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Arid Zone Ecology Forum addresses regional stakeholder needs

By Marco Pauw, SAEON Arid Lands Node

Tshililo Ramaswiela and Marco Pauw, field technicians at the SAEON Arid Lands Node, attended the 28th Arid Zone Ecology Forum (AZEF 2013) which was held at the McGregor Museum in Kimberley in September 2013. SAEON co-hosted and co-funded this event.

AZEF was initiated to focus attention on the problems facing the arid and semi-arid regions in southern Africa as well as the solutions required. The theme for AZEF 2013 was “Emerging threats in the arid zone: building knowledge and developing solutions”, with a strong emphasis on management implications.

Delegates from all over South Africa were joined by colleagues from Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Germany and Australia. Students from 14 universities made up a large proportion (31 out of 108) of the delegates, and many presented posters or papers.

Tshililo presented a paper on the SAEON Arid Lands Node’s monitoring of vegetation change in the de-proclaimed Vaalbos National Park. Justin du Toit, a SAEON PhD candidate collaborating with the Arid Lands Node (and supervised by Tim O’Connor, SAEON’s Observation Science Specialist), presented his analysis of rainfall trends in the Eastern Karoo over a period of 128 years.

AZEF 2013 kicked off with a meet-and-greet function at the McGregor Museum, during which Suzanne Erasmus, the museum’s education officer, gave an overview of the colourful history of the venue from its beginning as a sanatorium (in 1897) to its use as a hotel (1902-1933) and a convent school (1933-1971) and its current use as a museum (since 1976).

The conference consisted of a number of paper and poster sessions covering a wide range of subjects, from geology and below-ground interactions, through botany and zoology, to climatology and including various environmental management issues. The meeting opened with a keynote address by Mark Anderson of BirdLife South Africa on the successes and challenges of bird conservation in South Africa.

A special session on rehabilitation in arid environments included a panel discussion and presentations on rehabilitation studies from South Africa, Namibia, Australia and Saudi Arabia, providing an international perspective on this topic. Ellery Mayence, a researcher at the Kings Park Botanic Gardens and Park Authority in Perth, Western Australia, presented the keynote address for the rehabilitation session.

Highlighting the research needs of farmers

AZEF 2013 also included a special farmers’ session which highlighted the perspectives and research needs of farmers in the arid zone. The key message from this session was that farmers operate in an environmental, social and economic sphere and that farming is essentially a business that needs to be profitable. Therefore, interdisciplinary research needs to be stepped up and the feasibility of recommendations needs to be tested in discussion with land managers before they are published.

As in the past, AZEF 2013 delegates had a number of mid-conference field excursions to choose from. Kimberley, with its eventful history and beautiful surroundings, provided great opportunities for excursions. These were at Magersfontein Battlefield, Benfontein Nature Reserve, Nooitgedacht Farm, the Felidae Centre and Kimberley’s famous Big Hole. Delegates had real difficulty in deciding which one to attend, as each promised to be of great interest. Indeed, it turned out to be so, stimulating fruitful discussions.

Participants also had an opportunity to go on an organised ghost tour, during which a number of historical places in Kimberley with purported ghost activities is visited at night. This was reportedly a very frightening experience, although participants considered themselves lucky not to have seen anything ‘unusual’.

Inspiring the next generation of environmental scientists

As part of the annual education outreach initiative, AZEF sponsored Sister Marie Bernarde and ten grade 10 learners from the Maths and Science Leadership Academy in Kimberley to attend the 2013 conference on the day of the field excursions. AZEF members explained to the learners what a scientific conference is all about and how it works, after which the learners attended the ecological rehabilitation session. The highlight of the day for the learners was the field excursions to Benfontein and Magersfontein, as they do not often get an opportunity to spend an afternoon in natural surroundings.

For the learners attending, AZEF was a fascinating experience as environmental science is a completely unfamiliar career field to them. Several learners stated that they were inspired to pursue a career in environmental sciences as a result of this experience, and one emphasised that “this event made me realise that our arid zone region is very important”.

Learners also mentioned how impressed they were by the passion and dedication of the delegates they interacted with. AZEF delegates thoroughly enjoyed interacting with these learners and were particularly impressed by their enthusiasm and positive attitudes.

AZEF 2013 was a great success and not only improved the quality of science and created opportunities for collaboration, but also inspired the next generation of environmental scientists. SAEON, too, gained by being part of this event.

SAEON eNews gratefully acknowledges the photographs supplied by the AZEF 2013 participants.

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Jamie Paulse from the University of the Western Cape (left) receives a trophy from AZEF committee member Ute Schmiedel for her winning poster entitled "The impacts of different stocking rates on vegetation within the Three Peaks Conservancy in the Kamiesberg Uplands"

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AZEF sponsored Sister Marie Bernarde and ten grade 10 learners from the Maths and Science Leadership Academy in Kimberley to attend the 2013 conference on the day of the field excursions

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Scientists assist the learners to locate the position of historical photographs during the field trip to the Magersfontein Battlefield

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Researchers and farmers find common ground during the field trip to Nooitgedacht Farm. AZEF 2013 included a special farmers’ session which highlighted the perspectives and research needs of farmers in the arid zone.

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