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Studying spatio-temporal footprints of herbivory in the Drakensberg

By Tamanna Patel, PDP* PhD student, SAEON Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node and University of the Witwatersrand
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Eland population numbers in the Drakensberg have been decreasing in recent years. Together with a contraction in their range, this is a major cause for concern.

Further research is needed to understand the factors driving these population trends and their distribution. I plan to address these and other questions for my PhD with SAEON.

Registered with the University of the Witwatersrand and supervised by Professors Tim O’Connor and Francesca Parrini, I have just started my PhD at SAEON’s Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node. I am fortunate to be funded through an NRF PDP grant.

I recently completed an internship with SAEON’s Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node under the supervision of Professor Tim O’Connor, during which I conducted a foundation study on the eland population in the Drakensberg using a long-term population database maintained by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. I analysed eland population trends and group composition, and compared their past and present distribution patterns.

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Keeping up with mountain man Tim O’Connor during a site visit to Highmoor Nature Reserve

Beautiful views from one of the hiking trails at Royal Natal National Park

My PhD project is focused around maintaining plant diversity in a montane environment in the face of global change. The general aim is to determine the spatio-temporal patterns of herbivory in relation to the environmental domain of the Drakensberg system (climate gradients, environment, and land use). Comparisons will be done between communal, commercial and conservation land uses for both wildlife species and livestock.

The emphasis of this study is on a community (system) approach rather than on a detailed study of the population ecology of individual species. Contemporary conceptual issues concerning the structure of mammalian herbivore communities, and their conservation, will be examined.

My MSc at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, supervised by Drs Adrian Shrader, Keenan Stears and Ian Little (Endangered Wildlife Trust), examined the population dynamics and relocation success of oribi antelope in KwaZulu-Natal. As oribi are threatened, it is important to understand their population dynamics for effective conservation and management of the species. This spurred my interest in mammal population dynamics and their interactions with ecosystems.

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Presenting my research

During my internship at SAEON, I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to attend two conferences with my colleagues:

  • The Symposium of Contemporary Conservation Practice (November 2016), during which I presented a talk on my research conducted as an intern; and
  • The Global Change Conference (December 2016), where I won first prize for the poster I presented. View the poster here.

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SAEON prize winners at the Global Change Conference. From left: Nasiphi Ntshanga, Tamanna Patel and Nqobile Lushozi

SAEON interns attending the Global Change Conference. From left: Luke Bentley, Tamanna Patel and Nobuhle Mweli

I also presented my research at the Maloti-Drakensberg Park Mini Symposium held by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife in March 2017. The experience of presenting my work, the exposure, networking and feedback I received from these conferences was immense and I am so honoured to have been given the chance to attend.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Node Coordinator Sue van Rensburg and the rest of the Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands team for their continuous support and encouragement.

* The Professional Development Programme of the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation aims to accelerate the development of scientists and research professionals in key research areas.

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