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New research sites will increase geographical extent of SAEON Ndlovu


Ian Gaigher, owner and head of the Lajuma Research Centre and Nature Reserve on the slopes of the Soutpansberg. The reserve, which falls within the proposed Vhembe Biosphere Reserve, contains a high diversity of plants and animals.


A view of the Mogalakwena River Reserve, with quartzite ridges in the background.


Node Manager Tony Swemmer trying to look involved in the excavation of a mopani tree’s entire root system while the Node’s new research assistants, who did all the real work, look on. They are Patrick Ndhlovu (left, who was not hired on the basis of his surname) and Mightyman Mashele (who was not hired on the basis of his first name).

In December 2007 Tony Swemmer, manager of the SAEON Ndlovu Node, visited two research sites in the far north of the country that show great potential to become SAEON affiliated sites.

Lajuma Mountain Retreat is a nature reserve nestled on the southern slopes of the Soutpansberg that stretches up to the highest peak of the mountains. Ian Gaigher, formerly of the University of Venda and the owner of Lajuma, established a research centre on the reserve in 2003, and already over 250 postgraduate students and volunteer research assistants have lived and worked there.

The reserve, which falls within the proposed Vhembe Biosphere Reserve, contains a high diversity of plants and animals, with strong altitudinal and climatic gradients containing a mosaic of ecosystems from mesic savanna and wetlands on the slopes, to sourveld grassland and mistbelt forest on the summits.

While previous research has mainly involved studies of the larger mammals in the area, Dr Gaigher has agreed to direct more research on ecosystem-level studies and on the impact of climate change on biodiversity. Lajuma contains a number of isolated populations of rare plant and animal species that are perched on the peaks of the Soutpansberg, and are likely to disappear with even small changes in climate.

The Mogalakwena Research Centre, located near Alldays in the north of the Limpopo Province, was established in 2006 and is currently being run by Jessica Rodriguez, a Masters graduate from the USA. 

The centre provides a base for researchers working in the Limpopo Sweet Bushveld vegetation contained within the 2 000-ha Mogalakwena River Reserve, as well as unusual, dystrophic savanna ecosystems located on a quartzite koppie within the Mogalakwena Mountain Reserve. 

A number of postgraduate students have completed projects at the centre, and the construction of a tented research camp (underway) will provide accommodation for many more. The absence of elephants, and of prescribed burning, makes Mogalakwena an ideal site to study the effect of these two factors on the biodiversity and functioning of savannas in this part of the country, while the heavy reliance of natural resources by the neighbouring communities provides an ideal environment for a range of relevant social-ecology studies. 

Collaboration with these two sites will greatly increase the geographical extent of the Node. Tony plans to promote research relevant to SAEON at the two sites by assisting with the sourcing of suitable students, helping to establish long-term monitoring projects, and developing education projects with schools in the nearby rural communities.

Tree biomass project contributes valuable data on global carbon cycle

The farm Pompey on the outskirts of Phalaborwa is regularly subjected to strip mining by the Palabora Mining Company (PMC), who extract quartz from the soil to use at their well-known copper mine. In the process hundreds of bushveld trees are bulldozed and destroyed. 

Now, thanks to PMC granting permission to the Node to work on their property, some of these trees will supply valuable information on their growth and role in the global carbon cycle before meeting with their untimely death. 

The Node recently employed two temporary research assistants to measure, cut and weigh mopani trees in an area designated to be cleared. They also have the unenviable job of digging up the roots of the trees they remove, which will eventually contribute valuable data on the amount of carbon stored underground in savanna ecosystems. 

Data from the above-ground tree measurements will provide a means to estimate tree biomass from simple measurements of a tree’s trunk and canopy, which will allow for estimation of the rate of production of fuel wood in nearby communal areas, as well as on the growth rates of these trees in protected areas. 

The hundreds of kilograms of stems, leaves and roots removed are taken back to the laboratory at the SAEON office to be cleaned, dried and weighed. Should the harvesting of mopanis in this way prove successful, other common tree species such as the red bushwillow will also be “martyred”.

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