Diversity in strength in Africa: the big picture

Christina Scott

Photo credit: © BIOTA Africa, Professor Norbert Juergens

The most remarkable places on earth are filled with a rich diversity of plant, animal and insect life. But too often, specialists only communicate their findings to other experts in the same narrow field. Few people have the grand vision of how soil, water, weather and living creatures - including humans - form this never-ending, always-changing symphony.

However, for six years, a successful partnership between African and German scientists has intensively documented this interlinked web of life, from invisible but influential microbes to a square kilometre patch of veld to continental scale.

And whether it's research in southern, eastern or western Africa, the scientists in this longterm BIOTA Africa project are reinforcing a strong argument for conservation at the same time.

"If we monitor over longer time periods, we can unravel the puzzle pieces that make up nature," explains Dr Nicky Allsopp, who chairs the steering committee for BIOTA in South Africa. "If we understand how nature operates and how it is impacted by humans, we can develop tools or strategies for intervention."

The Agricultural Research Council ecologist says one of the aims of the projects is to untangle the longterm impact of global warming from severe but short-lived events such as floods and droughts. The average person finds it difficult to understand that Mother Nature works on deadlines that can span several human generations, she says.

In West Africa, ten BIOTA projects are underway in Burkina Faso, Benin and Côte d’Ivoire, which has a permanent field station and top-notch laboratory in the Comoé National Park capable of housing 20 researchers at a time, as well as an education centre to make people more aware of "the vulnerability of the fragile web of life." Part of the team is tracking largescale habitat destruction along a path which stretches from the southern fringes of the Sahara Desert to the humid tropical forests along the coastline.

Meanwhile, in East Africa, another team is investigating the sustainable use of rain forests in Kenya and Uganda, sometimes by monitoring the health of smaller life-forms such as dragonflies and frogs, sometimes by investigating the rural economies.

At the southern end of the continent, two "transects" or paths - a long line from the Cape to northern Namibia, and a shorter one from the central Namibian coast and leading inland - are being closely monitored for changes in the air, water, soil and an extraordinary range of living creatures by a wide range of skilled scientists.

"We research the human impact on biodiversity," says Ibo Zimmermann, chair of the BIOTA Namibia Steering Committee in Windhoek. Twenty open-air observatories dot the Namibian countryside. These are patches of land, all of equal size, which are pored over by a vast array of scientists. "We also monitor the consequences of biodiversity change, with the aim of improving our management of the environment," says Zimmerman, who's based at the Polytechnic of Namibia.

The project, supported by both the German and South African governments, has also helped create a new occupation: grassroots "paraecologists" based in remote communities like Soebatsfontein, Paulshoek and Knersvlakte in the Northern Cape. These fieldworkers straddle the traditional divides between science, activism and education, pushing the conservation message while linking researchers to local communities.

The massive BIOTA project was initiated by biology professor Norbert Jürgens from the University of Hamburg, who will appear - along with Western Cape-based liaison officer Tessa Oliver - at the BIOTA Africa section of the enormous German pavilion at the free International Science, Innovation and Technology Exhibition at Sandton Convention Centre.

"Professor Jürgens is an absolutely phenomenal worker," says Nicky Allsopp from her office at the University of the Western Cape. "He's been working in Southern Africa, especially in desert regions, for more than twenty years. He's driven by the need to understand our environment."


September 2006