Complexity, resilience, the increasing usefulness of new tools such as remote sensing in ecological science and showing a broader view of biodiversity and biodiversity management are some of the key themes that emerged at the Kruger National Park (KNP)'s sixth annual science networking meeting held in Skukuza towards the end of April 2008.
In addition, presenters also showed greater appreciation for the changing framework within which protected areas function and the increasing need to include socio-ecological systems in the emerging co-existence phase. This was the final verdict on the meeting given by Dr Bob Scholes, of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in his wrap-up of the proceedings. It was a week where more than 100 presentations in five days faced up to the inquisitive minds of some of the world's best scientists in the field of savanna ecosystems – both the older and the upcoming generation. More than 200 scientists from South Africa and around the world attended the event.
"We need "business unusual" instead of "business as usual" to meet the future challenges of managing protected areas," said Dr David Mabunda, chief executive of SANParks, at the opening of the meeting. He emphasised that "national parks are not islands", but rather part of a bigger landscape where they must live up to the challenges and expectations of neighbouring communities and other interest groups. "If the Kruger National Park is to retain its iconic status, we have to enhance the lives of people, while achieving our conservation and biodiversity objectives," he stressed. "Therefore researchers must tackle the challenge of effectively involving local and indigenous communities."
"Although South Africa is ranked as the third most biologically diverse country in the world, after Brazil and Indonesia, our conservation areas are fragmented and scattered across the country," Dr Mabunda explained. "It is therefore essential to start working beyond the borders of national parks." Dr Mabunda pointed out how much the management of protected areas has changed in recent years. Today science across all disciplines informs management decisions and the focus has moved away from single species, to maintaining fully functional ecosystems. Recognising the complexity of ecosystems where many pieces of the puzzle interact in a variety of ways, also informs new approaches in ecological research. Management is now a process of "learning by doing", thereby continuously adding to our knowledge and understanding of complex ecosystems.
With these words Dr Mabunda opened the stage to presentations that ranged from systems ecology, atmospheric effects on the natural world, water in the landscape and diseases like bovine tuberculosis to herbivory, the competing world of plants, fire, soil, nutrients, alien impact, land classification and the collection of data.
A few case studies also highlighted lessons from other parts of the world, which included the post-war recovery of the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique and a cross-continental comparison of key savanna parks using Kruger and the Kakadu National Park in Australia to highlight cornerstones of biodiversity. Bill Robertson, of the Mellon Foundation in the US and one of the main sponsors of the meeting, said he would like to see more opportunities for young black scientists to become part of the country's scientific community.