From the Bottom of a Borehole to Satellite Heights

©Izak Smit

Izak Smit has been a regular visitor to the Kruger National Park since he can remember and it was therefore a dream come true for him when he was appointed as a research manager in Skukuza from July 2005. Izak's responsibility is to conduct, coordinate and solicit research in GIS (Geographical Information Systems) and remote sensing, and more recently also in artificial water provision and groundwater, not only in Kruger but also in a selection of other national parks.

"Artificial water provision affects the landscape in many ways and we need to look at this at different scales" says Izak. Having recently submitted his PhD in Geography at the University of Cambridge, England, entitled "Artificial surface water provision in a semi-arid savanna: a spatio-temporal analysis of herbivore distribution patterns in relation to artificial waterholes under different habitat, rainfall and management scenarios in the Kruger National Park, South Africa" Izak is well positioned to provide welcome insight into water issues in the KNP.

In addition, previous research work done for his MSc saw Izak investigating the grazing gradients around waterholes in the KNP, making use of satellite remote sensing. Izak recognises that water provision plays a complex role in the ecosystem and states that "the history of water provision in Kruger reflects the adaptive learning, or so-called "learning by doing" approach, that SANParks subscribes to, evaluating and changing the policy as new insights are gained."

Much of the groundwater research Izak coordinates involves working with geohydrologists from the department of water affairs and forestry (Dwaf) as well as universities. This includes studies to delineate the groundwater communities in Kruger based on water chemistry and geological characteristics and installing groundwater level meters throughout the park in inactive boreholes to understand how groundwater levels change due to seasonal and climatic patterns."All this information will assist Kruger, as well as the groundwater-dependent areas outside of Kruger, to better understand and therefore better manage groundwater resources", says Izak.

The field of study that Izak was originally employed for is GIS and remote sensing. "GIS and remote sensing technology essentially uses spatial data layers, similar to electronic and interactive maps, as well as satellite images and aerial photographs to better understand what processes drive patterns that we may not even be aware of unless we get this spatial perspective."

One of the main challenges for Izak is to explore ways to use satellite imagery to monitor vegetation patterns and heterogeneity in Kruger over time. He is very excited about a collaborative project with the Carnegie Institute that will bring a combined LiDAR and hyperspectral sensor to Kruger in April 2008. "This technology is cutting-edge, and Kruger is the first destination for this unique piece of equipment outside of the USA. This sensor will be mounted on a Cessna 404 airplane and subsequently fly at one to two kilometres above ground level across various selected areas in Kruger to collect detailed 3D structural data of the landscape, as well as spectral information that makes it possible to look at plant water content and chemistry".

A team of more than 20 scientists, mostly from South Africa and the USA, will be collaborating on this project and it is widely believed that this new technology will provide answers to complex ecological questions that were hard to answer previously. In fact, some scientists jokingly admit that this technology may help answer questions that have not even been asked!

Izak's research involvement takes him from the depths of groundwater resources to the heights of satellite images many kilometres into space. "Kruger is a wonderful laboratory to work in and it is fascinating to be involved with so many researchers and projects, aiming to solve the numerous puzzles the park presents. I enjoy working for an organisation where research does not end up on shelves but has the potential to contribute to the management of conservation areas. It is therefore always a challenge to make sure that the research that is being conducted has some meaningful management implications" says Izak.

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