A non-profit organisation focused on research in the arid zone of southern Africa

AZEF 2016: Celebrating 30 years of research at Tierberg LTER

3-6 October 2016 

The Showroom Theatre, Prince Albert


The conference began with a captivating keynote address from guest speaker and internationally renowned arid lands ecologist, Joe McAuliffe from the Desert Botanical Garden in Arizona (USA). Joe provided some background and clarity on the polarised arguments about the origins and workings of the mysterious heuweltjie vegetation patterning phenomenon in South Africa, particularly his views on the context-dependent ecosystem engineering by the southern harvester termite. We are grateful to Joe for taking the time to visit us in sunny South Africa to speak about this hotly contested topic.

Following Joe’s talk, the rest of the conference was divided into several sessions surrounding pertinent research in the Karoo, including ecological and conservation-related research, the impact of renewable energy and livestock grazing on the Karoo veld, and rehabilitation and long-term ecological monitoring projects in this biome.

Tierberg Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) site (recently acquired by SAEON) was established in 1986 (30 years ago) by Prof Sue Milton (botanist) and Dr Richard Dean (ornithologist). Tierberg has been an important site for research on the Karoo including vegetation dynamics, grazing impacts, heuweltjies and rehabilitation. The success of the Tierberg LTER is owed largely to the hard work and dedication of Sue and Richard who devoted so much of their lives to its establishment and progress. We again acknowledge and thank Sue and Richard for the gift that they have given to researchers who follow in their footsteps in researching and conserving the Karoo biome. Richard and Sue were given lifetime achievement awards by AZEF to honour their work in advancing ecological sciences in arid areas.

Photographs from the Tierberg Long-term Ecological Research site. Photo credit: Gina Arena.

Click here to view the programme (including presentation and poster abstracts). 

The field trips were exciting and informative - not even the heat could dampen the enthusiasm of attendees. The trips included:

1) Tierberg LTER facilities, long-term studies and research opportunities. 

2) Wolwekraal Nature Reserve, where attendees were shown the diversity of habitats and species, and the challenges of having a nature reserve right next to an urban area were highlighted. 

3) Kevin van Wyk, owner of Trakaskuilen Farm (where unconventional, high-density grazing practices are applied), delivered an excellent presentation showing that his farming practices are good for his veld and financially sustainable.

4) BioBlitz at the Karoo BioGaps project Site near Prince Albert yielded many interesting finds, including a baby Common Duiker hiding in a shrub. See some images from this trip below.



During the last session of the conference, a workshop was held to identify the most urgent and relevant research needs in the arid zone considering the imminent changes in land use. Attendees organised themselves into four groups dealing with the following broad topics: 1) large-scale science and energy developments; 2) water, drought and climate change; 3) conservation; and 4) livelihoods and social-ecological systems.

Enthusiastic discussion followed, which was only limited by time. The outcomes of this workshop will be made publicly available in the form of a summary document aimed at assisting the AZEF community to ask relevant questions that will fill the gaps in our knowledge of arid zone ecosystems and the changes taking place in these systems.


As has become the custom, there was a learner outreach programme to foster interest in environmental sciences among the younger generation. Twenty learners and a teacher from Prince Albert Primary School visited the Karoo National Park, where they took part in various activities centred on the natural and cultural heritage of the Karoo.

The learners were very excited to visit the park, as many have never had the opportunity, despite living only an hour’s drive away. They also went to the Christiaan Barnard Museum in Beaufort West, where it was demonstrated that a person from a small town in the Karoo can go on to achieve great things.


Congratulations to Hana Petersen, Kervin Prayag and Juan Swanepoel from UCT’s Department of Biological Sciences and to Charmaine Manyani from the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University for winning prizes for the research that they presented at the conference. Details of their awards and the titles of their presentations are given below.

Oral Presentation

Winner: Petersen H & Hoffman MT. In retrospect: How the vegetation of the Tanqua Karoo has changed over the last century.

Runner-up: Prayag KD, du Toit CJ, Cramer MD & Thomson RL. Do camelthorn trees use sociable weavers to forage for nutrients?

Poster Presentation                                                  

Winner: Manyani CRS. From livestock to game farming: An exploration of farmer’s understanding of land use changes, sustainable agriculture and biodiversity conservation in the Ubuntu Local Municipality, Northern cape, South Africa.

Runner-up: Swanepoel J, Picker MD, Henschel J & Milton SJ. The influence of heuweltjie density and dispersion on ecological processes in Succulent Karoo ecosystems.

AZEF COMMITTEE 2016 / 2017 

Marco Pauw - SAEON (Chair) 
Simon Todd - SAEON (Vice Chair)
Gill Murray - AZEF Secretariat
Ismail Ebrahim - SANBI  
Megan Simons - ARC & UWC
Timm Hoffman - UCT  

We would like to give a warm welcome to Samantha Venter who has been nominated as AZEF Treasurer to replace Robbert Duker from NMMU. We are grateful to Rob for his hard work and dedication to AZEF during the 2015 / 16 year and we wish him all the best for completion of his PhD.



This event would not have been possible without the generous donations from the National Research Foundation (NRF), SAEON Arid lands Node, and the Plant Conservation Unit

The Showroom Theatre was an excellent choice for a venue providing finger-snacks on the opening night as well as tea and delicious baked treats at tea time. Dinners were held at the Prince Albert Bush Pub where scrumptious vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals were provided by Simply Saffron, an amazing way to end the day! 

We are also grateful to Namaqua Wines for their generous donation of wine for attendees to enjoy. We are also extremely grateful to Gill Murray, the secretariat of AZEF, for her hard work and dedication in putting this important and successful event together.  

AZEF provides an important platform for students to meet, share their work and build lasting networks for the success of their future research careers.

~ Article written by Samantha Venter & Marco Pauw