The Tswalu Foundation exists primarily to support ecological research at Tswalu. Through accumulating a growing body of quality output on the fauna, flora and the unique habitat of the southern Kalahari we have been able to make informed conservation management decisions to better support our shared vision. This information has been made freely available to our neighbours and other interested parties so that, as we seek to add to our shared understanding of this rich and diverse landscape, they too can care for the land in the best long-term interests of the wildlife and people of the Kalahari.
Tswalu represents a unique research opportunity for researchers to add to the collective knowledge of the Kalahari. Research is integrated into every aspect of life at Tswalu as it informs how we operate and adds an extra dimension to experiencing the reserve.
Research is a recurring feature of life at Tswalu and continues to both answer and raise questions about the best ways to conserve and restore the southern Kalahari. By adding to our knowledge, we realise more and more what we don’t know, but we are also able to design and implement more effective conservation policies.
Understanding the Impacts of Climate Change in a Semi-Arid Environment
During Earth’s long history, natural processes such as variations in solar radiation, orbital vicissitudes and even continental drift caused changes in temperature and rainfall patterns and inevitably impacted on biodiversity and species patterns and abundances. Climate change is thus regarded by many as a natural phenomenon. More recently however, human actions (most notably the emission of greenhouse gasses) have accelerated the rate of climate change, leading to an unprecedented negative impact on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. Even a 2°C warming can have a devastating effect on biodiversity, resulting in cascading effects and tipping points. Understanding impacts on biodiversity (including extinctions, range shifts, changes in distributions, hybridization and inter-species competition) and predicting threats to ecosystem services (health and food security) and extreme climate events (drought, flooding) is essential for biodiversity conservation, especially in the Kalahari, a region which is expected to show the first signs of actual die-offs and the impact of climate change.
Biodiversity Conservation of Species and Ecosystems
Biological diversity at all levels is being lost at an unprecedented rate, many referring to the observed losses as the start of Earth’s sixth mass extinction episode. Factors such as habitat fragmentation and environmental degradation are influencing the distribution and abundance of species, often in ways that are impossible to predict. Conservation biology today faces a conundrum: how best to manage for species preservation and their habitats under rapidly changing and often unpredictable conditions. What is needed to help solve these challenges is conservation planning, based on accurate scientific data. For example, the impacts of fire, or lack thereof, in fire climax habitats are relatively well known, but the impacts in an already stressed, arid environment are not.
Anthropogenic: The Human Impact – Past, Present and Future
This involves documentation of archaeological sites on Tswalu and in the surrounding areas. There is a need to establish the human timeline within the Kalahari, closely identifying the eras. These will form layers in our knowledge of the archaeology and palaeontology of the area. The use of current techniques in remote sensing to identify areas with fossil and other archaeological sites will add significantly to our understanding of the human impact on the Southern Kalahari.
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The Tswalu Foundation Campaigns
North of Kuruman Palaeoarcheology Project
Dr Benjamin Schoville (University of Queensland, Australia) and Dr Jayne Wilkins (Griffith University, Australia)
Benjamin Schoville and Jayne Wilkins are working on this long-term project at Tswalu to understand how the southern Kalahari’s unique landscapes were used by early humans. Stone artefacts can be seen on the surface all over Tswalu, some of which may be over one million years old. How did early human ancestors survive in a semi-arid environment? Through ongoing excavations on Tswalu and further east near Kuruman, they are beginning to piece together a record of past human behaviour.
Large stone tools, called hand axes, from the Earlier Stone Age (ESA) are found in many places on Tswalu. These are between 1.5-million and 500-thousand years old and were probably used by early human ancestors such as Homo erectus for butchery of large animals. There are also more recent stone tools from the Middle Stone Age (MSA) that are between 500,000 and 50,000 years old. During this time period, Homo sapiens emerges and evidence for symbolism and new innovations is seen. For instance, the earliest stone-tipped spears are from a site 70 kilometres southeast of Tswalu, near Kathu, and are 500,000 years old.
The team working on this project consists of South African and international researchers working together to understand the history of our species in the southern Kalahari. A variety of approaches are being employed to understand ancient environments. Some calcium-rich limestones, which form during wet periods, lock in isotopes that can be dated. Dr Robyn Pickering and her students at the University of Cape Town are dating these deposits to create a record of wet-dry phases in the region. The sediments excavated so far suggest periods much wetter than today – including large lakes that drew human ancestors to their shores. Dr Irene Esteban at the University of the Witwatersrand is using plant microfossils found in sediments to determine what past vegetation was available. Dr Luke Gliganic (University of Wollongong) and colleagues are dating the sites on Tswalu by determining when buried sand grains around artefacts were last exposed to sunlight through a technique called Optically Stimulated Luminescence.
The conservation narrative at Tswalu would be incomplete without the inclusion of humans and early human ancestors who have been hunting, collecting plants, and finding water here for more than one million years. Tswalu provides a rare opportunity to develop a more complete picture of the ‘Green Kalahari’ landscape on which the ancestors of all humans lived. Our project aims to understand the role the southern Kalahari played for our species’ origins, including the development of innovative technologies and adaptability to environmental change.
Niche Compression of a Vulnerable Equid, The Mountain Zebra (Equus Zebra)
Paulo Henrique Pinheiro Ribeiro
Paulo Ribeiro is a PhD student in the Faculty of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, at the University of the Witwatersrand. His research project on Mountain zebras is being supervised by Dr Francesca Parrini, Dr Jason P. Marshal.
Facing human development and the anthropogenic issues resulting from human expansion, biodiversity has been suffering several losses and most of them are irreversible. Most of these losses are reducing the necessary and available areas for species survival which can affect species even at a molecular level.
This project aims to evaluate how different characteristics, such as environmental changes, anthropogenic effect, and interspecific interactions cause spatial restrictions of a vulnerable herbivore, the mountain zebra (Equus zebra), and how these can affect the species in different scales such as species distribution, habitat use, and its genome. A multi-scale evaluation approach generates a better overview, allowing for the prioritization of sites needing more conservation efforts in a more efficient form. For a landscape overview, species distribution modelling has the best cost benefit, since most of the data come from online databases. Also, It is a reliable tool to have a greater overview of any aspect of the species distribution.
At a habitat, the scale is essential to understand the most refined factors that drive the species occurrence, therefore it is necessary to study them at their original locations. Lastly, genetic assessment is the most accurate method to determine hybridisation. Despite the fact, some species present hybrid characteristics in their phenotype, the only reliable method to confirm the gene exchange is through a genetic assessment.
The Kalahari Endangered Ecosystem Project
The Kalahari Endangered Ecosystem Project (KEEP) is an on-going, multidisciplinary study on the reserve that takes into account that key Kalahari species interact with each other in complex food webs, and may respond differently to the direct and indirect effects of climate change. For example, reduced rainfall on the reserve results in less grass, which results in reduced abundance of harvester termites, which has a knock-on effect for aardvarks.
KEEP brings together expertise in botany, zoology, veterinary science, ecology and physiology, drawn from institutions across the world, all working together by sharing data and integrating findings. Long-term vegetation monitoring and collection of weather data is also integral to the success of the project. Through KEEP, research has been elevated beyond studying a single species in isolation.
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