: Lifestyle, and processed vast amounts of copy on science, politics, culture, finance, sport and more. As reporter, features writer and weekly columnist, I interviewed icons such as Desmond Tutu, Jane Goodall (radio, 2005), John Cleese, and many more newsmakers.

My stint with the paper included fundraising and launching photographic projects for digital, and producing multiple cover stories, featured here:

Writing highlight – Sunday Times environmental column

October 2010 to October 2013

I earned the Sanparks Environmental Journalist of the Year Award for this column. It was the first weekly environmental column in the paper’s then 105-year history.

The Future of the Big Five | Footprints Only | Heroes and Villains

Writing highlight – First full-page climate coverage in South Africa’s biggest newspaper

January 2007

Climate change might unleash
A section of the Sunday Times of South Africa’s historic first full-page reports of climate threats, January 2007. Source: Sunday Times ZA

It seems absurd now, but South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper, with a circulation of four-million readers at the time, ran its first full-page coverage on the climate crisis only in 2007. The timing of this coverage was in keeping with rest of world media, which was slow on the uptake of the biggest challenge of our time. Sparked by a seminal climate report, I produced the stories for that page, which was South Africa’s first climate reporting in a major local newspaper. Download it here.

Writing highlight – In search of the Knysna elephants

December 2005

knysna ellies dec05 092
Tracking Bigfoot: There were still hope and signs of a small but tenacious herd of African elephants doing life in the forests of the Southern Cape.  

In 2005 I mounted the first media expedition in 10 years to find the presumed-extinct Knysna elephants. With the help of forest guards Hylton Herd, Wilfred Oraai and Karel Maswati, I took up the trail and discovered live evidence, such as fresh elephant dung. Download the article here.

Writing highlight – Conservationist J. Michael Fay: Vagabond with a vision

September 2005

J. Michael Fay
The publicity-shy nomad contemplates the landscape during his trek through the Congo River Basin. Source: Sunday Times ZA

National Geographic explorer J. Michael Fay flew the equivalent of three times around the world to paint an aerial portrait of Africa. I spoke to him in Johannesburg about that extraordinary quest. Download the article here.


2012 to 2017

South Africa’s biggest platforms for nature/travel photography, with a strong focus on rare nature. I launched and managed these projects, raising and giving away R2,5m in prizes. With Canon and Wilderness Safaris.

Winners, 2014 | Sunday Times Travel cover, 2014 | Winners, 2015

Banner image: Daily Maverick