The PCU team attends the first-ever AZEF virtual conference

12 Oct 2020 - 10:00

Article written by Gina Arena

There is no doubt that 2020 has been a year of firsts for many around the world. For instance, face-to-face meetings have transitioned rather abruptly to meeting online to maintain social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Arid Zone Ecology Forum (AZEF) annual conference has been no exception.

This year the AZEF organising committee launched its first-ever virtual event on the well-known video and audio conferencing platform, Zoom. The AZEF annual meeting is a space for members of the arid zone research community to come together to interact, share, network and advance conservation in arid zones through research in southern Africa. The virtual conference, held between the 5th and 8th of October 2020, turned out to be a huge success with attendance of up to 85 delegates. The event attracted a diverse range of 28 full and 11 speed presentations spread across four key themes: Current research in the arid zone, and three special themes, Conservation progress in the Succulent Karoo (sponsored by WWF-SA), The illegal trade in plants in the arid zone (sponsored by Wilderness Foundation Africa) and COVID-19 Pandemic: implications for the arid zone. Speakers were given the chance to submit pre-recorded presentations, producing a very high standard of quality research and delivery throughout the event. Members of the community also contributed three virtual field trip videos to the programme and conference attendees thoroughly enjoyed the virtual escapes into nature during the event. Four excellent keynote addresses were given by Prof. Timm Hoffman (Director of the PCU), Dr Philip Desmet (Research associate at Nelson Mandela University and independent consultant, ECOSOL GIS), Prof. David Ward (Kent State University) and Prof. John Donaldson (Chief Director of Biodiversity Research, Assessment & Monitoring Division at SANBI).

Although the conference attendees were not able to chat face-to-face over tea and biscuits between sessions or to socialise over food and wine during dinner, moving the event to an online platform allowed several members of the community to participate when they would not usually have the budget to travel to and stay over at a conference venue. Three additional members of the Plant Conservation Unit (PCU) team contributed talks to the programme. Dr Wesley Bell presented on his PhD research and the new post-doctoral research he is pursuing. Research assistant, Hana Petersen, presented a co-authored bibliographic analysis of research in the Karoo using topic modelling, and PhD student, Gina Arena, presented her PhD findings on the climate trends of the eastern Karoo. Well done to the PCU team!

PCU team members presented talks at the AZEF 2020 Virtual Conference. Left to right is Dr Wesley Bell, Hana Petersen and Gina Arena.


Special sessions

This year celebrates 25 years of substantial investments within the Succulent Karoo biome by the Leslie Hill Succulent Karoo Trust (LHSKT) in an attempt to conserve the biome's unique biodiversity. The conference started off with a special theme dedicated to celebrating the conservation successes led by the LHSKT and highlighted some of the conservation challenges, research priorities and opportunities for the biome.

Last year, a very successful and stimulating session on poaching of plants from the wild in the arid zone was held at the AZEF 2019 conference in Kimberley. This year the programme called for continued discussion on this highly sensitive issue among the AZEF community. This session brought to our attention the very serious threat of extinction that some of our rare and endangered species are facing due to the clandestine illegal harvesting and trade practices taking place in South Africa and abroad. The conference attendees interacted online during the session and because it was such a heated discussion, a post-conference Zoom meeting was scheduled for those who wanted to network around the topic.

The third special session of the conference was appropriately themed according to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Prof. John Donaldson presented a keynote address about South Africa’s role in zoonotic diseases and wildlife trade. The interactive discussion provided a space for attendees to share how they had been affected by the pandemic and highlighted the very real socio-economic challenges, aggravated by the pandemic, that many small communities in the Karoo have had to endure this year.

Keynote speakers (left to right): Prof. Timm Hoffman, Dr Philip Desmet, Prof. David Ward and Prof. John Donaldson


Awards & prizes

Congratulations to the student prize winners on presenting excellent talks this year. Many attendees shared the sentiments expressed by Joh Henschel (Manager at SAEON-ALN) in the chat room: “Students: Many impressive presentations, the standard was excellent, making this an interesting conference. Prize-winners, well done. Good luck with your further studies.”


Speed presentations:

Runner up - Callum Clark (NMU)

First prize - Marion Holmes (AEON/NMU)


Full presentations:

4th place - Liaam Davids (SU)

3rd place - Tamryn Hamilton (Wits/SAEON)

Runner up - Cecilia Cerrilla (UCT)

First prize - Gina Arena (UCT/SAEON)


Overheard in the chat room…

On the COVID-19 session:

“Resilience is definitely very important. Perhaps some solutions lie in promoting planetary health as sustainable development definitely has challenges. Some positive outcomes have been a global awareness and almost a zoom into the importance of nature and our integral part therein” ~ Yolandi Schoeman, North West University

“I think at the beginning of lockdown we were thinking about alternative ways of doing things. Thinking of different models of economic growth and how we continue to do our work. I think we are slipping back into the normal as the lockdown levels are relaxed.” ~ Ismail Ebrahim, SANBI

“I think resilience needs more than "knowledge" but also personal skills which can't be conveyed through community report-back workshops from scientists alone but is a long-term process.” ~ Ute Schmiedel, University of Hamburg

General feedback:

“Thanks again to all the speakers, Chairs and organisers, for another good day of AZEF. Appreciate the effort and work put into this. No worries re the technical glitches, I think they've been pretty minor, all things considered! I really want to clap for these sessions - typing a message will have to do - such interesting work, thank you for sharing it with us.” ~ Colleen Seymour, SANBI

“Many thanks to the organisers for an awesome virtual AZEF conference. Thoroughly enjoyed the four days. High quality presentations, smooth running and interesting 'field trips' and discussion sessions. Thanks very much for all of your hard work. Well done to all the students who presented and all the best with your studies.” ~ Timm Hoffman, PCU

“Well done to AZEF team for hosting a wonderful event this year. I truly enjoyed it.” ~ Ben-Jon Dreyer, Wilderness Foundation Africa


AZEF 2019/2020 Committee

Well done to the organising committee and secretariat for taking on the challenge and hard work to move the annual event into a virtual space!


Ismail Ebrahim, SANBI (Chairperson)

Natalie Uys, NC Department of Environment & Nature Conservation (Vice-chair)

Gina Arena, PCU & SAEON-ALN (Treasurer)

Leandra Knoetze, SANBI (student coordination)

Hana Petersen, PCU (media & communications)

Katherine Forsythe, WWF-SA (scientific/research)

Rudi Swart, WC Department of Agriculture (scientific/research)

Marco Pauw, SAEON-ALN (scientific/research)

Gill Murray (AZEF Secretariat)


Thanks to the sponsors

The AZEF annual conference provides a unique opportunity for students to participate in a local conference and to gain valuable experience in presenting their research to the community. This year nine students were sponsored by SAEON-ALN to attend the event and six gave presentations. ZSV Consulting and SAEON-ALN donated funds towards the internet data needs of the sponsored students which allowed them to attend the full duration of the conference online and to participate in the interactive discussions, Q&A sessions and post-conference student meeting. Four non-student registrations were sponsored by the Wilderness Foundation Africa. The Botanical Society donated student memberships to all student speakers. Lastly, the PCU and WWF-SA contributed towards the administrative running of the forum. These institutions are each thanked for their continued support and sponsorship of the AZEF.