The Plant Conservation Unit (PCU) was established in 1993 (originally as the Institute for Plant Conservation and later as the Leslie Hill Institute for Plant Conservation), as a result of a generous endowment to the University of Cape Town made by Mr Leslie Hill. It was initiated by Richard Cowling who led the institution from 1993 to 2000. Dave Richardson served as the Deputy Director from 1993 to 2004 and Wendy Paisley, as the Administrative Assistant from 1993 to 2000. Timm Hoffman was appointed as Director in 2001, Mandy Sauls as the Administrative Assistant in 2001 and Lindsey Gillson joined the team as the Deputy Director in 2006.
The activities of the PCU are guided by its Strategic Plan for the period (2007-2011) which should be consulted for a more comprehensive account of the context, strategic principles and approach of the PCU. What follows is a summary of this document.
The vision for the Plant Conservation Unit is to be a world-class, African-centred research and postgraduate training unit that improves the ecological understanding and conservation status of Africa's biomes, with a particular emphasis on the succulent karoo and fynbos biomes of South Africa, and thereby contributes to the quality of life of the people living there.
The Mission of the Plant Conservation Unit is to develop human and institutional capacity through the pursuit of scientific knowledge of the biological functioning of and pressures facing the flora of southern Africa, particularly the succulent karoo and fynbos biomes, to enable sound management decisions for the sustainable use, conservation and restoration of this unique asset.
The vision and mission of the PCU are accomplished through three integrated strategic functions (Research, Education and Social Responsiveness) which are carried out within a strategic context and within several key strategic principles.
The PCU is situated within a World Heritage Site and the fynbos and succulent karoo biomes are two biodiversity hotspots of international importance. Conservation research is concerned both with the formal protected area networks as well as with the impact of land use on biodiversity outside of these areas. In addition, conservation science has recognised the importance of integrating information from a wide range of disciplines if solutions to conservation-related problems are to be found. Ecology, environmental history and a wide range of social science and development studies initiatives are all needed. Finally, local, regional and international networks and partnerships are critical for the success of our research, education and social responsiveness programmes.
While the primary geographic and scientific focus of PCU research is on the fynbos and succulent karoo biomes research activities in other regions of the world are also encouraged. Such initiatives maintain the links to intellectual and practical issues of international importance. The activities of the PCU, therefore, are integrated with those of UCT's Department of Botany and other departments, institutes and organisations active in the field of plant conservation both locally and internationally. The PCU strives to be self-funded with an emphasis on acquiring a range of long-term contracts for research and student training. In securing such resources, however, the PCU needs to be aware of the wider social and historical context of research in Southern Africa. Opportunities for employment and training through links to broad-based development projects should form part of the conceptual framework for our research.
The PCU has four main research programmes which are outlined in more detail under the Research Programmes webpage. We emphasise the production of high-quality publications in the peer-reviewed literature and integrate our research efforts with our teaching, postgraduate student supervision and outreach activities.
Programme 1: Land use and sustainable development
A number of long-term studies carried out by the PCU aim to identify and implement appropriate natural resource management systems, alternative strategies and income sources, and viable policy options to improve the welfare of communities and the sustainable use of their rangelands. Considerable effort has also been made to understand the basic biology of the region and how it changes in response to management and climatic influences. Included in this broad programme is a focus on sustainable plant use practices particularly for Cape plants such as buchu and Aloe ferox. Local knowledge of important grazing and medicinal plants is combined with an ecological understanding of the role that these plants play in the landscape and livelihoods of people living in the region.
Programme 2: Disturbance and restoration ecology
This programme is led by the Namaqualand Restoration Initiative and aims to provide guidelines for the restoration of natural vegetation impacted by mining. It combines scientific expertise with a commitment to practical application of knowledge in restoration projects and environmental advocacy. Key objectives include the training of local and regional experts who will act as restoration consultants for the mining and agricultural sectors. Another component of this programme is the PCU's commitment to Renu-karro Veld Restoration cc. This initiative, established in 2007, is based in Prince Albert and aims to use local plants to restore degraded lands thereby sustaining local services and generating sustainable livelihoods.
Programme 3: Landscape history and palaeoecology
Long-term data on vegetation history can help ecosystem managers and restoration ecologists to understand the processes of landscape change and to develop management goals that are ecologically realistic. A long-term perspective can inform conservation goals, as well as provide benchmarks for restoration ecology. Our research employs techniques like repeat photography and fossil pollen analysis to study long-term landscape change. Such approaches enable us to engage at an international level in debates over the use of long-term data in conservation and ecosystem ecology.
Programme 4: Biodiversity, Conservation and Management
In this programme we carry out basic research on the biodiversity of the winter rainfall region and integrate our findings with conservation practitioners from a wide range of local institutions. Projects range from detailed studies of specific taxa to conservation planning projects in the fynbos and succulent karoo biomes. This programme maintains an interest in the international debates around conservation practice and contributes a uniquely southern African perspective.
PCU staff teach at undergraduate and postgraduate levels within the departments of Botany, Zoology and Environmental and Geographical Science. Taught classes are integrated with our major research themes. The bulk of our efforts, however, is spent on postgraduate thesis supervision and includes Honours, MSc and PhD level studies.
Those associated with the PCU participate in a wide range of activities besides research and education. The Director is a Trustee on the Leslie Hill Succulent Karoo Trust which was established by Mr Hill in 1997 to secure land for conservation activities. In addition, staff are involved with the review of a wide range of manuscripts, reports, proposals and theses concerned with conservation issues. Service on editorial boards of prestigious journals is also carried out. Many of our activities are carried out in rural areas and additional responsibilities for PCU staff lie in the training and management of research assistants and project participants who are usually drawn from these areas. The PCU is increasingly concerned with its own ecological footprint and tries to reduce the consumptive use of natural resources within its own programmes.