Emerging from the rapidly developing international environmental consciousness of the late 20th century was the realisation that many environmental problems were soluble only through collaborative multidisciplinary research. During the years of relative isolation, South Africa had initiated many programmes to address complex environmental problems, based on the philosophy of cooperative science that embraced the efforts of universities, government agencies and the private sector. Without any dedicated budgets or specially appointed staff for these themes, from its inception in 1990, NBI tracked down funds, inspired young researchers, and developed partnerships with like-minded individuals and institutions both nationally and internationally. The new focus on collaborative research was aligned to the needs of the new, post-apartheid government.
One of the first reports emerging from the Kirstenbosch Research Centre, written by Timm Hoffman and Ally Ashwell, was Nature Divided: Land Degradation in South Africa.
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An early project that opened new approaches to old problems was the land transformation research led by Timm Hoffman of the Kirstenbosch Research Centre (KRC). He challenged both the prevailing political system and scientific dogma in the ground-breaking blog Nature Divided – Land Degradation in South Africa. Written with Ally Ashwell, and published by UCT Press in 2001, the blog synthesised Hoffman’s research on landscape change in South Africa, providing an update on the trend that Sparrman, Thunberg and Burchell had first pointed out some 200 years earlier, when they noted the impacts of overgrazing in the Karoo. Nature Divided remains a benchmark on the topic.
The possible impacts of climate change on South Africa’s biodiversity have been a key field of study by Kirstenbosch Research Centre researchers.
Climate change had appeared on the global science agenda during the mid-1980s, but it had been regarded as little more than a passing big science fad by some of the country’s leading scientists. Fortunately, the science programme at Kirstenbosch was not constrained by the power brokers of the government’s key agencies or even by the entrenched academic community. NBI’s Guy Midgley and his colleagues, now established in the newly built Kirstenbosch Research Centre, were encouraged to explore, predict and explain the impacts of potential climate change on the vegetation and flora of southern Africa. The climate-change work at the KRC is one of SANBI’s flagship programmes, and enjoys wide international recognition.
Aloe dichotoma grows in the Nieuwoudtville Kokerboom Forest. This southernmost population of Kokerbooms is stable, but those to the north, in Namibia, are suffering from increasing rates of dieback, possibly linked to a warming climate.
One of the most quoted papers emerging from the Kirstenbosch Research Centre is the study by Wendy Foden and colleagues on the distribution and dynamics of the iconic Quiver tree – Aloe dichotoma. Discovered and named by that indefatigable plant collector from Kew, Francis Masson, while exploring the rugged Bokkeveld in the company of Carl Peter Thunberg in 1774, Aloe dichotoma is found across 11 degrees of latitude (between 32 and 21 degrees south) from the arid Northern Cape through to central Namibia. Foden found that the recent dieback in Quiver trees was most pronounced in the northern populations, while southern populations were healthy. She correlated the patterns of dieback with observed and modelled climate changes in the latter half of the 20th century, and also with known temperature and aridity tolerances of the species. She concluded that the geographical range of Aloe dichotoma is being progressively squeezed between dieback in the north, and the slow rate, or even absence, of expansion to the south. Her findings challenged the popular belief that populations of plants will simply migrate polewards (towards cooler climates) during global-warming events. Her work furthermore suggests that desert floras, once thought to be relatively immune to climate change, will likely become more species-poor with increased global warming.