By Lynne Trollope
Professor Winston Trollope with Working-on-Fire International and Navashni Govender of Scientific Services in the Kruger National Park are conducting a major fire ignition research experiment aimed at assisting the rangers with fire management in the Park. The first phase was conducted in the Pretoriuskop area during June 2007.
An experiment of this size and nature requires months, if not years of planning. Huge inputs of expertise, funds and manpower are required to gather sufficient data to ensure a valid and efficient evaluation and interpretation of the effects of the different types of ignition procedures on biodiversity, while still fulfilling the necessary safety requirements for management purposes.
A valuable source of expertise was sourced by inviting Andre Potgieter to join the team. "Oom Andre" as he is affectionately known by those who have worked with him in the Park during his past 35 years tenure was delighted to be back in Kruger and involved in fire research again. On the way home from what was then Rhodesia, 10-year-old Andre and his family visited the Kruger National Park for the first time.
Shortly after entering the Park at Punda Maria they saw a huge herd of impala and Andre was so impressed by his first sighting of game that there and then he made the decision that one day he would work in the Kruger National Park. That dream came to fruition in April 1969 when he joined Scientific Services in Skukuza.
In those days the Park was very different from today, the only tarred road was from Numbi Gate to Skukuza with the section between Skukuza and Lower Sabie yet to be completed. The whole of the Park north of Letaba was closed in summer because of the high prevalence of malaria and the impassable gravel roads during the wet season.
Excitement and camaraderie were high in the early days as there were big communal fires in the camps where everyone congregated to braai their meat and exchange stories of the day’s sightings and adventures. Large black kettles supplying endless hot water for cooking and thirsty travellers’ tea or coffee were also a feature at the camp fires.
Andre’s first task was to conduct detailed vegetation surveys on 192 sub-plots, 50 by 100 metres in size, on the Experimental Burn Plots (EBP’s) located in the major vegetation types scattered through out the Park, a truly arduous task requiring great dedication even by today’s standards! The Experimental Burn Plots were started in 1954 by Dr Manie van der Skyf to determine the effect of season and frequency of burning on the vegetation in the Park.
Andre measured and recorded the details and position of every plant in the plots whether it be grass, herb, shrub or tree on each plot. He recounts that when working in the field in those days the only means of communication was by radio and that he had to go to the nearest ranger station to radio if he needed to make contact with Skukuza or his family.
There were no radios in vehicles or cell phones in those early days; life in the bush is indeed much easier and possibly less exciting today. In 2004 Andre and Professor William Bond from the University of Cape Town re-surveyed some of the plots – 40 years later and except for the few iron pegs removed by elephants through the years, many of the original markers were still in place. Such detailed plant data is hard to find, even elsewhere in the world, and is contributing greatly to understanding the effects of fire on plants and possibly the effects of global warming on our ecosystems.
Andre’s dedication to science is evident by his meticulous measurements and records during the application of burning treatments at varying times of the year to the Experimental Burn Plots over a time span of 35 years. “In all my years of burning” said Andre, “we lost only 2 plots to accidental fires”.
Andre and his burning team are to be congratulated on such a fantastic record. The EBP's have become the focus of many scientific investigations into various aspects of fire ecology and also its effects on the balance of nature by both South African and international scientists - the Kruger National Park is today one of the leaders in fire research worldwide. The South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) recognised Andre's contribution to long term monitoring and to fire ecology and honoured him with a special award.
He also mentored many, many students from both South African and international academic institutions, not only in fire ecology but in many other facets of savanna ecology. Researchers from around the world are indebted to the staff, and in particular Andre, of the Kruger National Park and Scientific Services for their assistance and co-operation in pursuing the eternal wonders and intricacies of ecology, from insects to mega herbivores, from fire ecology to soils and animal census to atmospheric chemistry.