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

AZEF 2018: An amalgamation of science, research, projects and partnerships

16-18 October 2018

Callie de Wet Sports Centre, Robertson, Western Cape

The Arid Zone Ecology Forum (AZEF) held their 33rd annual conference from 16-18 October 2018 in the ‘valley of wine and roses’. The get-together was held at the Callie de Wet Sports Centre in Robertson, attracting up to 77 delegates representing researchers, scientists, students, practitioners, NGOs, government departments and conservation agencies from across the country.

AZEF 2018 delegates. Photo credit: Stephanie Borchardt.

The event was set in motion with two pre-conference workshops sponsored by Wilderness Foundation Africa, which focused on writing project proposals and fundraising. The second workshop illuminated the challenges and opportunities to expanding the conservation estate in the arid zone of South Africa.

The official welcome was delivered by AZEF Chair, Ismail Ebrahim, who encouraged all to network, have a great time engaging in the content and that there would be plenty to look forward to on the programme and time spent together.

Land degradation, drivers of change, animal ecology, updates from the Karoo BioGaps project, alien invasive species, poisonous plants, land protection, rangeland ecology, development and long-term ecological monitoring were some of the topical themes shared and presented on.

Pic: Conference goodie bags including a notebook, pen & coffee mug!

Key highlights of this year’s AZEF were:

  • Opening Key Address by Professor Adam West from the University of Cape Town who presented his research with particular attention to his work on drought and climate change in South Africa.
  • A discussion session with delegates and a preview of the new Karoo Special Issue in the African Journal of Range and Forage Science journal’s articles, structure and future plans. This journal will serve as a commitment to investing and developing the knowledge base and areas of the Karoo. The idea behind the Karoo Special Issue emerged from worrying evidence that the Karoo, historically being mostly untouched by large developments, now faces many social and ecological challenges due to large-scale environmental changes. It became imperative to synthesise and further the current knowledge of the Karoo environment and its people, to prepare for future uncertainties. Specific topics to be covered in the Karoo Special Issue are social and ecological history, climate in the Anthropocene, the socio-economic dynamics of current developments, rangeland matters, ecological restoration, land redistribution considerations, demographic changes and urbanisation, and social resilience.
  • Special discussions and deep engagement sessions of the Succulent Karoo Ecosystem Programme (SKEP), drought and climate change in the arid zone.  
  • Matthew Norval from Wilderness Foundation Africa also used the opportunity to present Professor Timm Hoffman from the University of Cape Town with the Lita Beukes Cole Memorial Conservation Award in honour and recognition of the outstanding contribution he has made to the conservation of the Succulent Karoo.

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

  • Exciting field trips were planned leaving participants spoilt for choice with options to the Rooiberg Breede River Conservancy, Graham Beck Nature Reserve and a search for the elusive Gazania lanata.

Top: Biodiversity Stewardship trip in Robertson lead by Gareth Boothway from WWF South Africa. Photo credit: Stephanie Borchardt & Wesley Bell. Bottom: Ismail Ebrahim led a group of inquisitive botanical enthusiasts (left) on a quest to find the plant Gazania lanata (right). Photo credit: Gina Arena.

  • Dinners were held at various venues in and around Robertson. Prizes, awards, auctioning and quiz games were amongst the many activities. Proceeds of the auctioned photograph will be used to raise funds for future student participation at AZEF offering enjoyable and entertaining evenings.

From left to right: Clement Cupido presents his photograph of Antie Babes to Timm Hoffman. Photo credit: Stephanie Borchardt.

  • Gina Arena (Plant Conservation Unit) 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 and phylogeography of cork-lid trapdoor spiders in the Karoo.
  • 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 and Desert biomes.
  • Sabrina Schmidt (University of Hamburg) was placed second for her poster titled, ‘Gibbaeum N.E.Br. and Glottiphyllum N.E.B.r. (Aizoaceae) more than just neighbour plants on quartz fields’.

From left to right: Sabrina Schmidt, Gina Arena, Shannon Mitchell and Laetitia Piers.

“For AZEF 2019 and beyond we want to maintain the momentum and excitement we have started to build and are working towards upscaling the format we have adopted, adding innovative dimensions to AZEF,“ said Ebrahim “as well as communicating and engaging with the AZEF community on a regular and sustained basis in order to profile the importance of research, science and society in the arid areas of South Africa”.

It is the opportunity and importance of sharing the vigorous research and science of all the arid areas of the country, as well offering prospects for capacity building and training to AZEF delegates which continues to be highly valued. This year’s AZEF demonstrated the Karoo’s complex interactions of socio-ecological-systems (SES), pastoral farming undergoing change, vulnerable livelihoods of those dependent on natural vegetation, land use dynamics, governance, climate change, drivers of change which are not easy to know or predict, the importance of people in the landscape who serve as custodians of nature and the importance of  multi-stakeholder driven partnerships.

There is an extraordinary collegiality and openness to apply interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary and multidisciplinary content and processes between the natural and social sciences at AZEF that has been growing progressively over the past few years. Engagements and discussions amongst delegates were very much grounded in the science yet developmental and aspirational towards an inclusive vision for the arid zones of the country.

Change and innovation appears to not just a theme within the arid zone but also a living and guiding principle amongst the AZEF committee members, who applied much creativity in enhancing all elements of the event, as it is often the small things which go a long way, leave lasting impressions that keep the AZEF community connected and committed.

AZEF 2018/19 committee:

The AZEF committee has expanded for 2019! The 2018/19 committee together with their portfolios are 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 and communications)
Rudi Swart, Western Cape Agriculture (research)
Marco Pauw, SAEON (research)

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

The committee said farewell to Simon Todd who has stepped down as Vice Chair of the committee after serving for several years, and Samantha Venter who served as Treasurer for the past two years. Both were a great asset to AZEF and served the committee well. We welcome Gina Arena as the new Vice Chair and Shahieda Davids as the new Treasurer. We wish you both well in your new roles!

Thank you to our sponsors:

AZEF 2018 would not have been possible without the generous contribution from the sponsors including the SAEON Arid Lands Node, the Plant Conservation Unit and Endemic Vision. We are also grateful to Mossie Basson and the Wilderness Foundation Africa students at the Rooiberg Conservancy for opening the Graham Beck Skills Centre to us for the pre-conference workshops and ‘meet and greet’ function. Thanks goes to the Wilderness Foundation Africa who organised and ran the Biodiversity Stewardship workshop; and to Carol Poole and Ismail Ebrahim, and Jan Coetzee (WWF-Land Care Programme) ran the funding workshop. Lastly, we would like to thank Painted Wolf Wines for sponsoring wine for the dinners and gifts to the keynote speakers.

For more information on AZEF contact Gill Murray on     
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~ Article written by Shahieda Davids