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

AZEF 2017: Change and Innovation in the Arid Zone

16-18 May 2017

Grootfontein Agricultural Development Institute

The Arid Zone Ecology Forum (AZEF) held their 32nd annual conference from 16-18 May 2017 in Merino Hall at Grootfontein Agricultural Development Institute (GADI) near Middelburg in the Eastern Cape. The conference focused on ‘change and innovation in the arid zone’ and was sponsored by the National Research Foundation (NRF), the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) and the Plant Conservation Unit (PCU).


The conference was preceded by a trip to the Compassberg (Kompasberg), the highest peak of the Sneeuberg mountain range, where those who attended either took a walk to the top of the mountain or visited the pastures on the plains surrounding the mountain. Despite the cold, the team found the trip interesting and well-worth the visit. To learn more about the Compassberg and the SAEONs involvement with this peak, click here to read an article written by AZEF delegate, and SAEON Arid Lands Node field technician, Tshililo Ramaswiela.

Right: View from the top. Compassberg near Nieu-Bethesda, Eastern Cape. Photograph taken by Gigi Laidler. 


The conference was opened by guest speaker Dr Loraine van den Berg, a Production Scientist and Acting Deputy Director of Pastures and Crops at GADI. She spoke about her journey through science as well as her time at GADI since her appointment as an agricultural scientist in 2007. She was quickly promoted to Production Scientist in 2009 where she largely focussed on research projects in the areas of botany, plant taxonomy and rangeland condition monitoring in the Eastern Cape and Northern Cape. Her talk was inspiring, particularly to young researchers who are interested in a long term career in vegetation science.

Loraine’s talk was followed by particularly interesting and pertinent sessions that focused on Karoo Shale Gas Development, the associated Karoo BioGaps project, Karoo Fauna and Ecosystems and fascinating research in plant ecophysiology and drivers in the arid zone.

The second day of talks focused on long-term grazing studies and long-term ecological programmes in the Karoo. As such, we were privileged to have Justin du Toit (a PhD candidate and researcher at GADI) speak to us about the history of Grootfontein (which started in 1911) and its’ ongoing long-term grazing trials (e.g. Camp 6), which have been monitored since 1934 to better understand how the seasonality of grazing impacts vegetation communities and sheep productivity through botanical surveys. Justin then took a group out to the grazing trials in the afternoon as one of the field trips (see below).

The conference ended aptly with talks around resource management and an important component involving socio-ecological studies. Prof. Cherryl Walker from the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University gave a thought-provoking plenary talk on the relevance of sociology as a discipline that can be incorporated into environmental research to allow a greater appreciation and understanding of the human-environment relationship in order to empower greater stewardship of conserved and transformed environments. Read more about Cherryl’s project, Cosmopolitan Karoo.


Middelburg was the perfect place to learn more about long-term experiments in the Karoo and to visit the Karoo BioGaps project site. The final field trip was a history tour of the town, which delegates, particularly the social scientists, found exciting. Although all of the locations were exciting fieldtrip options for conference attendees, the most popular field trip was an outing to the grazing trials. This trip included the participation of several school children from Middelburg. Justin led the tour to three different sites including Bergkamp, Boesmanskop and Camp 6 (long-term grazing trials). Boesmanskop was particularly interesting as exclusion plots were set up to determine the impact of rising temperatures and rainfall on the veld, as well as an Eddy Covariance Flux Tower to measure Carbon flux and other environmental variables in the veld. It is one of few set up in South Africa to measure the impact of grazing on carbon levels in the atmosphere. See images from the trip below

First stop: Bergkamp. Photographer: Samantha Venter.

Next stop: Boesmanskop. Exclusion plots on the left & Eddy Covariance Flux Tower on the right. Photographer: Samantha Venter.

Last stop: Camp 6 (long-term grazing trials). Photographer: Samantha Venter.


Congratulations to Stephanie Borchardt and Michelle Duncan from the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University, as well as Jodene Foster (Dept Biodiversity & Conservation Biology, University of the Western Cape) and Gina Arena (PCU PhD Candidate) 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.

1)     Oral Presentation

Winner: Borchardt SP. What are we SEA-ing? An exploration of the communication strategies and extent of public participation at the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) public briefings for Shale Gas Development in the Karoo.

Runner-up: Duncan MS. The political ecology of a fence: An ethnographic account of socio-environmental conflict around biodiversity conservation in Prince Albert.

2)     Poster Presentation                                                  

Winner: Foster J, Du Plessis M & Engelbrecht A. Diversity and density of bacterial species: A closer look at possible pathogenesis in communal farm areas in South Africa.

Runner-up: Arena G, Milton SJ & Dean WRJ. The population size structure of Aloe claviflora on the Wolwekraal nature Reserve in the Prince Albert District. 

Insert:  Jodene Foster (best poster). From left to right: Gina Arena (runner-up best poster), Michelle Duncan (runner-up best presentation) and Stephanie Borchardt (best presentation). Photographer: Samantha Venter & Gigi Laidler (inserted pic). 


On the Wednesday night, a special dinner was organised to honour three men who have contributed significantly to research at GADI. Attie Ruiters, Sindezama Hendrik Maseti and Dampie Andrews (Dampies) have been field technicians at GADI for several decades and have assisted in training several scientists in the field. All three were presented with lifetime achievement awards in recognition of their ‘expert knowledge of Karoo plants and immense contribution to ecological research in the arid regions of Southern Africa’. The awards were presented by the former chair of AZEF, Marco Pauw.


Lifetime Achievement Awards presented by Marco Pauw to (from top left to right): Attie Ruiters, Sindezama Hendrik Maseti and Dampie Andrews. Photographer: Gigi Laidler.


The AZEF committee for 2017/18 is as follows:

Ismail Ebrahim – SANBI (Chair)
Simon Todd – SAEON (Vice Chair)
Samantha Venter – PCU (Treasurer)
Gill Murray – Secretariat
Marco Pauw – SAEON
Megan Simons – ARC & UWC

We would like to congratulate Ismail Ebrahim (SANBI) who was nominated as the Chair of AZEF and will take over from Marco Pauw (SAEON). We are grateful to Marco for his hard work and dedication to AZEF and we are happy to still have his advice and guidance on the AZEF committee going forward. We also give a warm welcome to Gina Arena and Stephanie Borchardt who were voted onto the committee.

Thank you

This event would not have been possible without the generous donations from the NRF, the SAEON Arid lands Node and the PCU. We are also grateful to Namaqua Wines for their generous donation of wine for attendees to enjoy.

We are also grateful to GADI for hosting us, particularly to Justin du Toit and his colleagues for assisting us with organising the conference, and to Vivere restaurant who provided our scrumptious dinners.

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 and we look forward to the event next year!

~ Article written by Samantha Venter