– 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 21 years, including Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit, Travel Africa, the American Polar Society’s Polar Times, the Lonely Planet Guide to Antarctica and the Sunday Times. Becoming in 2010 the first female journalist to spend a summer with the South African National Antarctic Programme at the bottom of the planet, I have an ongoing and special interest in polar affairs (both the Arctic and the Antarctic), global change issues, natural sciences, the climate crisis and space sciences.

I work as a senior investigative science journalist for Daily Maverick, joint winner of the Global Shining Light investigative journalism awards with 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa.

Here my mission is to investigate the latest developments in international sciences, what they highlight about our relationship with the cosmos during the Anthropocene, and how science may be weaponised by vested interests.

Browse some of my latest feature highlights below, or read more on Daily Maverick.

Investigation: ‘Show us the money from our mountain, SANParks’

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

IMG-3944Workers maintain trails along Devil’s Peak. Friends of Table Mountain says it has seen ‘noticeable’ progress in trail upkeep, but urges ‘requisite budgets’ to address the rising number of park users. Photo: Tiara Walters

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

Exclusive: ‘Young people are in big trouble’ if the future is gas — James Hansen, father of climate change awareness

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

James Hansen Tiara-January-27-main-option-3
Hansen is a proponent of modular fourth-generation nuclear power. Source: Daily Maverick

A Russian LNG mission has congratulated itself on smashing through the melting Arctic for the first time in January, raising temperatures within the science community. Read the full story

Breaking: For the first time in an Arctic winter, commercial vessels traverse Far North from opposite sides

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

Container ship in the sea at winter time
The shipping demonstration — entirely without ice-breaking help — marks a watershed moment in climate politics. Source: Daily Maverick

Gas tankers meet at New Siberian Islands in a historic Russian test voyage, as polar mercury hits record highs. Read the full story

Sorry, who do you wish to squeak to? For the naked mole rat, it won’t be any old rodent

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

‘You’ll hear little rodents quietly chirping, squeaking, twittering, or even grunting to one another.’ The connection is surprisingly human. Source: Daily Maverick

Nothing like scurrying around in the nude and living to tell the tail, South African and German scientists reveal. 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

Desmond Tutu Foundation calls for global climate justice on Arch’s birthday

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

Desmond Tiara-Tutu-climate
Marking Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s 89th birthday, youth leaders described climate justice as a defining issue for humanity in the 2020s. Source: Daily Maverick

The climate crisis is the ‘biggest wave’ in a ‘convergence of crises’, say keynote speakers at the 10th Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture. Read the full story

‘Red Seas’ of Mars: discovery of multiple ‘salt lakes’ shifts frontiers of planetary science

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

The bombshell detection of a stable patchwork of liquid-water bodies tips our knowledge of Mars into new and exciting territory. Source: Daily Maverick

Beneath the Martian south pole lurks a network of liquid-water bodies, hailed as a breakthrough insight into our sister world – and maybe even life beyond Earth. 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

Antarctica: A mysterious continent filled with teeming life in need of our protection

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

Positioned on an East Antarctic cliff edge, Sanae IV was a feat in polar architecture when it was launched in 1997. Photo: Tiara Walters

A major conservation study on Antarctica urges polar powers to stop, collaborate and listen — but will resource-hungry governments care enough about seals, penguins and whales to do so? Read the full story

Apocalypse Miaow II: ‘Keep cats inside property’, SANParks urges Capetonians

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

Photo by Andre Fonseca on UnsplashTable Mountain National Park is a World Heritage Site designed to protect endemic life, but domestic tabbies are having a field day. Source: Daily Maverick

Authorities come out in ‘strong’ support of new study showing ‘vast’ scale of cat kills near sensitive areas. Read the full story

Apocalypse Miaow I: ‘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

Mother City pet owners are blissfully unaware that their social media darlings may massacre some 30 million in native prey annually. Read the full story

‘Raw’ gene material unravels mystery behind bat ‘superpowers’

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

Photo by Peter Neumann on Unsplash
Bat genomes are a valuable time capsule, containing fossilised viruses as clues that their hosts survived past infections. Source: Daily Maverick

Ground-breaking study adds insights into why bats are flying laboratories that advance medical understanding. Read the full story

The Age of Plastemic: Tiny plastic particles are infecting the remotest oceans and mountains via aerial transmission

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit


To probe the global movement of road microplastics, researchers conducted simulations of pathways via the atmosphere. Source: Daily Maverick

Peer-reviewed study in Nature sounds alarm about new ways in which humanity’s favourite material, plastic, is spreading to Earth’s sensitive regions. 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

With a little help from leeches, scientists may have found a coronavirus they don’t know. But does it matter?

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

Leeches lead
Extracting blood from a patient’s foot during a leech-therapy session, Srinagar, Indian Kashmir’s summer capital. Source: Daily Maverick

Blood-sucking, worm-like creatures from a remote Bornean rainforest pave the way for a rogues’ gallery of viral discoveries. Read the full story

Earth Day message: Nature has not unleashed her full might yet — indigenous healers

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

Our Burning Planet Earth Day webinar
‘We actually have to educate our so-called authorities, their way of dealing with our inheritance is unacceptable.’ – Conservationist Linda Tucker. Source: Daily Maverick

Nature has held its breath since the first Earth Day protests this week 50 years ago, Our Burning Planet’s Kevin Bloom told some 500 viewers participating in Tuesday’s Daily Maverick webinar lockdown series. Entitled ‘Earth Day: Nature and Societal Reset in the Age of Covid-19’, the webinar was held to mark the global environmental event. Read the full story

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

Mounting findings across the globe highlight the world’s most trafficked mammal as the likely pandemic carrier. Read the full story

Historic climate expedition shatters polar records

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit, with the Alfred Wegener Institute

The icebreakers Polarstern (Germany) and Kapitan Dranitsyn (Russia) on the Arctic ice for the multi-country, year-long MOSAiC polar expedition. Photo: Ernst Stürmer

Taking its blueprint from Fridtjof Nansen’s ‘Arctic Drift’ mission 130 years ago, a new quest for science ventures farther north in winter than ever before. 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

GLOBAL BREAKING NEWS: Coronavirus source linked to pangolin meat

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

Bat coronavirus may have recombined in a pangolin before jumping into humans. This charismatic, armadillo-like species is covered in keratinised scales, prized in traditional medicine. Source: EPA/How Hwee Young

Environmental reporter 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 that 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

#BUDGET2020: Mboweni big on organic manure, gets mixed reviews on addressing climate crisis

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

'Day Zero' looms, as Cape Town will officially run out of water in April
Crisis … what crisis? South African Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s new outlay felt closer to Budget-lite — a speech that may have been delivered at any time in South Africa’s recent history. Source: Daily Maverick

The 2020 Budget speech was something of a lame duck on climate change mitigation, but it did show some positive signs from the African continent’s biggest carbon culprit. Read the full story

High Crimes and #Mitchdemeanors: Open letter from Mother Earth to Mitch McConnell

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

What have you done, Mitch McConnell? Source: Wikimedia Commons

In this rare communication, Mother Earth sent a special post-impeachment message to Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump’s most strategic apostle. This is the uncut dictation. Read the full story

Water taxis for Cape Town’s rising sea levels: ‘Everybody should panic’ — environmental futurist

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

Water taxis Cape Town
In the 2019 summer, the ice-melt equivalent of 2,000 elephants a second stormed into the ocean off Greenland. Source: Gallo Images/Garth Stead

For environmental futurist Professor Nick King, accepting the apparently fantastical as the new normal means responding to Earth’s waning vital signs with commensurate CPR. Even so, King’s suggestion of ‘Cape Town water taxis’ is met with incredulity by Our Burning Planet when he moots it during an interview at his home overlooking Cape Town’s False Bay coastline. His response? Deadpan. Read the full story

Climate allies Desmond Tutu and Al Gore unite in fossil-fuel divestment struggle

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

Tutu and Gore
‘Ours is a moral imperative to stop financing the destruction of humanity’s future,’ Gore and Tutu said during their January 2020 meeting in Cape Town. Source: Roger Friedman/Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and former US Vice-President Al Gore have warned in a joint statement that ‘corporations, governments and institutions that invest in fossil fuels despite evidence of accelerating climate change are furthering environmental, economic and social injustice’. Read the full story

As giant of human origins turns 100, Homo sapiens teeters on its most daunting edge

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

Giant of human origins
Of all human species confronted by catastrophic versions of Earth, we’re the last ones standing. For now. Image by: ©️ Bernard Kotze/Daily Maverick

While the astronomer Edwin Hubble was trudging up the mountains of Los Angeles exactly 100 years ago to rewrite humankind’s place in the cosmos, a fledgling medical school on Africa’s southern tip was preparing to take a giant leap into humankind’s past. Read the full story

Climate crisis tears through southern Africa with at least nine million facing acute food insecurity

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

Prevalence of stunting
Southern Africa is warming twice the global rate, resulting in livelihood-stripping drought that is bringing millions to their knees. Source: JME data, May 2019 update

Critical humanitarian aid is needed to rescue plunging food security and save the lives of millions of climate-shocked people across southern Africa. This warning comes from several United Nations agencies, relief organisations and independent experts. Read the full story

Live your best life this Black Friday with kiwifruit ‘spifes’ and other totally useless stuff

Humour & Opinion | For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

Our Burning Planet
The kiwifruit ‘spife’ — a portmanteau for ‘spoon’ and ‘knife’. ©

If ever there was any doubt about how far ‘sustainability champ’ Woolworths still had to go to put its money where its greenwashing mouth is, its kiwifruit knifespoon-things have surely helped put paid to that. Read the full story

The climate crisis has arrived, leaving fate of humanity in the balance — thousands of top scientists

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

Our Burning Planet
The ‘Bioscience’ emergency climate declaration shows ‘denialists and recalcitrant politicians’ they have ‘absolutely zero wiggle room left’. © Cristian Ibarra/Pixabay

In a radical departure from the conservative language that normally defines science, 11,258 scientists from around the world have called for drastic climate action to ‘avoid untold suffering’. Read the full story

Mega climate shocks for SA biodiversity — government report

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

The Clanwilliam cedar © Geoff Spiby | 2018 South African National Biodiversity Report
The iconic Clanwilliam cedar (Widdringtonia cedarbergensis) is critically endangered and faces increasing pressures as temperatures rise, the environment dries out and fires become more frequent. © Geoff Spiby | 2018 SA National Biodiversity Assessment

Ninety scientific institutions led by the South African National Biodiversity Institute have released a shock report that unveils waves of unprecedented climate impacts tearing across South Africa’s globally important wild assets. Read the full story

Ecofeminism unleashed, or, How wrong the hawks are to view the vulnerable as meek

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro
US President Donald Trump, left, welcomes Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to the White House in Washington DC, March 2019. © EPA-EFE/Jim Lo Scalzo

In this mentally disordered plot, the shimmering detail of unimaginably complex ecosystems that have unfurled over millennia are at the behest of an incontinent human wrecking ball with an orange tan, a fake blond combover and a helium-like vibrato that travels at 1,008 meters per second. And his band of merry dicktators. Not forever, though. Read the full story

Don’t sweat about Earth, just save your children

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

Our Burning Planet launch
Reporting on Daily Maverick since November 2018, Our Burning Planet has highlighted critical research showing that South Africa is heating at ‘twice the global average’. © Image: AdobeStock

Launching Daily Maverick’s new Our Burning Planet climate journalism unit in Cape Town, former Irish president Mary Robinson, Amnesty International’s Kumi Naidoo and journalist Kevin Bloom painted a picture of a civilisation that could remake itself from the opportunity that the crisis brings. Read the full story

Putting deniers on ice: Inside the mind of a climate geek

For Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit

Guy Midgley at Gannabos
Professor Guy Midgley of Stellenbosch University near the quiver tree forest at Gannabos, Namaqualand, South Africa. This is the largest quiver tree forest in the southern hemisphere. Midgley’s ongoing collaboration with other scientists shows that quiver trees in southern Africa are good indicators of the climate crisis. © Kerry Grey

New findings released this month by the journal Nature Communications reveal that English-language digital and print media give 49% more coverage to bush-league climate contrarians than top scientists. We asked Professor Guy Midgley, a Stellenbosch University expert on how biodiversity responds to the climate crisis – with the odds in favour of ‘at scale climate change disinformation’, as the study puts it, what’s the best way for ordinary people to make sense of this wilderness? Read the full story in part one and part two

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). © / 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

Image credit: ‘Scales tip in favour of pangolins as hosts of coronavirus transition’. Source: Daily Maverick/Matthew Afflecat, Pixabay, 20/20