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Poaching of endangered cycad, Limpopo province, South Africa

Ndou Tshianeo Mellda has recently completed her MSc in Environmental Sciences at the University of Venda in South Africa. She has an interest in studying ecology further and is currently seeking a PhD and or employment opportunity related to Forest, Nature Conservation, Ecology or Environmental Sciences. She has recently joined as a member of the iLEAPS early career scientist network. Tshianeo joined iLEAPS to build her networking with other scientists and shares with us here the work she conducted as part of her Masters thesis. In addition she discusses some opportunities that she has also found useful during her studies whilst at university in South Africa.

My research focused on the poaching of endangered cycad species Encephalartos transvenosus in the Limpopo province, South Africa. Due to poaching, the population of the cycad species Encephalartos transvenosus Stapf & Burtt Davy in South Africa is declining. The aim of this study was to evaluate the factors responsible for poaching activity and distributions of cycad species within selected nature reserves in Limpopo Province.

I conducted field observations to collect the GPS points of poached cycads in the reserves. The location of poached cycads was determined using purposive sampling methods and the knowledge of rangers from the nature reserves. I produced a distribution map of poached cycads in the reserves. I then compiled data on the causes of poaching, the cycad parts which are mostly poached, measures taken against poaching and challenges of rangers in nature reserves using questionnaires.

During the data collection phase of my research I got an opportunity to hike and explore nature with the field rangers which was great. This experience got me closer to nature and strengthen the friendship that I had with the field rangers from all 3 nature reserves that I worked with.

I found that the factors responsible for poaching were mostly trading (according to 35% of the respondents), medical uses (31%), unemployment (23%), inadequate fencing (8%) and pedestrian routes within reserves (4%). During my study I found that a total of twenty-six (26) cycads were found to be poached from the three reserves combined. The results showed that poached cycads were either debarked (14 trees) or completely removed (12 trees). The outcome of the study was that patrolling of rangers in nature reserve was considered the most effective method for controlling poaching (74%) and due to the current rate of poaching in the studied reserves, conservational strategies need to be upgraded and intensified to prevent the extinction of Encephalartos transvenosus.

As an early young scientist, I sincerely believe that the right exposure and experience will enable me to decide and identify the focus area I want to specialize in when furthering my studies and so I have actively sought opportunities in which I can meet other research scientists from different countries, to undertake science outreach and activities in which I can develop new skills.

One such opportunity was when I was awarded funding to take part in a short course held in Kigali, Rwanda organized by JRS Biodiversity Foundation. The JRS Biodiversity Foundation is an independent grant-making foundation in sub-Saharan Africa. The short course was on “Measuring Ecosystem Services & Essential Biodiversity Variables” and the skills I learned I was able to use during my research such as Designing surveys, Remote sensing, GIS, as well as learning R and Net logo.

I have also participated in two hackathon challenges in Germany (2018) and Tanzania (2020) as these have helped me focus my data science skills. To learn more about conservation challenges I participated in a short course ran by Oregon State University, University of Leiden & hosted by Nissan Trust in Skukusa (Kruger National Park), South Africa in which I learned about a topics such as monitoring elephant damage on trees, conservation strategies on endangered animal species found in the Kruger Nation park, mosquito outbreak and community engagement with wildlife conservation.



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