Cape Town – The Waterberg Mountain Complex (WMC) in the Limpopo Province will be the focus of a “multidisciplinary foundational baseline biodiversity data gathering project” after a University of Pretoria researcher was awarded Foundational Biodiversity Information Programme (FBIP) funding to carry out the Large Project.

Prof Nigel Barker and his team were awarded the funding to carry out the work over a period of three years.

In his proposal for funding Barker said the WMC is a region of special conservation concern and despite being situated a mere 2 to 3 hours from Pretoria, where there is a hub of plant and animal biodiversity scientists, there has never been a comprehensive and structured survey of the region.

According to Barker the WMC was previously used an agricultural area, but there have been considerable changes in land use to conservation and eco-tourism activities, and one third of the region has been declared a UNESCO Waterberg Biosphere Reserve.

In addition, said Barker, the Marakele National Park is also situated in the WMC and is part of the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve, as are some of the Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism (LEDET) reserves.

“While thus enjoying some environmental protection, proposed coal mines and related infrastructure projects on the northern borders of this area represent a major potential environmental conflict, and will impact the ecological integrity of the WMC,” he said.

Mountain refugia

A comprehensive bioregional plan has been developed for the Waterberg District as a whole (LEDET 2016). These mountain regions show floristic gradients similar to the Soutpansberg, the Sekhukhuneland and the Wolkberg Centres of Endemism. However, the WMC has not (as yet) been considered as a centre of plant endemism.

The WMC is situated in the larger Waterberg District, which includes unique vegetation types on the central mountainous areas of the mountain complex, for example Waterberg Mountain Bushveld.

The Waterberg plateau grasslands in particular are ecologically unique, and their location on the highest elevations of the Waterberg indicate that these areas may be important climate change refugia.

These grasslands support a number of endemic amphibian, reptile, small mammal, bat and insect species.

Because of strong local and regional gradients, Barker says mountains have higher biodiversity, and documenting this diversity is essential if these areas are to be managed effectively.

In addition, with climate change, it is generally expected that species in montane areas are buffered from climate change because they may be able to migrate upslope with increasing warming.

Mountains are thus important refugia for plant and animals in the face of climate change, and this is particularly of concern in an area that provides such critical ecosystem services to surrounding areas and settlements – as in the case of the Waterberg.

In addition, the WMC provides several essential ecosystem services, the most important being the provision of clean water.

Aims and Objectives

1. To liaise and collaborate with the various stakeholders and organisations dedicated to the conservation and management of biodiversity of the Waterberg Mountain Complex in order to determine biodiversity assessment and conservation priorities.

2. As a consequence of this collaboration with stakeholders, it is anticipated that a database that contains much of the stakeholder’s so-called “grey literature” can be established and made accessible to researchers in this project and beyond. This grey literature will include unpublished species lists from management plans of reserves and related documents.

3. To undertake baseline biodiversity surveys in areas and/or habitats recognised by the stakeholders as being important or priority. The survey will include botanical, entomological, mammalian, fish and diatoms, and herpetological assessments. These baseline surveys will provide a massive amount of biological specimens and material collected for future DNA studies and augment various databases on the national biodiversity of these taxa.

4. To undertake multiyear surveys in selected reserves in the Waterberg region such as Marakele National Park, designed in a manner to provide biodiversity data that is specific to the needs of the reserve (for example, sampling altitudinal and rainfall gradients).

5. To assess species and habitats of special concern in terms of their continued conservation and management. This will include an assessment of invasive species, and the recovery of old lands and other disturbed areas.

6. To undertake DNA barcoding on samples collected of over 1000 samples of specific taxa, including fish, aquatic macroinvertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, bats, rodents, beetles and other selected arthropod taxa.

7. To provide data and information to all stakeholders so that regional and provincial conservation plans can be improved or nuanced. The interaction between the researchers and the stakeholders is key to the success of this project.

8. One of the most important components of this project is the involvement of the local Waterberg communities, in particular school teachers and learners. There are several environmental education organisations in the Waterberg with whom we will collaborate, and it is anticipated that the researchers and the dedicated science education specialist in this project will be able to provide these organisations as well as the various schools in the area with educational aids that will assist in the teaching of environmental awareness and biological content at primary and senior schools.

9. Floristic and faunistic analyses of endemism and biogeographic affinities. These analyses will have to await the identification of the specimens collected but will comprise comparisons between the Waterberg biodiversity and the biodiversity of other nearby mountain systems such as the Magaliesburg, Soutpansberg, Blouberg and Mpumalanga escarpment. These analyses will use the data gathered from the three-year program outlined here and be augmented by data from various databases and publications for these other regions.

The FBIP is funded by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and jointly managed by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).

Research team members – Co-investigators:

Prof Catherine Sole, University of Pretoria

Dr Darragh Woodford, University of the Witwatersrand

Dr Albert Chakona, South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB)

Mr Werner Conradie, Port Elizabeth Museum at Bayworld

Prof Peter le Roux, University of Pretoria

Mr Pieter Bester, South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI)

Dr Teresa Kearney, Ditsong National Museum of Natural History

Prof Dan Parker, University of Mpumalanga

Prof Martin Potgieter, University of Limpopo

Dr Angelique Kritzinger, University of Pretoria

Prof Paulette Bloomer, University of Pretoria

Dr Mark Keith, Institution University of Pretoria

Research team members – Collaborators:

Dr Kenneth Oberlander, University of Pretoria

Mr Arnold Frisby, Institution University of Pretoria

Prof Mark Robertson, University of Pretoria

Mr Samuel Motitsoe, Institution Rhodes University

Dr Hanlie Engelbrecht, University of the Witwatersrand

Dr Werner Strumpher, Ditsong National Museum of Natural History

Mr Arrie Klopper, University of Pretoria

Dr Chevonne Reynolds, University of the Witwatersrand

Prof Emma Archer, University of Pretoria

Prof Michael Somers, University of Pretoria

Dr Tharina Bird, Ditsong National Museum of Natural History

Ms Mpho Malematja, Ditsong National Museum of Cultural History

Mr Erich van Wyk, South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI)

Dr Wilbert Kadye, Rhodes University

Research team members – Research Associate:

Dr Krystal Tolley, South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI)