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Wooing wetlanders with Northern Cape pans during the National Wetlands Indaba 2018

By Betsie Milne, Postdoctoral Fellow, SAEON Arid Lands Node
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The Northern Cape Wetlands Forum, still in their infancy, took on the daring task of hosting the National Wetlands Indaba in Kimberley from 8 to 10 October.

The Indaba attracts representatives of multiple disciplines. The event is not only attended by academics and researchers, but also by private environmental consultants, provincial and national conservation authorities, non-government organisations, water boards, students, private citizens, businesses and industry.

Betsie Milne from SAEON’s Arid Lands Node served on the planning committee, along with Doug Harebottle (Chairman) from Sol Plaatje University and Peter Ramollo (Secretary) from the Northern Cape Department of Environment and Nature Conservation.

The theme for this year’s indaba, Drylands and Wetlands: connecting and managing heterogeneity across landscapes, was selected to showcase the pans of the Northern Cape. These pans are abundant features in arid regions and differ from the familiar wetlands by only being inundated every few years. They are therefore often neglected in research and development policies and there are currently no tools or guidelines to assess these systems. The Indaba provided an opportunistic platform to put the pans on the map.


A pan in the Karoo landscape near Britstown in the Northern Cape, representing the type of wetlands showcased during this year’s Wetlands Indaba (Photo: Betsie Milne)

Renowned keynote speakers who were invited to share their indispensable knowledge on ephemeral wetland systems included Professor Brian Timms (University of New South Wales, Australia) and Professor Maitland Seaman (University of the Free State). Retired, yet actively affiliated with their respective universities, both have championed the dryland wetlands in their regions.

Betsie, whose current postdoc research focuses on these pans, accompanied Professor Timms to his study sites in the Australian outback during 2017 to gain a better understanding of the pans found there, because they are the best reference for those she is studying. Thanks to sponsorship through Kimberley Ekapa Mining JV, she was privileged to return the favour in hosting him in South Africa this year and strengthening collaborative ties.


Joh Henschel, manager of SAEON’s Arid Lands Node, presents the award for best student poster to Gugu Radebe (Photo: Renée Grundling)

Student awards

Recognising that students are treasured investments in the future of wetland research, management and conservation, the Arid Lands Node encouraged excellence by sponsoring the prizes for the best student presentation and posters. The winners were presented with two books – Desert Wetlands by Lucian Niemeyer and Thomas Lowe and Freshwater Life: A Field Guide to the Plants and Animals of Southern Africa by Charles Llewellyn Griffiths and Mike Picker.

The award for best oral presentation went to Ridhwannah Gangat, a master’s student from the University of the Witwatersrand, who demonstrated that the European Space Agency’s freely available, high spatial resolution imagery from Sentinel 1 & 2 sensors is able to predict soil moisture content in wetlands.

The best poster presentation was awarded to Gugu Radebe, who presented results from her Honours degree. She highlighted the potential of two common wetland plant species (Cyperus sexangularis and C. marginatus) in treating wrinkles. 

Kalahari post-conference tour

After the conference, Betsie led a group of adventurous delegates on a tour to some of her favourite study sites in the Kalahari. The delegates were left astonished by the rather atypical wetlands tucked away in the Kalahari landscape.

On-route they were pleasantly surprised by a remnant pool of water from recent rain next to Norokei Pan, where many had the opportunity to adore tadpole shrimps for the very first time. They also explored Hakskeen Pan, the famed site where the Bloodhound supersonic car plans to attempt a new land speed record of over 1 600 km/h. The pan’s vast flat surface inspired the more courageous to mimic the likes of Sir Malcolm Campbell, only to realise that a double cab does not quite equate to high-speed vehicles.


Delegates adoring shrimps collected in an unexpected remnant pool on Norokei Pan between Upington and Rietfontein (Photo: Maitland Seaman; insert photo: Lindie Smith-Adao)

On the second day, delegates stopped over at Koppieskraal Pan to contemplate the rock intrusion that cuts through the pan, before visiting a mystical salt pan concealed by red sand dunes. Here, the purest salt in South Africa is being produced from a natural and very shallow underground brine, tested to be five times saltier than seawater.

Stephen Brown, Joint Managing Director of the Donald Brown Group of Companies, provided an enlightening demonstration of their salt-mining operation. He then allowed delegates to wander on the bright white surface of the adjacent natural pan, which left everyone captivated by the large, transparent salt crystals.

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Stephen Brown demonstrating the salt-mining process, before delegates were allowed to wander across the natural pan surface to enjoy the pure salt crystals (insert) (Photos: Lindie Smith-Adao)

Northern Cape pans could very well be labelled the misfits of the wetland sphere. Nevertheless, with ongoing research, persistent advocating, networking and round-table discussions, these systems will eventually be considered for what they are – crucial elements to be included in management and conservation planning.

It is for this reason that platforms such as the National Wetlands Indaba are so valuable and so greatly appreciated.

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