Matie conservation effort for Robben Island
Matie students and researchers have joined efforts to ensure and consolidate Robben Island’s future development and management of the natural environment. Robben Island is currently listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In March 2010, Stellenbosch University’s (SU) Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology (in the Faculty of AgriSciences) initiated what was hoped to become a long-term monitoring, research and training collaboration with Robben Island Management. To cement this relationship, a Memorandum of Understanding for Co-operation was recently signed by the CEO of Robben Island, Mr Sibongiseni Mkhize and the Dean of AgriSciences, Prof Mohammad Karaan. This significant agreement will pave the way for a long term association between Robben Island and SU’s Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology.
The Island is presently a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also widely known as a popular destination for domestic and international tourists wishing to visit the prison which housed former President Nelson Mandela and other representatives of the liberation struggle in South Africa.
With its long history of use, impacts on the island’s biodiversity have been many and varied, but most significant – for this collaboration – are the invasive plant and animal species introduced to the area in the past which have significantly altered the structure and function of the Island’s natural ecosystems. The European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), for instance, was introduced in the 1600s to provide food. It is presently considered one of the world’s worst invasive alien species by the IUCN/SSC’s Invasive Species Specialist Group. Before an active control programme was initiated, rabbit numbers on the Island were estimated to be about 18 000 in 2009.
In combination with other herbivores, such as Fallow deer, indigenous species richness and diversity has declined dramatically through selective grazing and the proliferation of these species has led to erosion problems and the over-use of natural ecosystems found on the Island. To assist in the monitoring of the current eradication and rehabilitation activities on the Island, SU’s Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology has established an initiative to monitor various aspects of the recovery trajectory of the ecosystem.
To date, five research/training trips have been completed and data collected on a range of biological and social attributes; several research papers have been drafted (one has already been published), and a PhD student, Thabisisani Ndhlovu, has registered to take the long-term vegetation data forward. Robben Island Management has generously provided transport and accommodation to over 100 final year Conservation Ecology students and in turn, their results are already contributing in a meaningful and responsible way to an understanding of the environmental management of the Island.
“We are excited by this community engagement exercise and prospects for educating the next generation of environmental managers through research which is monitoring the social and ecological dimensions of the Island,” said Prof Karen Esler, Head of the Conservation Ecology Teaching Programme of the Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology.
Queries: Prof Karen J Esler, e-mail: KJE@sun.ac.za