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A new vision for the arid lands

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Arid land ecologist Joh Henschel brings vast experience to SAEON

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Joh served as the Executive Director of the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre in the Namib Naukluft Park

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One of the research areas still to be probed in the arid lands is the impact of ecosystem engineers such as ground squirrels (pictured), termites as well as herbivores, whose effect on the ecosystem is often underestimated

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Joh has published extensively, both scientific and popular environmental articles. His Welwitschia's World describes one of the strangest plants of Namibia in poem, facts and picture.

SAEON's Arid Lands Node is abuzz with activity ... and it is definitely no mirage!

In the last nine months arid land ecologist Dr Joh Henschel took up his position as manager of the node; several new research projects were initiated or are in the pipeline; and the Tierberg research site, facilities and data were secured. As part of Joh's strategy of drawing a range of researchers in to study aspects of this multi-faceted biome, award-winning scientist Dr Helga van der Merwe was appointed, among other things to assess the impact of climate change, land use and management on vegetation in the arid areas.

A solid grounding in research

Joh brings vast experience as an ecologist to SAEON, having conducted environmental assessments and research in South Africa, Namibia and abroad. He has extensive experience in terrestrial environments ranging from desert to rainforest. His specific fields of research include biodiversity, community ecology, landscape ecology, environmental observations and restoration ecology.

Describing himself as a "biologist at heart", Joh says his interest in "small goggas (insects), birds and everything in between" began during his childhood years in rural KwaZulu-Natal. Yet despite this interest in terrestrial life forms, he was fascinated by the ocean and the life forms hidden within its mysterious depths. In 1981 he graduated from the University of Cape Town (UCT) with a master's degree in marine biology, for which he studied the rate of settlement of marine organisms on rocks and artificial surfaces.

Diversifying into terrestrial ecology, the versatile young researcher completed his PhD at the University of Pretoria (UP) on the socio-ecology of spotted hyaenas in the Kruger National Park. Joh had his first taste of the arid lands in 1977, when he followed spotted hyenas in the Kuiseb Canyon of the Namib Desert for six months following his honours degree.

He was ultimately to spend over three decades in the Namib, first as a researcher and then as data manager at the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia; and finally as Executive Director of the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre. He conducted research on spiders, insects, fog, Welwitschia and a host of other subjects, leading to interesting facts and discoveries that found their way into 125 scientific articles and many more popular writings.

Joh was instrumental in the innovative redesign of the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre into its current format 50 years after its inception. Today Gobabeb is an internationally recognised centre for dry land training and research in Namibia. The station consists of permanent researchers, students and interns. It hosts visits for school and university groups, tourists, film crews, journalists and artists. It was during Joh's term at Gobabeb that the station also became the hub of a tourism concession, a first in its history and an opportunity to raise awareness for ecological tourism in the desert while generating some income towards the functional upkeep of the research station.

After almost nine years at the Gobabeb Centre, Joh felt it was time to move on and joined EnviroMEND as an environmental consultant based in Walvis Bay. His work consisted mainly of environmental impact assessments and baseline studies, but he also lectured the top management and staff of mines on sound ecological principles and management.

Joh interrupted his stay in the desert only once. In January 1994, as an Alexander-von-Humboldt Research Fellow, he left for Germany to pursue a two-year postdoc at the University of W├╝rzburg, where he studied food webs of spiders and insects along river shores. "As the resources flowed from one habitat into the next, I became engrossed by how the two systems interrelate," explains Joh.

The SAEON link

Joh has had a long-standing relationship with SAEON ever since its inception. He attended the first stakeholder meeting in 1999, as well as the launch of the new network, its first summit and several SAEON events through the years.

"I witnessed the way in which the nodes evolved, so when the manager position at the Arid Lands Node opened up, I was intrigued," he says, adding that he is looking forward to getting to grips with the challenges that his new position will undoubtedly entail.

"The arid part of South Africa has many interesting and important features," he explains. "Millions of people live in the country's arid lands. It has large mines that are crucial for the country's economy. The Orange River runs through it. Within the area there is a breath-taking variety of landscapes and associated species - the Succulent Karoo, the Nama Karoo, Namaqualand, the Kalahari ... and over and above the endemic species there are several range-restricted species in small pockets of habitat."

Global change is an overarching issue that will be probed from many angles. Arid zones are generally vulnerable areas and water is a very limited resource. This makes knowledge of water-related phenomena like rainfall, humidity, fog and surface- and groundwater very relevant.

Data management

"Time-series environmental data is the currency in which SAEON's work is traded," explains Joh. "Long-term data is becoming increasingly invaluable to society, which is facing mounting environmental challenges."

Joh has considerable experience in data management. Not only was he involved in data management early in his career at the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia, but he also shaped the data management plans for the Gobabeb Centre. Being well versed in legacy data due to his involvement in Namibia's LTER programmes since 1996, Joh is excited about the rich bounty of research data that has been recorded for South Africa's arid lands by a range of researchers.

"Researchers from many of South Africa's universities have worked here," says Joh, "and SAEON is well positioned to draw new expertise into the area to find the gaps and initiate new research projects."

Arid lands awareness and education programmes

Joh hopes to see a strong education action emanating from the node to schools, learners and educators. Many people still see arid zones as perennial wastelands, and Joh wants to turn this perception on its head via awareness outreach and education programmes. "Arid lands are jewels and treasure troves of nature," he says.

One example is the arid lands ecosystem engineers such as ground squirrels, termites and herbivores, whose effect on the ecosystem is often underestimated. These areas also host several life forms, especially among the arthropods, insects and reptiles, which are severely range restricted and occur on some very small areas. And then there are the reptiles, which have been used elsewhere in the world as indicators of climate change as they are very sensitive to temperature changes.

The public in general, and children in particular, should become more aware of these interesting inhabitants of the dry areas of our country.

Strengthening networks

There are a myriad research opportunities in the arid lands, says Joh. "We need to draw researchers in to study the different pieces of the puzzle and to find answers and solutions," he explains, adding that it would be vital for the node to maintain sound relations with the higher education institutions throughout the country and beyond. "And then of course, we need to encourage the researchers to write hundreds of research articles," he says with a twinkle.

He regards the node's relationship with SANParks as very important and intends to build on the close association that the node already has with SANParks to explore further possibilities for collaboration. "SANParks has excellent reference sites," he explains. "Our strength lies in doing research in the areas surrounding these sites; in the farming, mining and communal lands."

With his international exposure and experience, Joh was one of the proponents to get Namibia registered as a national member of the International Long Term Ecological Research (ILTER) Network. He was closely involved in the Namibian Environmental Observatories Network (NaEON) and the Environmental Long-Term Observatories of Southern Africa (ELTOSA), of which he was the founding chair, and also served on the Executive Committee of the ILTER Network.

"I witnessed SAEON moving forward in the larger southern African community and also within ILTER," Joh says, "and I strongly support strengthening ties with the regional and international LTER community."

Now he endeavours to advance SAEON's Arid Lands Node using a similar approach of strengthening ties at institutional levels so as to improve the knowledge base for the planning of future developments.

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