Grant Recipients Conference, South Africa 2015
Organised & Reported by: Dr Ian Little and Jiba Magwaza
The 2015 Southern African Rufford Small Grants Conference was held in Cape Town from the 16th to 17th April. The conference was kindly hosted at the South African national Biodiversity Institutes Colophon Room within the conservation wing, a building which was suitably constructed through sponsorship from the Rufford Foundation. The conference delegates were comprised of members by invite only and were primarily previous grant recipients. The region comprises recipients from seven countries including Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho and South Africa. Eighty five recipients were invited and although some contact details were old almost all previous recipients were contacted. Of these 31 recipients were able to attend and present at the conference which hosted a total of 56 delegates including plenary speakers, guests and thirteen current conservation biology students (MSc) from the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. These budding conservation students enjoyed the experience of listening to and meeting a suit of experienced and active conservation practitioners and researchers from across the region.
Objectives and impacts of the conference
The key objectives of this event were three fold including to facilitate networking and partnership development between conservation practitioners that would otherwise likely not have met, to promote the role that The Rufford Foundation plays in supporting conservation at a local, national and international level and to provide a platform for local MSc conservation biology students to learn from experienced conservation practitioners from across the region. The Rufford foundation offers small grant funding for nature conservation programmes and pilot projects in the developing world. The Rufford conference serves a very important role as a platform of bringing together recipients to share their success stories and challenges in their projects. This forum provided an opportunity to discuss ideas, problems, issues and create invaluable networking opportunities for important ongoing conservation projects.
Rufford funding has in many cases acted as a catalyst to achieve disproportionately large and tangible conservation impacts. This can be seen in many of the projects such as the highland grassland research project by the now Dr Ian Little. This project was focussed on understanding the impacts of grazing and burning practices on grassland biodiversity (including birds, insects and plants). The work has guided the development of the national Grazing and Burning guidelines for grasslands, Bird-friendly Best-practice guidelines for grasslands, management plans for the most important bird conservation area in Mpumalanga province and of course the development of Ian Little himself who is now the manager of the Threatened Grassland Species Programme at the Endangered Wildlife Trust and was the person who organised this event. Another project that showed major catalytic results from the funding was the Sungazer Project run by Shivan Parusnath. This project has led to a broader understanding of the conservation requirements and current status of this previously poorly understood species. The results are guiding the development of a Biodiversity Management Plan, update of the red-list status, development of a formal Non-detriment Finding in line with CITES II requirements and are guiding the geographic focus of a broader Biodiversity Stewardship project aimed at protected area expansion in the region. Of course we must never forget the individual development, Shivan is now working towards his PhD in genetics focussed on this same species and is certainly the world expert on the species today. Another example is the pangolin trade work, which has contributed to the establishment of the African Pangolin Working Group and further far reaching conservation efforts across the African continent and globally looking at the trade routes and market countries.
The overwhelmingly most important aspect that this funding does for all of the recipients is in their personal development. Contributions to individual projects are valuable to those species and their associated habitat but the development of the conservationists themselves will reap far reaching benefits to many species and habitats on much longer and wider ranging scale than any one project. This conference itself also assisted, in two short days, with the development of a class of young and enthusiastic MSc students in Conservation Biology. These students were exposed to the wide variety of projects and conservationists that Rufford has supported in the region and undoubtedly walked away with a far stronger understanding of how conservation practices are implemented on the ground.
Some of the projects showcased really creative ways of achieving their conservation objectives. Some examples of this include Leif Petersen’s “Herbanisation Project” where wild harvesting of traditional medicinal plants is leading to population pressure for the species in high demand. In order to address this the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation is in the process of building linkages between resident Khoi-linked Rasta herbalists and the broader conservation audience through the establishment of street gardens where indigenous herbal medicinal plants are grown within in the urban community of Seawinds. This approach has both provided sustainable income for herbalists and reduced pressure on the wild populations of sought after medicinal plants. Another project that has shown some key innovation at a local scale is Sue Miltons project dubbed “Renukaroo”, this project focussed on the development of a locally sustainable nursery for both the rehabilitation of degraded areas and to encourage local people to utilise indigenous plants in their gardens which results in reduced water usage in a very water scarce area. While indigenous nurseries are nothing new, the horticultural principles that were developed here are certainly a first of their kind. Another example is the African wild dog meta-population project (David Marneweck) in northern KZN. This innovative research project established protocols to allow wild dogs to stay in Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park and also for the monitoring and conservation of this extremely scarce and contentious species (predation of domestic livestock) in the region. A further example of some unique management outcomes was work done by Simon Elwen focussing on dolphin research and the impacts of tourist boats on their behaviour and breeding. This work has established limits for tourist boats allowing the dolphins to have refugia for resting and play while still promoting the responsible development of the tourism industry, all-be-it with boundaries to where they can and can’t go to pursue the animals.
Raising funds for the conservation of species is always a challenge and is becoming more and more so in the current financial climate. In most cases the big and charismatic animals are given priority. The Rufford Foundation however certainly does not show any bias or leniency and there are a number of projects which enjoyed support for the smaller, less charismatic but equally deserving species. Projects supported include a wide variety of species from the more charismatic such as sharks, dolphins, wild dogs, leopard, cheetah, hyena, turtles, vultures, elephants and zebra to projects focussing on the more obscure and unknown species such as bats, sardines, Oribi, crocodiles, pangolins, sungazers, ground hornbills and even the Knysna Seahorse. The latter group of species would have been unlikely to achieve even a portion of what they have done without The Rufford Grants as these species are traditionally poorly known and more difficult to raise conservation funds for. Project topics were also varied and included aspects of applied conservation from climate change modelling, population monitoring and atlasling to more focussed biological research and addressing trade and wildlife conflict issues and even addressing traditional medicinal demands through urban herb garden development. So it is clear that The Rufford foundation does not only support the more traditional forms of conservation practice but also those projects that seek alternative and out-of-the-box approaches to achieving conservation for the benefit of a wide range of species and ecosystems.
This funding has also contributed to building a network of future generation conservationists. There were two key examples from the projects presented at this conference; the first was the Matobo Biodiversity Monitoring Project (MBMP) presented by Cedric Maforimbo (Recipient was Nicola Pegg). The MBMP works with five rural secondary schools close to Matopos National Park in the Matobo Hills World Heritage Site in south-western Zimbabwe. The MBMP principal aim is to develop community based natural resource monitoring through schools that will ultimately be self-sustaining and which will generate quantified data to help communities to identify and mitigate against natural resource depletion. This work is ongoing and therefore will generate and train future conservationists. Rosemary Grooms work looked more directly at how community education and engagement impacts on conservation goals. These kinds of projects have long-term impacts and through the education of older generations through teaching young children can show considerable short term changes in mind-set as well. These changes in community mind-set are what will result in sustainable conservation outcomes going forward.
It is important that conservation and research findings be published in not only popular formats such as magazines and newsletters but also as peer reviewed scientific publications. Many of the projects that have been supported by The Rufford Foundation in southern Africa have led to peer reviewed publication but it is difficult to estimate how many actual publications have accrued form these projects. A rough estimate that more than fifty percent of projects result in journal publications is probably an under-estimate and in most cases projects result in more than one publication. What was evident from the presentations is that the academic standard is exceptional across the range of research projects supported. It would certainly be interesting for The Rufford Foundation to find a way to estimate their publication reach and it would no doubt be wide reaching and substantial.
In closing, there was overall positive feedback about the event from all participants and there is little doubt that the networking opportunities have strengthened the participants abilities to achieve their objectives in what often feels like very isolated and lonely circumstances. The leaving sentiment from the delegates was that there is a need to have more platforms like the Rufford conference in order to share information and stimulate this kind of networking.
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