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30 October 2020 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Supplied
ARU Researchers on mountain slope
A team of international researchers discovered in March 2020 a new grass species, Festuca drakensbergensis, during extensive fieldwork in the 40 000 km2 Maloti-Drakensberg area.

In their search to learn more about the impact of humans and climate change on grasses in the Drakensberg Mountain Centre (DMC), one of the most studied mountain systems in the region, a group of scientists found a new grass species, which they named Festuca drakensbergensis (common name unknown; herein could be designated the ‘Drakensberg Alpine Fescue’).

The team who is working on the project includes Dr Vincent R. Clark, Head of the Afromontane Research Unit at the University of the Free State (UFS), Prof Steven P. Sylvester from the Nanjing Forestry University in Nanjing, Jiangsu, China, and Dr Robert J. Soreng, working in the Department of Botany at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

 

The discovery

The species, that was discovered in March 2020, was found during extensive fieldwork and herbarium research across the 40 000 km2 Maloti-Drakensberg area. The DMC has a very high endemic plant diversity, says Dr Clark.

He goes on to say that the DMC has a Montane Sub-Centre (below 2800 m) and an alpine sub-centre (above 2800 m). “It is the only mountain system in Africa south of Mt Kilimanjaro with an alpine component,” he adds.

ProfSylvester says the species was easily recognisable during their fieldwork, being found fairly common throughout the Afro-alpine landscape. Although at that point they only knew it to be a distinct taxon, they realised that the species was new to science when they tried to identify it and compared it with other closely related Festuca taxa.

Besides this discovery, the team also reinstated two varieties of Festuca caprina and rediscovered the overlooked F. exaristata, all of them endemic to the DMC. Prof Sylvester believes that this discovery highlights the importance of these high-elevation ecosystems as harbours of unique biodiversity that require focused conservation efforts.

Although grasses are a dominant species that control the ecosystem function in the Afro-alpine grasslands, they are the least known of all plant species found in these ecosystems. Up until now there has been a lack of focused research on Afro-alpine grasses.

 “We provide a taxonomic reappraisal of the Festuca caprina complex that will aid future ecological and biogeographical research in the DMC and allow us to better understand the complexities of these ecosystems and how to conserve and manage them,” says Prof Sylvester.

 

This discovery highlights the importance of these high-elevation ecosystems as harbours of unique biodiversity that require focused conservation efforts. - Prof Steven Sylvester

 

 

Adding value

According to Dr Clark, the species contributes to the grazing and rangeland value of the Maloti-Drakensberg. “It also has functional value in terms of maintaining ecosystem integrity and associated water production landscape value in the area,” he says.

“The species seems fairly robust to pressures from grazing and burning, being found in both heavily grazed areas and semi-pristine areas, and may prove a useful species as part of a seed mix of native grasses for reseeding degraded Afro-alpine slopes and ski slopes,” mentions Prof Sylvester regarding the benefits of this indigenous species to the region.

The species is very common in Lesotho in Bokong Nature Reserve, Sehlabathebe National Park, and Sani Pass, and at Tiffendell and AfriSki ski resorts. Dr Soreng believes the species is likely to have a wider distribution range across the Maloti-Drakensberg, than what was documented before research was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Next steps

According to Prof Sylvester, this taxonomic research feeds into a large-scale ecological study looking at the response of Afro-alpine ecosystems to different grazing and burning regimes that is being run in collaboration with Dr Clark at the ARU and Dr Soreng of the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC.

“While our research has uncovered interesting novelties and provided a greater understanding of the taxonomy of grasses from high elevation Maloti-Drakensberg, there is still much to be done with regards taxonomic research of cool-season grasses in southern Africa,” says Prof Sylvester.

Dr Clark supports this notion and states that there is a major need for a better holistic understanding of the alpine zone in the Maloti-Drakensberg, given immediate pressures from over-grazing, land-use transformation, invasive species, and climate change.

“This is because the Maloti-Drakensberg is the most important water tower in southern Africa, providing water for some 30 million people in three countries. As the Maloti-Drakensberg is dominated by natural grasslands, understanding grass diversity and ecological behaviour is a primary need in the face of immediate human impacts and global change,” he says.

News Archive

Publication on indigenous knowledge systems
2005-10-21

 

 

Dr Otsile Ntsoane (acting Director: IKS, Department of Science and Technology) and Prof Philip Nel (Director:  Africa Studies at the UFS and guest editor of the publication) at the launch of the publication

UFS launches most comprehensive publication on indigenous knowledge systems
A unique collection of essays on Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) was launched yesterday (20 October 2005) by the University of the Free State’s (UFS) Programme of Africa Studies.

The essays are published as a special edition of INDILINGA, the African Journal for Indigenous Knowledge Systems and is an outcome of the colloquium on Indigenous Knowledge Systems that was presented last year by the UFS Director of Africa Studies in cooperation with the National Research Council.

“The amount and diversity of materials on IKS brought together under one cover is unique as there are no other South African publications of this magnitude on this issue.  It contains papers of international experts on IKS such as Prof Fritz Wallner from Austria and Prof Gayatri Spivak, foremost postcolonial theorist from India,” said Prof Philip Nel, Director of Africa Studies and guest editor of the publication.

“The publication is a rich source field for students and scholars to exploit because most of the sources quoted in the articles are recent, fresh and relevant.  The contributors are largely people responsible for managing, fostering and studying IKS in a responsible manner,” said Prof Nel.

“An added value of the publication is the inclusion of the policy document on IKS that was adopted by Cabinet in November 2004,” said Prof Nel.


“Millions of people in South Africa are faced with the painful choice of abandoning their heritage.  In this choice, the study and management of IKS has a major role to play; on the one hand, to encourage as much assimilation of traditional knowledge as possible into the modern systems, and on the other hand to provide a “language” and a “grammar” for indigenous people through which they can access modernity,” said Prof Nel.

The IKS debate involves questions of African identity, protection of indigenous communities and practices, political aspects as well as the scientific integrity of the enterprise. 

The publication displays the range of burning questions that have to be resolved in this field such as mainstreaming IKS in academic debate and practice, recognition and protection of the knowledge holders, bio-prospecting and bio-piracy, bio and ethnic healing, lack of textbooks and field manuals, etc and will prove worthwhile for future researchers.

 “One of the main reasons for publishing this volume is the fact that IKS should be studied not only to provide a sense of pride in the past, or  to engender respect for indigenous peoples, but also to enable people in indigenous mind sets to make a better transition into the world of science and technology,” said Prof Nel.

The guest speaker at the launch was Dr Otsile Ntsoane, acting Director of IKS at the Department of Science and Technology.  In his speech Dr Ntsoane stressed the symbolic and concrete value of the publication.  “The publication can have a great social impact and the research results can contribute to chancing the economic landscape of South Africa,” he said.

The publication can be purchased at R150 per copy.  For more information, Ms Steffi Cawood, Programme Coordinator for Africa Studies at the UFS can be contacted at (051) 401-2614.

Media release
Issued by:Lacea Loader
Media Representative
Tel:   (051) 401-2584
Cell:  083 645 2454
E-mail:  loaderl.stg@mail.uovs.ac.za
21 October 2005
 

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