#02 2023

20th Annual Savanna Science Network Meeting – Sharing knowledge gained

By Dr Helga van Coller and Dr Dave Thompson, Ndlovu Node, NRF-SAEON

Scientists from several South African universities, South African National Parks (SANParks), SAEON’s Ndlovu Node and high-profile international institutions met at the 20th annual Savanna Science Network Meeting (SSNM) held at Skukuza in the Kruger National Park in March this year. The meeting brought together 214 delegates representing 84 different institutions from most continents. 

Hosted by the Scientific Services Department of South African National Parks (SANParks), this international conference allows SANParks to evaluate how effective their research programmes are, and to assess the progress of SANParks in reaching their objectives for biodiversity conservation.

Here, researchers – many of whom conduct research in the savannas of the Kruger National Park, share their ideas and findings, while being provided with a platform for dialogue between scientists.

This year, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the SSNM, extracurricular activities such as a meet-and-greet cocktail hour at the Skukuza Safari Lodge, a game drive and a gala dinner at the Skukuza Golf Club were included.

Reflections on the 20th Annual SSNM  

The programme included presentations authored and co-authored by SAEON Ndlovu staff members and several node-affiliated postgraduate students. The latter are registered in the Forb Ecology Research Group (FERG) at the North-West University, Potchefstroom, under the supervision of Prof Frances Siebert and are co-supervised by Ndlovu Node scientist Dr Dave Thompson.

Hot topics presented by the Ndlovu delegation included the impacts of fire frequency on butterfly communities through alterations in herbaceous vegetation structure and composition (presented by second year Masters’ student Wynand Muller); and fire effects on savanna soil seedbank persistence, presented by Yani Steyn. Yani’s findings stem from her Honours project, which she is now continuing as an MSc.

Tsumbedzo Ramalevha, a second year PhD student, took us underground and talked about the individual and combined effects of fire and herbivory on belowground herbaceous regeneration in an African savanna.

Back to the surface, Prof. Kevin Wilcox (University of North Carolina Greensboro, USA) in collaboration with Dr Dave Thompson, presented results on the combined effects of drought, fire and herbivory on savanna plant communities and the sustainability of ecosystem services. These findings are underpinned by 15 years of continuous vegetation monitoring conducted in collaboration with the SAEON Ndlovu Node from central Kruger National Park.

Centring around the same theme, Ndlovu Node postdoctoral research fellow Dr Helga van Coller presented results from a long-term herbivore exclusion experiment in the Kruger National Park, illustrating that rainfall variability might play a bigger role in herbaceous layer dynamics in the short term, but that herbivory becomes important in the long term. Prof. Deron Burkepile (University of California Santa Barbara and SAEON honorary research associate), in association with Drs Dave Thompson and Helga van Coller and others, shared the idea behind a newly initiated project testing the hypothesis that the effects of large mammalian herbivores are not limited to when these animals are alive, but that the carcasses of megaherbivores could leave legacy effects in African savanna ecosystems.

Lastly, the manager of the Ndlovu Node, Dr Tony Swemmer, shed some light on declining African riparian forests, the causes thereof, and whether restoration is a feasible option.

Vote of thanks

SAEON postgraduate and postdoctoral attendees of the 20th Annual Savanna Science Network Meeting would like to express their gratitude towards SAEON for their support, both logistically and financially. Thank you for creating opportunities for us to attend international conferences such as the SSNM, which not only broadens our scientific perspectives, but enhances various skills such as reporting scientific results, public speaking, science engagement and networking.

From left: Wynand Muller (MSc), Dr Helga van Coller (SAEON postdoctoral researcher) and Yani Steyn (MSc) at the 20th Annual Savanna Science Network Meeting held in March 2023

Wynand Muller captivates the audience with his talk on links between butterfly diversity and abundance and fire frequency

Yani Steyn tells delegates more about fire effects on seedling emergence and persistence in fire-managed savannas

Tsumbedzo Ramalevha shared his initial findings on the regeneration of herbaceous vegetation from belowground bud banks in African savannas

Results from 15 years of herbivore exclusion on herbaceous plant communities were shared by SAEON Ndlovu Node postdoc, Dr Helga van Coller