The Plant Conservation Unit team attends the AZEF2018 conference

1 Nov 2018 - 15:00

The Arid Zone Ecology Forum (AZEF) is a platform for interaction, sharing information & ideas, & establishing relationships amongst individuals, particularly those working in the arid zone of southern Africa. This year the conference was held at the Callie de Wet Sports Centre in Robertson from 16 to 18 October 2018. The main session themes for the conference were animal & plant ecology, drought-related impacts, long-term ecological monitoring & rangeland ecology in the arid zone. Among the Plant Conservation Unit (PCU) team, Timm Hoffman, Samantha Venter, Gina Arena & Wesley Bell presented talks on their research. Sonto Mtolo & Sally Mashele participated in the poster session where academics were given a chance to showcase their work. Marianna Lot, a research assistant at the long-term study site in Paulshoek travelled down to join the conference & it was wonderful to have her with us! Prior to the conference, delegates had the option of attending one of two pre-conference workshops held at the Graham Beck Skills Centre on the 15th of October 2018. The first workshop focussed on how to write project funding proposals, while the second workshop illuminated the challenges & opportunities to expanding the conservation estate in the arid zone.

Left (from left to right): Prof Cherryl Walker, Prof Timm Hoffman & A/Prof Adam West at the Meet & Greet function. Right: Conference goodie bags including a notebook, pen & coffee mug! Photo credit: Stephanie Borchardt.

The conference began on a high note with a keynote address by A/Prof Adam West from the University of Cape Town. Adam presented his research with particular attention to his work on drought & climate change in South Africa. He spoke about the different soil-water models that are used to try to predict what will happen under future drought scenarios & highlighted the continued need for focused ‘basic/fundamental science’ that can be used to inform more applied vegetation research. Adam’s talk was followed by Dr Joh Henschel’s introduction to the Karoo Special Issue of the African Journal of Range & Forage Science, which was the focus of the first two sessions. In these sessions, several authors of papers to be published in the special issue presented their work. The talks were followed by a discussion session lead by Joh Henschel, Timm Hoffman & Prof Cherryl Walker. Here, conference attendees could ask questions & actively engage in the research that has been highlighted from the special issue.

PCU team from left to right: Wesley Bell (PhD Student), Samantha Venter (PCU Research Assistant & rePhotoSA project coordinator), Sonto Mtolo (DST-NRF Intern), Sally Mashele (PCU Research Assistant), Prof Timm Hoffman (PCU Director), Hana Petersen (Former PCU Masters Student), Dr Helga van der Merwe (SAEON Arid Lands Node & PCU Research Associate), Gina Arena (PhD Student), A/Prof Adam West (Dept of Biological Sciences UCT) & Marianna Lot (PCU Research Assistant-Paulshoek). Photo credit: Wesley Bell.

AZEF Quiz Night

The first day of the conference ended at the Four Cousins restaurant in Robertson, where members of the AZEF committee organised & ran an exciting arid zone themed quiz night, the first ever at AZEF! It was a thoroughly enjoyable & entertaining evening, with final honours & bragging rights belonging to the ‘Donkie en die Wonderlike Mense’ team. Well done to them! Matthew Norval of the Wilderness Foundation Africa also used the opportunity to present Timm Hoffman with the Lita Beukes Cole Memorial Conservation Award in honour & recognition of the outstanding contribution he has made to the conservation of the Succulent Karoo. Congratulations Timm!

Left to right: Mr Matthew Norval (Wilderness Foundation Africa) & Prof Timm Hoffman. Photo credit: Stephanie Borchardt.

The themes for the second day of the conference were animal ecology, the Karoo Biogaps project, aliens & poisonous plants in the veld & land protection. Prof Allan Ellis from Stellenbosch University opened the day with a spectacular keynote address on the pollination biology of Namaqualand daisies. The key (and somewhat surprising) take home of his address being that bee flies, & not honey bees, are the most important pollinators in these systems! Later on in the morning, Prof John Wilson gave a very informative but somewhat worrying keynote address on the status of biological invasions & their management in the arid zone.


Some exciting field trips were planned for Wednesday afternoon, where delegates had the chance to choose between three different trips. Gareth Boothway from WWF South Africa led the first trip into the Robertson areas where he is engaging with farmers on the virtues & potential of biodiversity stewardship.

Biodiversity Stewardship trip in Robertson lead by Gareth Boothway from WWF South Africa. Photo credit: Stephanie Borchardt & Wesley Bell.

The second trip to the Rooiberg Breede River Conservancy was led by students of Wilderness Foundation Africa who use the reserve as a base from which to learn important environmental management skills & practices that they can take into their future careers. For the third trip, Ismail Ebrahim led a group of inquisitive botanical enthusiasts on a quest to find the plant Gazania lanata which, up to that point, had only been found on a very small strip of land on the edge of an expanding mine. The group luckily managed to find another small population of the species on an untouched koppie across the quarry, providing hope for its future conservation.

Ismail Ebrahim led a group of inquisitive botanical enthusiasts (left) on a quest to find the plant Gazania lanata (right). Photo credit: Gina Arena. 

Separately, the AZEF outreach programme was organised where children from a school in Robertson were taken to the Worcester Botanical Gardens.

Drought in the arid zone

The third & final day of the conference was primarily centred on discussions around drought & long-term monitoring. Prof Beatrice Conradie, from the School of Economics at the University of Cape Town, opened the day with a keynote address on the economics of drought & how drought impacts farmer efficiency, providing a different perspective for the largely ecologically-minded audience to ponder. The talks that followed honed in on some of the impacts that drought has had on the veld and, as a result, on commercial & local farmers & their livestock, as well as the potential impact that continued climate change will have in the arid zone. A robust & dynamic discussion concluded the drought session by combining a Q&A session with a buzz session to brain-storm ideas on a way forward.

The conference was concluded with a gala dinner at Spaces restaurant in Robertson. Here, student prizes were awarded (see below) & a beautiful photograph of Antie Babes taken by Clement Cupido was auctioned. As the highest bidder, the Director of the PCU, Timm Hoffman is the new owner of this unique image of a legendary herder in Namaqualand! The photograph of Antie Babes now graces the entrance to the PCU.

From left to right: Clement Cupido presents his photograph of Antie Babes to Timm Hoffman

Awards & Prizes

Gina Arena (PCU) won the best oral presentation for her research on elucidating long-term vegetation change in the eastern Nama-Karoo-Grasslands ecotone, adding her name to a list of very impressive previous winners. Shannon Mitchell (University of Pretoria) was the runner-up for her absorbing, although somewhat terrifying, presentation on the genetic structure & phylogeography of cork-lid trapdoor spiders in the Karoo.

From left to right: Prize winners Gina Arena (best oral presentation) & Shannon Mitchell (runner-up). Photo credit: Stephanie Borchardt.

Laetitia Piers (University of the Western Cape) won the best overall poster for her work on a landscape functionality assessment along a biome boundary between the Succulent Karoo & Desert biomes. Sabrina Schmidt (University of Hamburg) was placed second for her poster titled, ‘Gibbaeum N.E.Br. & Glottiphyllum N.E.B.r. (Aizoaceae) more than just neighbour plants on quartz fields’.

From left to right: Sabrina Schmidt (poster second place) & Laetitia Piers (first place for best poster)

AZEF2019 Committee

The AZEF committee for 2019 is as follows:
Ismail Ebrahim, SANBI (Chair)
Gina Arena, UCT (Vice Chair)
Gill Murray (Secretariat)
Shahieda Davids, SANBI (Treasurer)
Megan Simons, SANParks (education outreach)
Stephanie Borchardt, Stellenbosch University (student coordination)
Malinda Gardiner, Conservation South Africa (media & communications)
Rudi Swart, Western Cape Agriculture (research)
Marco Pauw, SAEON (research)

Co-opted Members:
Timm Hoffman, PCU
Nicole Reddy, WWF-SA land Programme (funding)

The committee said farewell to Simon Todd who has stepped down as Vice Chair of the committee after serving for several years, and to Samantha Venter who served as Treasurer of AZEF for two years. Both were a great asset to AZEF & served the committee well. We welcome Marco Pauw, who has previously served as the chair of AZEF, as the new Vice Chair.

Thank you

The event was a great success, allowing individuals the opportunity to network & present their research through oral & poster presentations. A common thread throughout much of the discussion during the week was the need & importance of interdisciplinary research, & AZEF 2018 provided a platform for discussions to take place across disciplinary boundaries. It would not have been possible without the generous contribution of the sponsors including the SAEON Arid Lands Node, the PCU & Endemic Vision; & the assistance of the AZEF secretariat Gill Murray. We also thank Mossie Basson & the Wilderness Foundation Africa students at the Rooiberg Conservancy for opening the Graham Beck Skills Centre to us for the pre-conference workshops & meet & greet function; the Wilderness Foundation Africa for organising & running the Biodiversity Stewardship workshop; Carol Poole & Ismail Ebrahim from SANBI & Jan Coetzee from WWF-Land Care Programme for running the funding workshop; & lastly Painted Wolf Wines for sponsoring wine for the dinners & gifts to the keynote speakers.

~ Article contributed to by Sonto Mtolo, Sally Mashele, Wesley Bell, Gina Arena, Samantha Venter & Timm Hoffman