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From studying research catchments in the Northern Drakensberg to monitoring groundwater in Maputaland

By Sachin Doarsamy and Xolile Mbuyazi, DSI-NRF interns, SAEON
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Two DSI-NRF interns at SAEON’s Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node report on the skills they are gaining with hands-on practical experience at the node.

Sachin Doarsamy

As a child I always had a fascination with the natural world, particularly with plants. My passion grew when I began my degree in Ecology at the Pietermaritzburg Campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). Exposure during this time to countless fieldtrips, brilliant lecturers and diverse fields within science from rangeland ecology to entomology, vacation work in biocontrol, volunteering at Bews Herbarium (Natal University) and bonding with students with similar views boosted my passion.

My honours project combined my interests in plants and insects. I investigated the changes in riparian vegetation and macroinvertebrate communities along riverbanks in the Umgeni System that were invaded and cleared of invasive trees. My master’s project is a phylogenetic analysis of the genus Wurmbea (Colchicaceae) in South Africa, based on the importance of floral scent chemistry for pollination.

During my university career I have been privileged to volunteer and work for the Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW), to be a research assistant for countless postgraduate students, help feed data into the Karoo BioGaps Project and contribute plant records to an ongoing series of BioBlitz within KwaZulu-Natal. Every opportunity and experience influenced my passion for South African plants.

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DSI-NRF intern Sachin Doarsamy admires a Podocarpus henkelii tree on the Rainbow Gorge hiking trail at Cathedral Peak (Photo: Anne Kleinjan)

Sachin (left) on his first field trip to the Brotherton Burning Plots at Cathedral Peak with, from left, SAEON’s Beate Hölscher, Paul Gordijn and Thami Shezi (Photo: Anne Kleinjan)

My internship with SAEON is an opportunity to gain further insight into climate change while developing my skills as a future researcher. I have discovered the importance of venturing into unknown territories and figuring out what excites my interests.

SAEON is a new adventure for personal and academic growth. The Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node has research interests in two major and contrasting regions of KwaZulu-Natal – the research catchments in the Northern Drakensberg and monitoring groundwater in Maputaland. My plans for the year have been split between both regions.

My main project during this internship year is creating a baseline study of the woody vegetation in the Cathedral Peak research catchments and implications of woody encroachment in montane grasslands. The woody plant ingression into grasslands is a global issue and has been demonstrated to be exacerbated by global change or the increasing influence of humans.

In the Drakensberg, concerns have been raised regarding the ingression of shrubs into pristine grassland areas, potentially impacting the hydrological functioning and biodiversity of these valuable grasslands. Therefore, it is important to understand, predict or anticipate where the ingressions are likely to take place; and to take a closer look at the abundance of shrubs/trees that are possible encroachers under current and future environmental conditions.

My second project is gathering available information to create a database of all the vegetation work done in Maputaland and determine areas suitable to start long-term monitoring projects.

My internship will be a year of growth with the help of SAEON. I look forward to applying my knowledge, learning new techniques and becoming a better scientist.

Xolile Mbuyazi

I am a young black woman who is passionate about science and the environment. Prior to becoming an intern at the Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node, I completed a BSc in geography and hydrology and recently graduated with an honours degree in hydrology at the University of Zululand, supervised by Dr Ricky Taylor.

I first became interested in hydrology because I wanted to understand the reasons why we did not have water back home in Mtubatuba while the Mfolozi River was flowing. I have never looked back since then.

For my honours project I studied the relationship between soil salinity, groundwater salinity and flooding frequency, looking at elevation and distance along the Mlalazi estuarine floodplain. It was during my time working with Dr Taylor that I experienced a deeper fascination with understanding the dynamics of groundwater. Being introduced to the Lake Sibayi System was the biggest highlight of my academic studies.

Coming to work at the node and working closely with SAEON’s Sue van Rensburg and Siphiwe Mfeka on groundwater and rainfall monitoring around Lake Sibayi has advanced my understanding of groundwater dynamics. What better way to understand groundwater than studying the biggest groundwater recharged lake in the country?

Since joining the node in April, I have had the privilege of attending a World Environment Day celebration to which SAEON and various other stakeholders were invited to educate the Mabasa Tribal community in Mhlabuyalingana about the status of the lake and other global climate change issues.

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DSI-NRF intern Xolile Mbuyazi on the western shores of Lake St Lucia (Photo: Siphiwe Mfeka)

Xolile on a visit to Lake Sibaya’s Southern Basin (Photo: Jeremy Moonsamy)

I attended the EMS-Africa Eddy Covariance winter school at the University of Venda’s Vuwani Science Centre. I would like to thank SAEON for the opportunity – it was my first visit to Limpopo as well as the first time I flew on a plane.

In addition, I attended a two-day Sap Flow and Heat Pulse workshop held at UKZN. Not only did these worthwhile learning experiences introduce me to the eddy covariance system and sap flow and heat pulse techniques, but I also had the opportunity to meet new people and form new relationships which might come in useful as I continue my studies.

Currently, I am working on a project to monitor the erosion in catchment III at Cathedral Peak and document the history of all the work that has been done from when the catchment was established to date, supervised by Sue van Rensburg and Michelle Toucher. I am excited about this project. It is a little outside my scope, but I am willing to learn as much as I can while working on the project. I also cannot wait to get to Cathedral Peak in the Drakensberg as I have never been there before.

Being a DSI-NRF intern at the Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node, I hope to improve on my field experience and modelling skills and gain other relevant skills that will prepare me for my MSc in 2020. SAEON presents a great learning opportunity for me to grow in my field as a hydrologist and to explore and get a better understanding of how hydrology relates to other scientific disciplines.

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