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Young team to monitor ancient arid lands




Yolandi Els, newly appointed Coordinator of SAEON’s Node for Arid Lands.


Yolandi measures one of her saplings at the Mapungubwe National Park.


Yolandi conducts interviews with Kalahari farmers in Mier. The interviews formed part of the PRACTICE project  aimed at linking science to society and transferring evaluation methods and best practices to combat desertification.


Yolandi’s group of volunteers, students and SANParks staff members who participated in a tree planting initiative in the Mapungubwe National Park in October 2009.


Yolandi tests dryland monitoring methods in the Molopo area of the North West Province. She formed part of a group of scientists taking part in a CSIR project on standardised dryland monitoring methods to be used in SADC countries.

Yolandi Els, newly appointed Coordinator of SAEON’s node for Arid Lands, is equally enthusiastic about her new position and the team that will be tackling long-term observation in the semi-arid and arid areas of the Northern Cape, encompassing the dry savanna, Nama Karoo and Succulent Karoo Biomes.

The team currently consists of Iain Olivier and Tshililo Ramaswiela, two well-qualified Field Technicians. Although Iain and Tshililo originally hail from the fynbos area, both have gained considerable monitoring experience in the Limpopo savanna area and Tshililo has worked on Marion Island for a year.

“We’re a pretty young team, we’re all about the same age, with different backgrounds,” Yolandi smiles, “and we’re going to tackle the job with enthusiasm and lots of fresh ideas.”

Yolandi herself has experience in project management, ecological remediation and sustainable development. Whereas North-West University where she studied focused on restoration/ rehabilitation of mining areas in particular, her Masters was focused on restoration ecology within a conservation area such as the Mapungubwe National Park, where she concentrated on restoration of indigenous trees, a relatively unexplored research area in South Africa.

“Students always wonder if their Masters would have real impact because the research is undertaken over such a short period,” Yolandi says, “but for Mapungubwe in particular it is possible that my Masters can make a difference, especially in view of new mining developments in areas adjacent to the conservation area.”

Yolandi has compiled a single set of restoration guidelines and standards  for use by SANParks and other areas along the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers. The study was funded by the National Geographic Conservation Trust on account of Mapungubwe’s status as a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site and based on the fact that the project was linked to capacity building and the improvement of livelihoods. Yolandi is now waiting to see if any further projects develop out of the collaboration.

Project management

In 2009 this award-winning student organised a big group of volunteers to replant indigenous seedlings in Mapungubwe as part of her Masters project. The group consisted of international volunteers from all over world, together with a group of students from North-West University, SANParks staff and interns and members of the West Rand Honorary Rangers. The project did a lot to raise awareness of restoration ecology.

“Volunteers are often useful in getting the groundwork done and a lot of volunteers have great insight – you don’t have to be a scientist to make a valuable contribution,” Yolandi explains.

To ensure sufficient capacity to continue the monitoring work after she had left, she also trained SANParks staff and worked closely with the SANParks section ranger who will be training each new batch of nature conservation interns who will be involved in the project.

Yolandi was also called upon to assist in coordinating the South African leg of various CSIR workshops funded by the NRF on the evaluation of dryland monitoring techniques to be used in SADC countries. In the process Yolandi improved her knowledge of ground truthing remote sensing images, photography and software analysis.

During her research experience thus far, Yolandi was exposed to the three pillars upon which the SAEON mandate is based – observation science, information management and education outreach - and she is looking forward to getting the pillars established and entrenched at her node. “I’m particularly looking forward to get sustained processes in place for long-term monitoring,” she says.

Host organisation

During her Masters studies Yolandi forged strong ties with SANParks, the node’s host in Kimberley and she counts herself fortunate to be collaborating with SANParks in the future.

A person who was essential in the node's development in Kimberley and with whom the node will be working closely in future is SANParks Programme Integrator Dr Hugo Bezuidenhout. “Dr Bezuidenhout is an experienced ecologist with extensive experience in monitoring within protected areas and I look forward to his expert input and guidance,” she says.

Yolandi confesses she was pleasantly surprised when she saw the node's well-resourced and spacious new office building. The building is large enough to accommodate a number of students at the node and there is a state-of-the-art laboratory. The building has been designed to blend in with the SANParks Conservation Services office complex and is situated on the N12 to Cape Town.

Setting up the node

Her initial focus will be to get the office operational and properly staffed. The node will ultimately consist of the Coordinator, two Field Technicians, an Information Manager, an Education Outreach Officer and an Administrative Assistant.

There will also be in-depth discussions with stakeholders to gather and coordinate information about the context and objectives of all the organisations, which will enable the team to work in the direction of a science plan for the node. In this they will be assisted by SAEON’s Observation Science Specialist, Prof Tim O’Connor, who was the driving force behind SAEON’s core science plan. Unlike the other nodes that all have managers, the two new nodes will initially work closely with Tim, who will steer them in compiling science plans for their nodes.

Having previously worked with Dr Bezuidenhout in Kimberley in organising the 2010 Annual Grassland Society of Southern Africa Conference, Yolandi has been acquainted with the key stakeholders in the area and she has found them to be open and accessible. “Considerable footwork has been done by SAEON MD Johan Pauw,” she says, “and our potential key stakeholders are all aware of SAEON and the new node for arid lands. I’m positive we’re all going to work well together.”

The node already has a number of projects in the pipeline. The team will immediately start work on the resampling of long-term grazing trials at the Grootfontein Agricultural Development Institute (the oldest experimental trials in Africa, running since 1937)  as well as resampling of vegetation communities in the former Vaalbos National Park (now deproclaimed and subject to multiple diamond mining concessions).

The Tierberg Karoo Research Station is another key focus area which falls within the node's territory. They will also strongly interact with the Arid Zone Ecology Forum facilitated by the NRF, comprising of an informal network of state, provincial, educational and research istitutions in the semi-arid and arid areas of South Africa.

“There’s a lot of work to be done in the vast area we have to cover and we’ll have to prioritise in terms of our resources and capacity,” Yolandi says. “There is also considerable scope for development and new skills to be learnt within our young team.”

They will soon be going for training on SAEON’s data portal which will be an essential part of their communication with stakeholders.

Vast territory

The Arid Lands Node is the biggest of all the nodes in terms of surface area. This explains why two Field Technicians were appointed whereas the other nodes only have one each.

The area mostly falls within the Northern Cape (yet is not restricted to the political boundaries of the province) where it encompasses three Biomes (Namaqua Karoo, Succulent Karoo and Savanna) , including various national and provincial conservation areas and seven of the 18 centres of floristic endemism in South Africa. Possible collaboration across international boundaries is also envisioned as Botswana and Namibia form part of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park.

Yolandi says there are numerous developments in the semi-arid/ arid area, but capacity is somewhat of a challenge in a province without a higher education institution. The specialists in the arid and semi-arid areas function as a small interacting community and the node can assist in monitoring and resampling by bringing in additional capacity in the form of the two Field Technicians, visiting researchers and students.

The SAEON drawcard

While she was completing her Masters, Yolandi coordinated the South African leg of the PRACTICE (Prevention and Restoration Actions to Combat Desertification) project. Coordinated by the CEAM Foundation in Spain, the project is headed by Principal Investigator Prof Klaus Kellner in South Africa. The central goal of the project is to link science to society in order to share and transfer evaluation methods and best practices to combat desertification. Yolandi has consequently spent considerable time on the two South African field sites - Mier in the Northern Cape and the Molopo (Noth West Province).

With this experience as background, she viewed her ideal job as something hands on in terms of research, but while she enjoys research she also enjoys project management and regards it as one of her strong points, so ideally she wanted a position where these two were interlinked. When she saw SAEON’s advertisement she realised that the job description perfectly matched the niche she wanted to carve out for herself.

She says it was easy for her to get enthusiastic about the three pillars on which SAEON’s mandate is based as her previous research experience has indicated the need for all three. While she was coordinating the PRACTICE project in South Africa she became especially aware of the need to coordinate programmes and data.

“ I see SAEON addressing the need to consolidate and coordinate fragmented environmental data in the arid areas, making them accessible to scientists and policy makers," she explains. For her the streamlining of environmental research was one of SAEON's major drawcards.

Yolandi has a passion for applied science, to know that whatever she does will eventually culminate in societal benefits, with direct implications for better quality livelihoods.

She is realistic about the fact that it will take some time before the new node is properly set up. “I anticipate that in the first year no mountains will be moved as yet, but we’ll focus on getting the structures and support in place to sustain long-term monitoring projects in the arid area,” she says.

“I have lots of ideas,” she concludes with a twinkle in the eye.

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