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The Afromontane Research Unit (ARU) of the University of the Free State (UFS), based in Phuthaditjhaba, South Africa, is partnering with several academic institutions, relevant forums, foundations, and policy-makers in Africa to expand its alpine research.

The research unit is joining forces with the University of Helsinki (Finland), the National University of Lesotho (NUL) and the University of Pretoria for a National Research Foundation (NRF) grant. The aim is to conduct research on using fine-scale functional and compositional variation in alpine plants to predict the impact of climate change.

According to Dr Ralph Clark, director of the ARU, this project will expand researchers’ understanding of the ecology of the alpine zone in the Maloti-Drakensberg, and its similarity (or dissimilarity) with other alpine and tundra environments. 

First step towards sustainability and restoration

Alex Hickman, chairperson of the African Mountain Research Foundation (AMRF), visited the Bvumba Mountains in Zimbabwe, the ARU, and Afriski to lay the foundation for the first two AMRF mountain observatories. The visit was also aimed at gaining support from Afriski as a focus area for alpine studies in the Maloti-Drakensberg.

Dr Clark explains that the Maloti-Drakensberg is known as the ‘water tower of Southern Africa’, because it is the largest provider of fresh water in the region. “The alpine system is critical to this water provisioning function. However, it is under tremendous pressure from intense communal rangeland degradation. If the alpine system collapses, water production will be detrimentally affected,” he says.

“Understanding this alpine system holistically, is the first step to sustainability and restoration in a social-ecological paradigm,” he adds.

Building capacity for mountain research

The ARU is leading two university staff doctorate programmes (USDPs), both in partnership with the University of Venda, which supports 20 young academics to earn their doctoral degrees. Dr Clark says that while doctoral degree topics are diverse, they are all focused on building capacity for mountain research in Southern Africa. 

According to him, three partners from the United States (US), namely the Appalachian and Colorado State Universities and the University of Montana, as well as one partner from the United Kingdom (University of the Highlands and Islands) are participating in the USDPs. Prof Geofrey Mukwada from the Department of Geography at UFS and Dr Grey Magaiza from the Department of Sociology, also at UFS, are co-ordinating the USDPs.  

The ARU has also attracted one of Southern Africa’s top biodiversity scientists, Prof Peter Taylor, who started at the UFS Department of Zoology and Entomology in January 2021. Dr Clark believes that Prof Taylor – an NRF B3-rated researcher with an H-index of 34 – will be an asset to the ARU. He believes Prof Taylor will catapult the ARU to a higher level of regional connectivity (notably with Angola), research outputs, and internal mentoring capacity.

As a mammologist and evolutionary biologist, Prof Taylor specialises in the systematics, ecology, conservation, and ecosystem services and disservices of small mammals, in particular rodents, bats, and shrews.

Collaboration to conduct mountain research

The ARU also collaborates with two Department of Science and Innovation NRF centres of excellence, namely the Centre for Biological Control at Rhodes University and the Centre for Invasion Biology at Stellenbosch University. It also collaborates with the South African Research Chair Initiative (SARChI) Chair in Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal, and the Eastern Cape on various non-native species in Southern African mountains. 

The Maloti-Drakensberg is known as the ‘water tower of Southern Africa’ as it is the largest provider of fresh water in the region. Should the alpine system collapse, water production will be affected negatively.

“The rose (Rosaceae) and grass (Poaceae) plant families are particular problem groups in our mountains. For example, firethorns (Pyracantha species) invade native grassland, take over valuable grazing land, and displace indigenous species. Nassella grasses similarly displace natural rangeland and render farms unusable. If unchecked, the cost of controlling the nassella can exceed the value of the property. Our research seeks to understand the reproductive ecology of these species better, as well as best practice management,” explains Dr Clark.

In addition, the ARU has an ongoing collaboration on montane pollination systems with the SARChI Chair in Evolutionary Biology at the Universities of KwaZulu-Natal and Cape Town. Dr Sandy-Lynn Steenhuisen in the Department of Plant Sciences at UFS is the ARU champion for both programmes. 

Connecting with policymakers in Lesotho

As of the first quarter in 2020, the ARU was invited to serve on the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Programme (MDTP): Biodiversity Subcommittee. This opportunity enables the ARU to connect directly with high-level policymakers in Lesotho and South Africa and increase its reach for science-policy connections across the Maloti-Drakensberg region. 

Dr Clark states that partnerships under the MDTP can assist in achieving the ARU’s research goal of sustainably developing the Maloti-Drakensberg. According to him, the ARU has proposed a focus in the MDTP on the degradation of the Mont-aux-Sources area. A qualitative site assessment by Dr Clark has, among other things, also led to a book chapter being submitted this year.

The ARU is also extending its reach to include research on montane wetlands. Together with BirdLife South Africa, they have finalised a memorandum of understanding around montane wetland research. This offers the potential for partnering to survey poorly studied montane wetlands for rare biodiversity, notably key endangered bird species. 

Dr Clark says the montane wetland bio-acoustic network has been strengthened through Dr Peter Chatanga of the National University of Lesotho landing a British Ecological Society grant for bio-acoustic work in Bokong Nature Reserve in Lesotho, in collaboration with Prof Aliza le Roux from the UFS Department of Zoology and Entomology, and the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan. The network was also strengthened through a link to BirdLife’s programme.

Global mountain safeguarding research in Southern Africa

Southern African links grew well during 2020 due to new mountain-focused contacts in Madagascar, Zambia, Malawi, and Réunion through the Global Mountain Safeguard Research (GLOMOS)-led Safeguarding Mountains book project, with Dr Clark as editor of the African contribution. 

The ARU submitted several research proposals with members of the GLOMOS team, including proposals on water security and civic society in Maloti-a-Phofung Local Municipality, climate change and water provisioning in the Maloti-Drakensberg, and a book (in production) on Phuthaditjhaba as an African mountain city.  

The ARU is also planning the first Southern African Mountain Conference in partnership with the AMRF and GLOMOS, which will take place from 14 to 17 March 2022. According to Dr Clark, they seek to draw a strong regional contribution to better understand Southern African mountains as socio-ecological systems. “We also aim to form a stronger science-policy-practitioner interface and a community of practice for Southern African mountains,” he says. 

For more information, contact Dr Nitha Ramnath, deputy director of communication and marketing, at +27 51 401 7900, +27 81 405 5177 or send an email to