Saving our planet through research and scholarship

Posted on June 10, 2015

Planet Earth’s natural resources are rapidly diminishing. This is because the world’s population is consuming far more natural resources than the planet can sustainably provide. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) states: ‘By 2050, if current consumption and production patterns remain the same and with a rising population expected to reach 9.6 billion, we will need three planets to sustain our ways of living and consumption.’[1]

Friday, 5 June 2015, was World Environment Day (WED). This annual celebration is when the UNEP seeks to make the biggest global call to action. By virtue of its vision, mission and values, the University of Pretoria (UP) is committed to making a difference locally and globally, using quality, relevance, diversity and sustainability as navigational markers to create a better world. In a resource-constrained world, UP also recognises its responsibility to produce graduates who are knowledgeable, innovative and ethical.

The various faculties at UP are making waves in their efforts in the field of conservation and are committed to promoting practices that make more sustainable use of the Earth’s natural resources. Some of UP’s work is highlighted below:

With 17 departments linked to many centres, institutes and units, the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences has several research groups and academic programmes that focus on the environment. The Faculty instils in students a desire to make a difference in the natural and agricultural sciences by aligning with leading education and research trends. 

As a country that is affected by water scarcity, water research is of fundamental importance to a healthy and functioning South Africa. The Department of Geology’s Dr Matthys Dippenaar and the UP Water Institute’s Groundwater Cluster are actively involved in water research. They receive most of their funding from the Water Research Commission. Their research offers best practice guidelines to the likes of the South African Local Government Association (SALGA). The Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology section of the Department is also involved in world-leading research on water-air flow through rock, which has great implications for deep engineering, mining and groundwater-dependent ecosystems.

In terms of water awareness, this group is actively communicating water science to the general public through the Hydrological Heritage Overview (H2O) series of projects. The focus of these projects is on the development of the major cities in South Africa, emphasising the development of their water supply and sensitising the reader to the importance of water in our daily lives and the need for water resource protection.

Environmental sustainability is an underlying imperative of the Department of Geography, Geoinformatics and Meteorology. Using a range of approaches, this Department’s teaching programmes focus on pro-environmental behaviour, sustainable development, climate variability and the exploration of alternative energy sources.  The Department’s postgraduate students work closely with the Centre for Environmental Studies. Their research addresses a broad range of environmental issues, from climate change to air quality. They are also conducting research into measures such as  remote sensing, that can be used to gain a better understanding of pressing environmental issues. Proving to be true environmental stewards, some of the Department’s students recently formed the Green Light Society at UP, which aims to raise awareness and a sense of responsibility among students.

Most of the research conducted by the Department of Animal and Wildlife Science addresses the UP institutional research theme on Food, Nutrition and Well-being, by focusing on animal production in a resource-constrained environment. The Department focusses on feeding, nutrition, breeding and genetics, as well as growth and adaptation of South Africa’s indigenous, imported and developed animal genotypes. It also has a strong focus on biological and environmental stability. Much of the Department’s research is on animal reproduction and growth improvements, and employs synchronisation, breeding techniques and growth-enhancing technologies that may reduce the environmental impact of animal production through improvements in efficiency and resource utilisation. The Department is also involved in a number of community projects in areas of small-scale farming, agriculture and food security on the African continent. 

Some of the greatest threats to the natural environment include land clearing for agriculture, forestry and extractive industries, the introduction and spread of alien species, global climate change from increased levels of greenhouse gases, and increasing application of pesticides. The Department of Zoology and Entomology is staffed with highly rated and productive researchers who are involved in better understanding how animals are affected by, and adapt to, these human disturbances.  

The global decline in bee colonies is also affecting Africa, sometimes to a greater extent than in the rest of the world, but Prof Christian Pirk and his colleagues have found that Africa’s bees are better able to adapt to stresses because they have much broader genetic diversity.

Prof Chris Chimimba and Dr Michelle Jackson are determining the effects of invasive fresh-water fish species (including Nile tilapia and trout species) and alien plants in riparian zones, on the function of river ecosystems.

Prof Andrew McKechnie and his students are investigating physiological variation within widespread bird species to provide new insights into how populations differ in their tolerance of extreme temperatures. This information is critical for predicting how birds will respond to climate change.

The Conservation Ecology Research Unit, led by Prof Rudi van Aarde, is determining how the behaviour of African elephants changes in response to elevated temperature and water availability. This will enable them to take appropriate measures to ensure their conservation in a changing climate. They are also determining the success of efforts to restore coastal dune forests (depleted after sand mining for heavy minerals) in north-eastern KwaZulu-Natal, by monitoring plant, millipede, bird and small mammal assemblages in rehabilitated sites over time.

Restoration of coal mine sites in Mpumalanga is also being studied by Prof Clarke Scholtz and his colleagues,  using dung beetles to indicate the return of grassland diversity and ecosystem function.

- Author Louise de Bruin

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