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Social Science or Natural Science? Experiences from the 2018 AZEF conference

By Maletsatsi Octovia Mohapi and Mthokozisi Shelton Moyo, Interns, SAEON Arid Lands Node
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In October 2018 the Arid Zone Ecology Forum (AZEF) held its 33rd annual conference at Robertson in the Western Cape, also known as the Valley of Wine.

The event was attended by 77 delegates from all over the arid zone - from South Africa, Nigeria and Germany.

The huge variety of presentations ranged from studies about the genetic structure of cork-lid trapdoor spiders in the Karoo to long-term vegetation change in the eastern Nama-Karoo and Grasslands ecotone to how the state can support the livelihood of women in Sutherland. The conference was aimed at promoting networking among scientists, students and community members; bridging a gap between the natural and the social sciences; as well as discussing the new studies being conducted across the arid zone. 

Four organisations sponsored the conference to ensure its success – the Plant Conservation Unit from the University of Cape Town, Endemic Vision, Painted Wolf Wines and the SAEON Arid Lands Node.

Student participation

SAEON sponsored eight students from different universities, including Sol Plaatje University, University of the Western Cape (UWC), University of Cape Town (UCT) and Stellenbosch University (SU). The sponsorship paid for the students’ accommodation and meals as well as prizes for the best oral and poster presentations.


AZEF 2018 delegates (Photo: Stephanie Borchardt)

Beside the pleasant stay at Robertson and being given the opportunity to present their work to other scientists, all students found the conference to be an eye-opener. From different backgrounds and study fields, collectively they agreed that AZEF was the most insightful, educational and exploratory conference they had ever attended.

The students described their experiences as follows:

“I would like to thank SAEON for allowing me to attend this conference fully funded. Overall, the conference really opened my mind and exposed me to new ideas and a new way of thinking and tackling challenges in research.” – Amy Schroeder

“AZEF is a powerful tool for networking. The professors, postgraduate students and executive board members were very receptive to conversations and would freely answer any questions I had.”– Ethan Britz

For Wesley Bell, waking up in Robertson was an amazing experience. He managed to jog around the town and explore the streets of Robertson before the start of each day's programme. He said the conference gave him a chance to learn and understand the upbringing and experiences of other students who did not originate in South Africa.


Sponsored students (l-r: Oluwadusin Adekola, Rethabile Molefi, Amy Schroeder, Letitia Piers, Ethan Britz, Saloshnie Govender and Wesley Bell; absent from picture: Felix Donkor) with Joh Henschel (centre), manager of SAEON’s Arid Lands Node (Photo: Stephanie Borchardt)

“One thing I always appreciate about AZEF is the opportunity to visit smaller towns in South Africa – places I wouldn’t necessarily travel to – and learning about the history of the place and its significance from an arid zone, conservation and social perspective.” – Saloshnie Simone Govender

“For a person attending the AZEF conference for the first time, this was an astonishing and career-boosting opportunity. I managed to grasp information on the environmental and anthropogenic factors that influence biodiversity in arid lands. The most important issue that was emphasised was how to promote conservation while considering the needs of society. An example used was how to stop deforestation while some communities still depend on wood for cooking and for generating light and heat. I also loved how flexible the conference was. It was planned in such a way that one could explore the town by visiting restaurants and going on field excursions, and yet still be educational.”– Maletsatsi Octavia Mohapi


A SAEON-sponsored student, Letitia Piers from the University of Western Cape (right), won the prize for the best poster, with runner-up being Sabrina Schmidt from the University of Hamburg (left) (Photo: Stephanie Borchardt)

“Attending AZEF gave me an opportunity to learn about the unique challenges that people in arid areas face. The discussions were very interesting as we got to hear different perspectives on how to tackle these problems. This was also a good opportunity to meet other researchers and exchange ideas for future research. Understanding how social science is important for tackling environmental issues was the biggest take-home message of all.” – Mthokozisi Moyo


The presentations at the conference were interesting and thought-provoking, especially the student presentations, with first prize for oral presentations going to Gina Arena, PhD student of SAEON at UCT, and first prize for poster presentations going to the SAEON-sponsored masters’ student from UWC, Letitia Piers. 

Other highlights included the launch of the Karoo Special Issue, which contains some of the research conducted in this region. There was a special session where a number of the published papers were presented and discussed.

The field trips were exciting and very informative. The delegates were divided into three groups. The first group went to the Rooiberg Breede River Conservancy, the second group to Graham Beck Nature Reserve and the third group to a nearby mountain on an exciting and successful quest to find the red-listed rare plant, Gazania lanata.

AZEF is vital because it brings together people from different backgrounds who have a shared interest in the arid zone. It also provides a platform where some of the research that is carried out can be practically implemented.

AZEF furthermore provides an opportunity for emerging researchers and students to hone their skills and explore opportunities for collaboration.

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