Summer Drylands Programme (SDP) is a two month research training internship offered by Gobabeb Research and Training Centre in partnership with the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia (DRFN).
The programme has run for twenty years, hence this year’s programme is SDP 20. SDP 20 consists of 12 participants, from the University of Namibia and the Namibia University of Science and Technology, studying different biological sciences. This is a great opportunity for young emerging scientists, as it provides them with a hands-on research experience to help determine how to sustainably manage conservation areas. The theme for SDP 20 focuses on the impact of artificial water points for wildlife conservation in the Namib Desert. Areas surrounding the water points are thought to be undergoing degradation with the most severe disturbance close to the waterpoint which decreases as distance from the water point increases, a phenomenon known as the piosphere effect. This ecosystem degradation is caused by severe trampling and excessive grazing. SDP 20 seeks to understand if the piosphere effect is occurring at four different artificial water points in the hyper-arid areas in the Namib Naukluft National Park: Natab, Gemsbok water point (Ganab), Sossusvlei and Escourt. The programme participants will conduct scientific research, analyse the data, write a scientific paper and formally present their findings to the public at the end of January during their time in SDP.
Induction and Journey
The programme started with two days of preparation in Windhoek at the DRFN headquarters. Different educators gave lectures on several topics related to the SDP 20 theme. Dr. Marina Coetzee gave a lecture on soil science focusing on how to determine the texture and colour of different soils. Dr. Sem Shikongo emphasized the importance of Human Dimensions and Value relate to conservation efforts. Another lecture given by Dr. Ben Strohbach was on the piosphere effect and how to study it in the field. Lastly, Dr. Theo Wassenaar gave a lecture on how to effectively collect and analyze data.
The participants also took part in self-introductory games to familiarise themselves with each other and practice critical thinking early on. One game, called the marshmallow game, involved different groups competing to build the tallest tower with a marshmallow on top using only spaghetti, tape and string. The objective of this game was to build teamwork amongst the participants. While none of the groups were successful at building a standing tower, they all had fun. On the third day the participants began their journey to Gobabeb Research station with a fun car ride.
Upon arrival, the participants were welcomed by Gobabeb’s employee Selma Swartbooi who gave them their room keys to settle into their new desert home. That evening Miss Ritha Kapitango, SDP Coordinator, took the participants for a scorpion hunt. It was very exciting for the participants to see scorpions glow under a UV light at night as most of them had never seen it before. The UV glow emitted can be explained by the fluorescent chemicals secreted by all scorpions from their cuticles or exoskeletons, which give them a Cyan-green glow. Various scorpion species can be found around the Kuiseb River, however the most common is the Uroplectes otjimbinguensis because of their use of Acacia erioloba (Camel thorn) and Faidherbia albida (Ana boom) trees. These tree species provides a suitable habitat for the scorpions due to their peeling bark. During the hot days scorpions stay between the loose bark for shade and come out at night when it’s cooler.
Nature Walk, Station Tour, and Sundowner
The following morning the participants went for a nature walk. The nature walk introduced the participants to the three ecosystems found at Gobabeb: the Kuiseb River, the Namib Sand Sea and the gravel plains. They learned about the different plant species found along and in the Kuiseb River. Some of the species discussed on the nature walk are A. erioloba, F. albida and Tamarix usneoides (Wild Tamarisk). A. erioloba is found on the riverbanks and is known for its lobed pods, small leaves that prevent water loss, peeling bark that helps cool it down during the hot days, as well long roots that can reach deep underground water. Unlike A. erioloba, F. albida has shallower roots and can only be found closer to and in the riverbed. It is known as the queen of the Kuiseb because it is the dominant species within the riverbed. T. usneoides (Wild Tamarisk), another species found growing on the river banks, is a unique tree that sheds salt through its leaves. This prohibits the growth of other species nearby, successfully ruling out other competition. After the nature walk, participants went for a station tour. Highlights of the tour were Gobabeb’s library collection, the laboratory, the first order weather station, swimming pool, tennis court and water tower. Orientation ended with a sun downer on Gobabeb’s dunes to watch the beautiful sun set of the Namib Desert and reflect on their new home.
By Anna N. Shaanika, University of Namibia, BSc Animal Science (Hons) Ndahafa N. Shindolo, University of Namibia, BSc Environmental Biology (Hons)