Wildlife | Jan 2021


Author Wendy Panaino, project manager

The Kalahari Endangered Ecosystem Project, or KEEP, is a long-term research project based at Tswalu and facilitated by the Tswalu Foundation. The aim of this ambitious project is to understand the impacts of climate change on the Kalahari ecosystem by investigating the responses of multiple index species to environmental change. The Kalahari region has already become warmer, and is likely to become even hotter and drier, as a result of climate change. Insights gained now from how Kalahari organisms cope with climate change will not only contribute to better approaches for maintaining ecosystem function in the Kalahari in the future but will also provide a sneak peek into what the future might be like for organisms in other areas in the world that are warming and drying.

While there is a global effort to understand and mitigate the impacts of climate change, most research efforts have focused on species in the northern hemisphere. Very little is known about how organisms in the southern hemisphere, and particularly in Africa, may respond to climate change. Also, much of the research conducted on species’ responses to climate change has focused on single species. There are few, and possibly no other, studies that have aimed to understand responses of multiple species with an entire ecosystem, making KEEP a unique, ground-breaking project.

Since it is not possible to study every organism in an ecosystem, KEEP researchers identified key role players in the Kalahari by selecting study organisms that interact across space and time, and within food webs. For example, hotter and drier conditions will reduce grass growth, which will impact the termites that depend on grass for survival, and in turn the animals that eat termites, such as sociable weavers and aardvarks. Current KEEP study organisms include ants, termites, dung beetles, grasses, trees, small mammals (such as sengis, gerbils and shrews), bat-eared foxes, pangolins, aardvarks, Cape cobras, boomslang, pygmy falcons and sociable weavers. With additional funding, the team hopes to include a few other important index species.

KEEP study species include, from top left to bottom right: aardvark, sengi, pygmy falcon, sociable weaver, bat-eared fox, Cape cobra

Although KEEP is very much still in its infancy (it only started in 2019), it has incorporated several existing research projects at Tswalu, allowing the research team to use some historical data to improve our understanding of organism responses to environmental change over time. Understanding an ecosystem and the responses of its inhabitants to climate change is an enormous task and requires not only time, but also the support of multiple teams and organizations. KEEP comprises of a collaborative team of experts from across South Africa, including staff and students from the universities of Witwatersrand, Cape Town, Free State, Pretoria, Western Cape, and UNISA, as well as on-site support from the Tswalu Foundation. A highly collaborative project like KEEP means that the teams on the ground are able to work efficiently through the sharing of resources and experience.

As with any research project, the sustainability of KEEP depends on funding. Securing funding for long-term projects is difficult, especially now with funding constraints associated with Covid. More than ever, however, as we face the even bigger global threat of climate change, the team requires financial support. To date, support received from the Tswalu Foundation and the generous donations from Tswalu guests, have been crucial for the purchasing of research equipment that is vital to ensuring that quality data is continuously collected. Although some equipment, such as weather stations, can be purchased once-off and can be used for an indefinite period of time, equipment such as animal tracking devices require regular replacement, since battery life and memory capacity are limited. Having to replace equipment on a yearly basis is a costly exercise that requires support.

KEEP members tracking study species on the Tswalu reserve

There are many ways to support KEEP. Please visit the Tswalu website to learn more HERE. The team is grateful to the Warren Cary Wildlife Gallery for the funding raised for KEEP through their on-going online art exhibition (https://www.warrencarywildlifegallery.com/keepexhibition) and to Escape Safari Co. for funding raised through their recent safari competition. KEEP is also supported by Suzuki South Africa through the generous sponsorship of two Suzuki Vitara vehicles, which allows the team to conduct their day-to-day tasks in the field.

All images supplied by Wendy Panaino

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