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SAEON joins DST and UNESCO in celebrating IYB 2010

SAEON’s Thomas Mtontsi in action (Picture: Mitzi du Plessis)

Thomas Mtontsi, Education Outreach Officer of the SAEON Egagasini Node and Sibongile Mokoena, SAEON’s Education Outreach Coordinator at the SAEON stand (Picture: Mitzi du Plessis)

Prof Paul Skelton of SAIAB (left) and SAEON’s Thomas Mtontsi (second from right) with Thabo Kotelo and Jonas Lekokotla, the winners in the schools debate tournament (Picture: Mitzi du Plessis)

SAEON’s Sibongile Mokoena with Thabo Kotelo, one of the winners of the schools debate tournament (Picture: Mitzi du Plessis)

It was immediately evident that the focus fell strongly on South Africa’s youth as guests arrived at the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa on May 22 to join the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in celebrating International Day of Biodiversity 2010.

Secondary school learners neatly adorned in their school uniforms stood around the colourful exhibition stands of participating organisations such as SAEON and SAASTA (South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement), eagerly examining the wide variety of information on display, which ranged from booklets on biodiversity to careers in the environmental sciences.

The formal programme included presentations on the latest findings in biodiversity research and a schools debate tournament on aspects of biodiversity. Throughout the programme the learners were exposed to career-related information.

"We are at crossroads"

The keynote address was delivered by Prof Paul Skelton of the South African Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), who held learners spellbound with his description of Earth, the dynamic blue planet, the only planet in the entire solar system that has life.

He sketched life in its great variety and excitement – from tiny to large life forms, harsh environments where life is less abundant but remarkable adaptations are found, the role of human beings in biodiversity, and new technologies such as South Africa’s large telescopes that can shed light on the origin of our species. He called on learners to learn everything possible about life on our planet and to confront what isn’t right. “We are at crossroads,” he said in conclusion, “and it is up to the next generation to carve out the kind of future they want for themselves.”

In her presentation Wilma Lutsch of the Department of Environment Affairs (DEA) covered the aspect of biodiversity conservation and management, DEA programmes such as Working for Water and Working on Waste, and the DEA’s priority actions for managing South Africa’s biodiversity. With SA being the third most biodiverse country in the world, a national database has been created to share biodiversity data from all corners of the country. Fatima Parker of the South African Biodiversity Information Facility explained how the database operates, what kind of information can be accessed in it, and how the information can be applied.

Scarce skills

Prof Michelle Hamer of the South African Biodiversity Institute focused on the exploration of our country’s biodiversity. Learners were astonished to learn that SA has 200 different species of grasshopper, 400 species of earthworm, 70 species of fleas, 2 000 species of spiders and 400 species of millipedes. Prof Hamer highlighted the fact that taxonomy is a scarce skill in SA, which led to numerous questions from learners who wanted more information on taxonomy as a career.

Next in line was Thomas Mtontsi, Education Outreach Officer of SAEON’s Egagasini Node for Marine-Offshore Systems. Learners actively participated in his lively presentation about our oceans and the vital role they play in our weather, agriculture, energy and health. He also explained how Egagasini involves learners in the monitoring of our oceans.

The programme concluded with a fiery schools debate tournament between high schools from Mamelodi, Atteridgeville, Midrand and Saulsville, in which it soon became evident that the learners had learnt a great deal from the morning’s presentations.

During and after lunch the SAEON team had their hands full to answer questions and provide career information at the SAEON stand before learners departed on a guided tour of the National Zoo.

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