The Arid Zone Ecology Forum

I was privileged to attend the Arid Zone Ecology Forum (AZEF) in Prince Albert from 3 – 6 October 2016. This year, AZEF celebrated 30 years of research at the Tierberg LTER (long-term ecological research) Nature Reserve. Among the accomplished researchers this establishment hosted are Timm Hoffman (my supervisor), William Bond, Richard Cowling, Mike Picker and Graham Kerley.

From the AZEF website:

The Tierberg Karoo Research Centre was established in 1986, with a 100ha core area in the Prince Albert Succulent Karoo. This site has been a hub of Karoo research over the past 30 years and work at Tierberg has contributed to more than 100 publications on a wide range of topics, including vegetation dynamics, grazing impacts, heuweltjies and rehabilitation. In 2014, the landowner donated the land to the NRF and SAEON has been managing it as an LTER site since then.

The success of the Tierberg LTER is owed largely to Prof Sue Milton-Dean, a botanist, and Dr Richard Dean, an ornithologist, who devoted so much of their lives to its establishment and progress. It was such an honour to meet them, and to hear about their lives and their research. Overall, the conference was such an enriching experience, and I’d like to share some of my memories of it here.

Day one: 3 October

I met up with my fellow conference-goers (Sam Venter, Kervin Prayag, and Elelwani Nenzhelele) on Monday morning. We were all set to leave by around 10AM. After roadtripping from Cape Town by car for four hours, we finally arrived in the quaint Karoo town of Prince Albert. Myself, Kervin, my supervisor Timm, and an internationally renowned arid lands ecologist, Dr Joe McAuliffe (Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, USA), all stayed in the most comfortable little guesthouse called Onse Rus (‘Our Rest’, in Afrikaans).

Dr Joe McAuliffe giving his keynote address

Dr Joe McAuliffe giving his keynote address (photograph by Gigi Laidler)

Some fond memories of the guesthouse include being greeted by two gigantic dogs (named Jackson Brown and Jabulani) and served chocolate cake and tea on our arrival, being seduced by a beautiful black cat throughout our stay, hearing the motivational ‘WOOH-wooooh’ of an owl just outside my window every night, breakfast and interesting discussion every morning with Kervs, Timm, and Joe (I honestly couldn’t have asked for better company), and the gentle smiles of all the staff at the establishment. Having such a peaceful environment to come home to and wake up to really made the entire week so enjoyable and relaxing, despite the long days and the hard work.

That evening was spent at The Showroom Theatre, where the conference was to be held, meeting and making-merry with fellow university students, interns, academics, and researchers from various institutions across South Africa and across the globe.

Day two: 4 October

Tuesday morning kicked off with a keynote address by Dr Joe McAuliffe, shedding some light on his hypotheses surrounding the origins and workings of the mysterious heuweltjie vegetation patterning phenomenon in South Africa. Although the debate is heated, and there are some opposing ideas surrounding the topic within my own department at UCT, McAuliffe spoke clearly and succinctly – even Sue Milton found some clarity on the topic! It’s always interesting when researchers from halfway across the globe bring new perspectives on things we see every day. Just for the record – he’s on the termite side.

After tea, Kervin addressed the audience, presenting his Honours thesis (which is still in progress), titled ‘Do camelthorn trees use sociable weavers to forage for nutrients?’ Despite being the only plant physiologist among a matrix of ecologists, he did tremendously well in explaining his findings very clearly and confidently. The talks thereafter addressed conservation, education, outreach, and renewable energy development in the Karoo. Later that evening before dinner, Sue Milton reflected on the Tierberg LTER and everyone involved in it. It gave some heartwarming and inspiring insight into the amount of love and effort that her and her husband Richard Dean put into their work. I think it’s safe to say that everyone felt a bit nostalgic and strangely motivated after that talk.

Day three: 5 October

Wednesday morning began with a speaker session on livestock grazing patterns and resources. The talks were surprisingly interesting. I had no prior interest in grazing patterns, but I nearly changed my mind after hearing about research which involved the use of innovative technologies such as drones and RPAs to assess the impact of stocking densities, and how high quality livestock is better for improving both the veld condition as well as the livelihoods earned from livestock farming on communal rangelands. It’s always good to know how much difference applied research in these regions can make, not just on the quality of the land and ecosystems, but also on the livelihoods of the people who interact with these ecosystems.

Tea time was reserved for an extended poster session, where I (and about ten other students, including ecologists, social scientists, and systematists) had to stand by our posters and explain them to anyone who found them interesting. My poster gave an overview of my Masters research, and some preliminary results. The few people who came to chat to me all seemed more interested in my sampling approach (Whittaker plots), and I didn’t hesitate one bit to explain how intense, and intensive, the method is for obtaining species richness data. I also had a look around at the other posters (my colleagues Sam and Elelwani also presented posters, on rePhotoSA and more MSc research, respectively), and I was suitably impressed by the quality of work being done in the arid zone. It was all a very enriching experience, and made me throw my anxiety away and just talk to people.


The amazing PCU team, posing with Joe McAuliffe (second from left) and Helga van der Merwe (second from right). I respect and appreciate every single one of these people.

In the afternoon, we went on one of four planned excursions. The options were the Tierberg LTER, Wolwekraal Nature Reserve located just outside of Prince Albert, a Karoo BioBlitz (which I chose), and a trip to Tarkaskuilen to see some unconventional grazing methods. So you’re probably wondering what a BioBlitz is. Essentially, it’s a few hours spent walking around an allocated area, snapping photographs and recording every plant species observed, and uploading said photographs to iSpot, in the hopes of improving the existing distribution maps for several species. To me, this was the most fun I could’ve asked for.

Here are a few photographs from the BioBlitz:

Day four: 6 October

The last day of AZEF finally dawned. I donned my lucky grey pompom socks (yes, I have lucky grey pompom socks), chucked on the pretty shirt that I had been wanting to wear since my sister gifted it to me in the dead of winter, chugged some breakfast, and seated myself neatly at the end of an aisle of seats so that I could sweat in peace. As you may have realised, I was slightly anxious. Okay, I was a nervous wreck. I barely heard anything that Ute Schmiedel, a highly respected researcher who spoke before me, had to say. When she finished, I heard my name being introduced, my body moved itself to the stage, I couldn’t see a damn thing because of the spotlight shining on my (probably sweaty/oily) face, and I delivered my talk. Honestly, I remember nothing apart from one moment of clarity when I used the laser pointer and said,

“I’d like to direct your attention to this slope, and the adjacent washes of the river here – you’ll see a slight increase in dwarf shrub cover.”

And then I was back in my seat, still sweating, but relieved. When I sat down, I got a funny look from Kervin, and he said, “I think you just won it.”

I didn’t actually think he was right. But whaddaya know, I won first prize for “best oral presentation by a young scientist”. Given that this was the first conference I’ve ever presented at, I was very surprised, but overall quite pleased. I was happy to do Timm proud – he was the one who coerced me into presenting my Honours thesis in the first place, because he thought my work was something worth sharing. Someone once told me that having even just one person truly believe in you is all the motivation you need. I had Timm, my mom, and the rest of my immediate family and friends all believing in me. I’m so ridiculously lucky. At this point I’d like to give Kervs an honourable mention as well: he claimed second prize for best oral presentation. Superb job, Mr Prayag, and thanks for listening to my presentation about three more times, and finally understanding the actual point of it a whole year after hearing it for the first time last year.

The rest of that afternoon and Friday morning was spent exploring Prince Albert a little bit. We visited a beautiful photographic exhibition, went to a really cute coffee shop called Lah-di-dah (where I met my patronus, a calico cat by the name of Grietjie), and then hightailed it back home to Cape Town. It was such an incredible experience, and I am privileged to have met and interacted with all of these inspiring researchers from other institutions. I’m left with a feeling of renewed motivation and eagerness to dive into my Masters research and do my best.

Thank you Prince Albert, you beautiful little Karoo gem.