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SAEON Research Associates: The first inductees

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Drs Ed Granger (left) and Francois Smith bring decades of long-term monitoring expertise and data sets to SAEON

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Dr Francois Smith's research has provided SAEON with what is possibly the most detailed data set on vegetation change and plant population dynamics in the Nama-Karoo

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Dr Ed Granger's study of plant succession at Cathedral Peak following the exclusion of fire has provided a baseline that has already been followed up by SAEON


By Tim O'Connor, Observation Science Specialist, SAEON

SAEON's mandate is to study long-term environmental changes and archive data for that purpose.

One would expect that the best source of data would be the various government agencies tasked with managing our natural resource base, and indeed our many agencies hold a wealth of information for SAEON to achieve its mandate.

Another source exists which arguably matches the value of these data bases, but in a different way. Many individual scientists, mainly former academics, have accumulated long-term data sets over the course of their lifetime of work. Moreover, these data sets are usually targeted at specific questions involving long-term change.

Most scientists generate more data than they can process and publish during the course of their career. They need a period post retirement during which time can be committed to publishing results and ensuring the programme can be continued by someone else. But to do this requires some degree of support, often lacking once retired. People employed in a non-academic sphere find themselves in a similar position.

SAEON Research Associates

SAEON considered that it was well positioned to offer such support. Accordingly, the idea of SAEON Research Associates was conceived. A heuristic approach was needed to develop and implement the idea.

Fortuitously, two "guinea pigs" emerged. While developing long-term observation programmes for SAEON's Grassland, Forest and Wetlands Node in the Drakensberg, the efforts of Drs Ed Granger and Francois Smith became conspicuous.

Dr Ed Granger

Dr Ed Granger graduated with Honours from the University of Natal in 1971 and joined the Department of Forestry in 1972. A study of plant succession in Catchment IX at the then Department of Forestry's hydrological research station at Cathedral Peak following the exclusion of fire was undertaken for his MSc, but for which a PhD was awarded by the University of Natal. This baseline has already been followed up by SAEON. Dr Granger was instrumental in building up the research component of the Department of Forestry during the 1970s, recruiting inter alia Colin and Terry Everson, Francois Smith and Derek Tomlinson. Their efforts underpin much of SAEON's current effort in the Drakensberg.

Most scientists generate more data than they can process and publish during the course of their career.

Not expecting his MSc to be upgraded to a PhD, Ed commenced fieldwork for a PhD in 1974 that involved mapping and describing the vegetation on then State Forest land between Cathedral Peak and Monk's Cowl, which was expanded as a study for the then Natal Town and Regional Planning Commission after accepting a position with the University of Transkei in 1980. This substantial vegetation data base of re-locatable plots forms the basis of planned studies on the effect of land use and climate change on ecosystem organisation.

His subsequent tenure with the Universities of Durban-Westville (1989-1990) and Natal at Pietermaritzburg (1991-2007) was characterised by a growing interest in grassland rehabilitation. Between 2007 and 2012 he was employed by Knight-Piesold (Pty) Ltd during which he was responsible for compiling and overseeing the implementation of a number of large-scale rehabilitation plans, including those for eThekwini Municipality's western and northern aqueducts. He has left many permanent plots scattered across KwaZulu-Natal that provide evidence of the long-term success, or otherwise, of different approaches to rehabilitation.

Dr Francois Smith

Dr Francois Smith joined the Department of Forestry in 1975 after having graduated with a BSc Honours from the University of the Witwatersrand the previous year. He registered for an MSc Agriculture degree at the University of Natal in 1978, and working at the Cathedral Peak Forestry Research Station, he examined the responses of four shrub species to timing and behaviour of fire. Permanent plots were a feature of this research, as well as his other research efforts in the 1980s on Protea phenology and demography in the Drakensberg.

In 1995, Francois took up a position with the University of Durban-Westville, later University of KwaZulu-Natal, where he lectured until his retirement in 2011. The focus of his research during his university tenure was on the influence of mound-building termites, rainfall, livestock, soils and interspecific interactions on vegetation composition and dynamics in the Nama-Karoo. For this, he was awarded a PhD by the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, in 2001.

Implicit in this study was the establishment of seven permanent sites for future long-term monitoring of vegetation composition and the demography of the grass Themeda triandra. He has visited these permanent sites for 18 years now, to provide what is possibly the most detailed data set on vegetation change and plant population dynamics in the Nama-Karoo.

Francois continues to be involved in other key research activities that have long-term environmental associations with permanent monitoring sites. These activities vary from examining the impact of the sugar industry and railway construction on the historical distribution (1850-1926) of the seagrass Zostera capensis in estuaries of KwaZulu-Natal, to determining the ecological correlates of sexual dimorphism in the shrub Gnidia stricta (Thymelaeaceae) from the Nama-Karoo.

SAEON is honoured to be able to assist experienced scientists such as Ed and Francois in continuing their involvement in science. We are grateful for the high-quality data bases they have to offer, some of which already form the basis of emerging SAEON observation programmes.

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