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2011 Arid Zone Ecology Forum a raging success

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Igshaan Samuels (left) and Claire Davis (right), winners of the best paper and poster presentations respectively, with Dr Ute Schmiedel of the University of Hamburg (Picture: Clement Cupido)

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Professor Timm Hoffman leads the Kokerboom Forest field trip (Picture: Clement Cupido)

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Delegates on the field trip to the Avontuur Conservation Area took part in an active restoration session (Picture: Clement Cupido)

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Christy Bragg auctions a pair of “bunny” ears to Tony Rebelo in aid of the Endangered Wildlife Trusts’ Riverine Rabbit Programme (Picture: Clement Cupido)

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Tony Rebelo and Simon Todd hot on the paws of a porcupine during an excursion in the Hantam National Botanical Garden (Picture: Michel Verstraete)

- Yolandi Els, Coordinator, SAEON Arid Lands Node

The small Hantam Karoo town of Niewoudtville set the scene for this year’s annual conference of the Arid Zone Ecology Forum (AZEF). The conference took place from 3-6 October and was a raging success, with many long-time members declaring it was the best AZEF to date.

A network of exceptional scientists, students and practitioners assembled around this year’s theme “Interactions in the Arid Zone”, which highlighted the complexity and inter-dependence of ecological systems and social dynamics. The opening keynote speaker was SAEON’s own Observation Science Specialist, Professor Tim O’Connor, who gave a fascinating talk addressing interaction complexity in the context of arid environments.

Over the next few days, delegates were addressed by equally outstanding keynote speakers, some of which included Professor Bob Scholes (CSIR Fellow), who discussed the benefits of diverse ecosystems, and Dr Wijnand Swart (University of the Free State), who used agro-ecological perspectives to address food security in water-scarce regions.

Globally relevant presentations

Various poster presentations addressed global change aspects, such as invasive and encroaching species (Prosopis spp. and Acacia mellifera respectively), and land use. It was, in fact, a poster on land use impacts by Claire Davis  (Climate Change Group of the CSIR) which won the prize for “Best Poster Presentation”. Claire's poster was entitled “Recent trends in land cover change across the arid and semi-arid winter rainfall region of southern Africa”.

This year’s theme, “Interactions in the Arid Zone”, highlighted the complexity and inter-dependence of ecological systems and social dynamics.

A number of speakers presented their research on the restoration of degraded veld and the rehabilitation of mined areas – valuable findings which improve scientists’ understanding of how these systems function, a very important aspect for the arid zone.

Another vital aspect, especially from a land manager’s perspective, is problem animals. Fascinating talks by keynote speakers Professor Justin O’Riain (University of Cape Town) and Dr Quinton Martins (Co-founder and Project Manager of the Cape Leopard Trust) addressed this issue. Professor O’Riain discussed mammalian (mole-rats, meerkats and baboons) adaptations to life in arid environments, while Dr Martins discussed the use of camera traps as a tool to highlight trophic imbalances in different land-management systems.

Social ecological aspects were covered as well, among which Professor Maitland Seaman’s (University of the Free State) talk on the training of environmental managers in water-scarce areas, and Igshaan Samuels’ (Agricultural Research Council) prize-winning paper entitled “Integrated land use management on the commons of Namaqualand: the process and the plan”.

The Conservation Biology session included talks on the management of Clanwilliam Sandfish and Wetland Conservation in arid regions, as well as a talk by Christy Bragg on the critically endangered Riverine Rabbit’s interaction with its habitat. Christy is the Manager of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Riverine Rabbit Programme and auctioned off a pair of “bunny” ears at the evening dinner in aid of this programme.

Field trips showcase biological wealth

This year’s theme was inspired by the unique biological wealth of the Bokkeveld Plateau, a wealth which was fittingly showcased by the variety of mid-conference field trips offered to delegates.

Mr Adrian Fortuin (Conservation Manager from CapeNature) and Dr Ute Schmiedel (University of Hamburg) guided an excursion to the fascinating and unique Knersvlakte – an extensive dry plain in the centre of the Succulent Karoo biodiversity hotspot. Also referred to as the “land of the blooming pebbles”, the Knersvlakte’s quartz fields house 1 324 species of which 266 is endemic to the Succulent Karoo and almost half of these endemic species are classified as globally threatened.

A visit to the Kokerboom Forest was guided by Professor Timm Hoffman (University of Cape Town), who presented his research findings at the conference. This stimulated interesting discussions around the use of Aloe dichotoma as an indicator for climate change.

Delegates who visited the Avontuur Conservation Area had an opportunity to participate in active restoration efforts currently underway on the property. Oom Willem van Wyk guided a tour to various sites of interest on his farm Papkuilsfontein, which included vegetation transition areas associated with the variety of soil types present, wetlands and a viewpoint of the Niewoudtville waterfall and Oorlogskloof gorge.

Porcupine viewing excursion

A few delegates also took part in a porcupine viewing excursion led by Christy Bragg, who conducted her PhD research on the foraging ecology of this shy nocturnal rodent. Most of her experimental research was done in the Hantam National Botanical Garden, where long-term exclosures and experiments have been set up to study porcupine-geophyte interactions – an area reported to boast as many as 20 000 geophytes per square metre.

The SAEON Arid Lands Node provided funding for this year’s conference and has laid the foundations of a long-standing partnership with AZEF. The invaluable scientific contributions of its members enable better understanding and prediction of the complex systems at play in arid environments.

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