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Sunday, 14 April 2013

Successful Toyota Enviro Outreach 2013

An extremely successful Toyota Enviro Outreach has come to an end.  Scientists from different backgrounds and experiences worked as a group to achieve a common goal – to document and DNA barcode the flora of the northern Cape. For the past two weeks we have been collecting plants in one of the most arid parts of the country to gain a better understanding of what’s growing in the region. A total of more than 600 species were collected and we found a few plants we did not expect, like the new species of Trachyandra found in the Gamsberg and Eragrostis sarmentosa collected at Raap en Skraap, which is the first distribution record for this species in the area.  The scientific team will now spend the next few months sorting, identifying and DNA barcoding their plant collections.

Many thanks to the scientific team for all their hard work and dedication to the project, to witness your spirit and passion were fantastic. I have been struck by the enthusiasm of the students getting out in the field and spending late evening processing the plants collected for the day. A special thanks to Renier Balt who was responsibly for the smooth running of the field laboratory. Many thanks also to Karel du Toit, a local, non-professional with a love for succulent plants, who shared his fantastic knowledge with us. It was a real privilege to work with you all.

On behalf of the scientific team and our partners from the International Barcode of Life project I wish to express my deep gratitude to Toyota SA for providing a fleet of vehicles and the unique opportunity through the Toyota Enviro Outreach to collect samples for DNA barcoding and to document the flora of the northern Cape where access is usually difficult if not impossible. I also wish to thank all our other sponsors - 4X4 Mega World, Camp World, Jurgens Safari Trailers, National Luna, Goodyear, Cross Country - for their support and commitment to the DNA barcoding project. We are also grateful to officials from the northern Cape for providing us with the necessary collecting permits. Special thanks must go to Gerhard and Elmarie Groenewald and their fantastic team - Isa, Hendrick, Donovan, Erik and Johan - from Klipbokkop Nature Reserve near Worcester; without the logistic support and constant encouragement we would never have achieved our goals. Many thanks to Millene Balt and Christof Linde for posting comments and pictures on the blog daily.

A final word of thanks goes to the people of South Africa who have encourage us through posting comments on the blog and Facebook and sending us messages via email or inviting us to visit their farms in the region. Your support and encouragement is particularly important for us.

See you all next year for yet another trip.

Happy Plant Hunting and Barcoding,
Michelle van der Bank

Klipbokkop team busy with cleaning the tents, chairs and equipment

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Day 9: Exploring the diverse Hantam Mountains

Despite the freezing cold wind and the low temperature there was an air of excitement and anticipation amongst all. Today was the last day of the 2013 Toyota Enviro Outreach and everybody wanted to collect that one special species.

Hantam mountains
Access to the Hantam Mountains is restricted and therefore it is a privilege to be able to collect samples in the Renosterveld, a biome of the fynbos. After the recent rains on the plateau the bulbs has started to flower and sampling was excellent. About 70 species were collected and all involved were thrilled. Hantam is the Khoi word for “mountain where the bulbs grow” and we experienced it today.

Hendrik & Robin on the Hamtam mountains over looking Calvinia
Lots of water and animal life on top of the Hantam mountains
The plant of the day is the pienk poeierkwassie haemciathus backerae.

 Pienk Poeierkwassie (Haemciathus backerae)
Cliffortia arborea_Sterboom

Dr Marianne le Roux is a researcher at the South African National Biodiversity Institute in Pretoria. She is the coordinator for the “e-flora of South Africa” project.  This is a worldwide initiative governed by the Global Plant Conservation Strategy to record information about all species across the world by 2020. Information of plants in South Africa will be made available online and will include descriptions, distribution maps and photos. The collecting trip to the Northern Cape Province was an opportunity to collect information for the Flora of the Nama Karoo. This will also be incorporated in e-flora of South Africa. 

Pressing the plant samples
Dr Kowiyou Yessoufou is a postdoctoral researcher at the African Centre for DNA Barcoding (ACDB) located at the Department of Botany, University of Johannesburg. His research interests include phylogenetic ecology, extinction biology, invasion ecology and DNA barcoding. 
This was his second experience with the Toyota Enviro Outreach team. His first experience was last year in the fynbos, the unique biome well-known for its high level of endemism and extraordinary species diversity. This year the Northern Cape Province provided a different but also unique biome of the succulent karoo. He confesses: “I have never seen such a diversity of succulent plants in my life. I was amazed not only by the diversity of succulent plants found in very small geographic areas, but also by the beauty of the flowers and the landscape.” 

Dr Kowiyou Yessoufou
Since day one, he has been working closely with some of the best taxonomists of our time and learned a lot from the various and unique experiences they accumulated over years regarding the mega-diverse South African flora. One of the most exciting findings this year is a new species that was photographed seven years ago but never found again. He asserts: “I am extremely proud to be part of the team (Toyota Outreach 2013) that refound the same plant seven years later, and this will help taxonomists to describe the plant and thus add to our knowledge of South African flora.”

His concluding remarks:  “I’d really like to thank Toyota, the Klipbokop team, all the participants, and taxonomists who help me improve my knowledge in taxonomy during this Toyota Outreach version 2013. I am looking forward to the next year experience.”  

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Arriving in a cold Calvinia

Renier & Millene's 37 wedding anniversary today. Congratulations!

The convoy with its precious load of people and equipment spent most of the day traveling from Raap en Skraap farm to the town of Calvinia at the foot of the Hantam Mountains. The 500 km took longer than planned because of the road works and the many stop and go areas. However it did not take long to settle in at Klipwerf Guest House in the centre of town and to pitch the tents and get the pots on the burners.
En route to Calvinia we encountered lots of road works.

Calvinia falls in the winter rainfall region and is known as the Succulent Karoo. Prof John Manning is very excited to be able to access the Hantam Mountains with the assistance of the Toyota vehicles because little surveying and collecting has been done due to the difficulty to get to the plateau. Gerhard made arrangements with the farmers to use their roads to travel to the top. The Hantam Mountains is a biodiversity hotspot and the scientists, being such a diverse group of specialist, will hopefully be able to sample the endemic species in this Renosterveld vegetation.  Prof Manning expects the amarillids to be in flower and we can just picture this floral beauty!

En route to Calvinia
Dr Cornelia Klak is a researcher from the Bolus Herbarium, University of Cape Town, where she curates and studies the Aizoaceae and other succulent plant families. The Aizoaceae is one of the most speciose plant families in South Africa, with more than 1800 species recognized. The Hantam Mountains form part of the Succulent Karoo region, an area which has a particularly high number of species of Aizoaceae. Many of these species are still poorly known and need to be studied further in order to establish the characters by which they can easily be distinguished from other similar looking species.
John Manning, Lyn Fish & Cornelia Klak

Cornelia Klak is also interested to establish the distribution ranges of species. Few collections of Aizoaceae have been made from the Hantam Mountains and it will therefore be fascinating to see what species occur there. The species of Aizoaceae found on the mountain will be collected and pressed and will be incorporated into the collection in the Bolus Herbarium. The Aizoaceae are well known for their high habitat specificity and narrow distribution ranges and therefore also the Hantam Mountains could have endemic species of Aizoaceae.

Ledile Mankga is a PhD student at the University of Johannesburg (African Center for DNA Barcoding) under Professor Michelle van der Bank. She is working on the Phylogenetic and evolutionary studies of the family Thymelaeaceae in southern Africa. Themealaeaceae consist of 800 species and it is well represented in Africa with approximately 50 genera, of which nine occur in South Africa.  The taxonomy in most of these genera remains controversial and most is based solely on morphological characters and needs revision and phylogenetic study.

Ledile Mankga out sampling earlier this week.

Ledile is excited to be part of this Toyota Enviro Outreach. She has learnt a lot about succulent plants and also how to identify them. The most exciting moment for Ledile was to look for plants in the mountains. It felt like the“hills have eyes”and are watching us.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Final day of sampling at Raap & Skraap

In the dry river bed. Best viewed in full screen

 A new renewable energy source is under construction halfway between Pofadder and the farm Raap en Skraap. South Africa’s first concentrated solar farm is being built by a Spanish company. The ECO (Environmental Control Officer) JV Smit explained how the impact on the environment is monitored. The choice of the site was important: a terrain with the least biodiversity and smallest carbon footprint was chosen.

Oceans of rocks

The energy capturing is done by a parabolic trough consisting of mirrors. These are imported from Spain and will be assembled locally. The initial 100 megawatt will be transmitted to a nearby sub station and will form part of the local electricity grid.

Quartz field
A second solar power installation is planned for Upington which will consist of a tower 30 meters high with solar mirrors. Presently around 500 workers are employed for the construction phase. The planned completion date is within the next 2 years. When the plant is in operation 70 people will be employed for this venture.

Team sampling by the river (Natalie, Lyn, Johan, Renier & Simon)
The botanists explored the neighbouring farm today. This area is pristine and untouched in many ways. Gemsbok and untamed cattle were encountered. The farm covers some 14 000 hectares and close to 13 kms of the Orange River forms its northern border. This farm is known amongst botanists for the original example of the Gariep Pronkstert. The scientists again found examples of this species today.  Other species found were all special as this area has not yet been sampled intensively. Environmental affairs (Northern Cape) needs data from this area and the Enviro Outreach is filling this gap. Driving through the farm one is often surprised: there are remnants of old mine excavations between the koppies, water sources in this barren country are found many kilometers from the Orange River, between the koppies. The number of new samples collected did not match that of the day before; this is due to the habitat which resembled that of Raap en Skraap and therefore many examples of species already collected were found.

The plant of the day is the boesmanskersbossie (bushman’s candle) Monsonia (=Sarcocaulon ) salmoniflora. The thick stems, covered with spines contain large quantities of resin making them inflammable even when green.

Lize von Staden, Red List Scientist at SANBI’s Threatened Species Programme, surveyed the population of the Gariep-pronkstert (Caesalpinia bracteata), a species Red Listed as Vulnerable and which only occurs on Raap en Skraap and on the adjacent farm. The Outreach has given the Threatened Species Programme a unique opportunity to visit very remote areas of South Africa where we can gather data about threatened species that are otherwise very poorly known. This helps to improve our knowledge of, and ability to effectively conserve, our plant species that are of conservation concern.
Gariep Pronkstert (Caesalpinia)

Monday, 8 April 2013

Surprise finds around Raap & Skraap

After a more relaxed day in transit, everybody was keen and ready to explore the new area.  Our first impression was that the habitat around Raap-en-Skraap did not benefit much from the rain in the Little Pella region. The vegetation had more grass en bushes and fewer succulents, but the scientists will soon tell us….

Devil's Thorn in full bloom

Toyota & Goodyear an unbeatable combination

The different teams set off on the 4x4 route and each group covered different areas. The teams came back to the field laboratory with a total tally of about 100 samples for the day. Dr. Anthony Magee, senior scientist of SANBI at Kirstenbosch told us that this area has never been explored and all the records are new data for the Compton and National Herbarium. He is very pleased with the results of today’s sampling. Raap en Skraap did its name proud!

Exploring the dry rocky hills ±1km inland from the
Orange River  on the Karsten's Keboes Fruit Farm

All 4 genera of the duwweltjie of the Northern Cape were found on the farm today. The specialists could identify them from their flowers and fruit.

Lyn Fish (retired) is still involved in grass collections at the National Herbarium in Pretoria. She was excited to collect 5 specimens of grass. The best spot for this was the banks of the Orange River where her team collected 3 grass species and surprisingly found less invasive species than expected. One of the grass species collected was eragrostis sarmentosa, it is possibly the first distribution record for this area.

Simon taking a close-up

Chrizelle Beukes and Mashudu Nxumalo from the University of Pretoria found legumes (species of Indigofera and Tephrosia) today, which is what their specialty. They are microbiologists who are interested in the bacteria that form nodules on the roots of these plants, in which the bacteria fix atmospheric nitrogen for the plant while the plant provides the bacteria with nutrients. Unfortunately today’s legumes did not have any nodules. This could be because the levels of soil nitrogen are sufficient for plant growth. It is only when the plant experiences a shortage of nitrogen that they send out a signal to bacteria in the soil, and then the bacteria activate the genes they use during the symbiosis and enter the legume roots.

Lize, Mariaan, Mashudu, Chrizelle & Pieter
The general consensus is that 'gansmis' (the colloquial name for one of the species collected) or avonia papyracea is the “find of the day”. The flowers of these plants appear only in late afternoon for a few hours. This plant species has a restricted distribution and is only found in southern Namibia, the Richtersveld and in this area.


Sunday, 7 April 2013


28 March 2013

There is life on Mars.  That’s Mars, the biggest date farm in the southern hemisphere, situated in the arid, Martian landscape of Klein Pella near Pofadder in the Northern Cape Province.

It is in this remote and poorly explored part of South Africa that Toyota South Africa Motors, through its Enviro Outreach programme and in conjunction with the International Barcode of Life initiative, will be assisting scientists to collect and study rare and threatened plant species.

The 2013 Toyota Enviro Outreach, the fifth in the annual scientific study programm
e that seeks to safeguard our natural wealth and reduce biodiversity loss, will start on April 2 at the Klipbokkop Mountain Reserve near Worcester in the Western Cape Province and will run until April 14.  During this time scientists and students from the University of Johannesburg, the South African National Biodiversity Institute, University of Pretoria and University of Cape Town will visit several floristically interesting sites in the extremely arid Gariep region, that includes the Gariep Desert and Bushmanland Inselbergs and quartz patches, and the Upper Nama-Karoo region.

The goal is to collect material for herbarium specimens and DNA barcoding, as well as information about species distribution, population surveys of threatened species, habitat and threat assessment data while also recording information about plant utilisation.

“Although the area is composed largely of Nama-Karoo, it also includes arid bioregions of the Savannah and Succulent Karoo biomes as well as the Gariep Desert along the Orange River, a region that harbours many rare and little-known plant species eking out a living in some of South Africa’s most arid environments,” said project leader Professor Michelle van der Bank of the University of Johannesburg.

“Many of these plants are only known from few and very old herbarium records. Thanks to the valuable ongoing support of Toyota South Africa Motors, we have this opportunity to do surveys of their populations and observe their habitats and the threats to them.  This will enable improved conservation assessments and accurate locality information, vital components to ensuring the conservation of rare and threatened species when this data is applied to the development of conservation plans and land use decision support systems.”

South Africa is the third most mega-diverse country in the world, with almost 10 percent of the world’s plant species. “Without fundamental knowledge of this diversity the country will be limited in its ability to use this national asset to solve environmental and human welfare challenges,” added Prof van der Bank. “Furthermore, with the current unprecedented rate of extinction no other generation will have access to the number and diversity of species that we have now (many of which still remain unknown to science).

“The resources our biodiversity holds, especially species that are poorly known, are therefore extremely important and their preservation for future generations pivotal.  Efforts such as the 2013 Toyota Enviro Outreach enable scientists to make strides in the exploration of these hidden treasures, ensuring their preservation,” Prof van der Bank concluded.

In order for South Africa to meet the targets of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), the South African National Biodiversity Institute has committed to produce a national electronic Flora documenting all the species in the country by 2020. However, due to the immense scale of the South African flora, the compilation of smaller, more manageable regional Floras are necessary as a first step towards this goal.  Several such Floras for South Africa have been completed with the result that the Northern Cape Nama-Karoo, along with the adjacent summer rainfall areas, is the last remaining region within the country still requiring a floristic treatment. This will also provide valuable information to draw up conservation strategies particularly in light of various potential threats to the region, such as proposed hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and various other mining activities in some parts of the Karoo.
The Toyota Enviro Outreach project is a part of the Canadian-led research alliance, the International Barcode of Life, which spans 26 countries including South Africa and brings together hundreds of leading scientists in the task of collecting specimens, obtaining their DNA barcode records and building an informatics platform to store and share the information for use in species identification and discovery.  By 2015, iBOL participants will gather DNA barcode records for five million specimens representing 500 000 species, delivering a highly effective identification system for species commonly encountered by humanity and laying the foundation for subsequent progress towards a barcode reference library for all life.

For additional information, go to:

African Centre for DNA Barcoding -
iBol project -
Toyota Enviro Outreach 2011 –
ispot Southern Africa
Global Strategy for Plant Conservation

Michelle van der Bank, University of Johannesburg,
Gerhard and Elmarie Groenewald, Klipbokkop Mountain Resort,
Kirby Louis, Toyota South Africa Motors,


Day 5: Raap en Skraap

Toyota Enviro Outreach Team 2013
 Today we moved camp. 

It was clear why the Klipbokkop team with the generous contribution of various sponsors is so successful and has set the standard for logistical support for projects of this nature.

The field kitchen equipped to feed up to 35 people for this trip, was dismantled and loaded on the trailers and bakkies. The group watched attentively as Donnovin demonstrated how to take a tent down – a new skill for many. Within 2 hours we were all set to go and the convoy took the road to our next destination 150km away.

Donnovin showing how to properly dismantle a tent

Hendrik & Donnovin Loading the fridges onto the bakkie

Convoy as we left Klein Pella
We are all grateful for the sponsors who helped to make this possible, in particular the following:
Toyota South Africa for all the vehicles who lead the way, Goodyear for the reliable tyres, National Luna for keeping the food fresh and Jurgens Safari trailers. 4x4 Megaworld provided various camping equipment and Campworld equipped us with the Howling Moon tents.

Camping at Raap & Skraap
Raap en Skraap is another of the Karsten farms in the Benede Orange River and cultivates fruit like grapes and citrus between the sunbaked koppies next to the river. Our first impression on approaching the farm is the extra-ordinary landscape with layers of brown koppies resembling a foreign planet.
This farm is part of Keboes Fruit Farms (Pty) Ltd; Keboes means empowering the people. They do not only empower them financially, but also help them to help themselves. This is done by finding the balance between productivity, social accountability and creating opportunities for people to grow.
Now more about our team of scientists: Simon Luvo Magoswana is part of the team of the 2013 Toyota Enviro Outreach; he is an intern at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). His interest is mainly in Taxonomy. He recently graduated with a BSc degree in Biodiversity and Conservation Biology from the University of the Western Cape. The 2013 Toyota Outreach was an opportunity he grabbed with both hands; this is his first Outreach. The Outreach allowed him to “test drive” the knowledge and skills he had acquired at university.

The Outreach has been a major learning curve for him as the team includes highly experienced scientists such as Dr Anthony Magee from SANBI. Simon has acquired new skills through the Outreach, such as the proper way of collecting specimens and preparing them for preservation in the herbarium at Compton (Cape Town). He had never been to the Gariep desert before. Through the Toyota Outreach he was able to explore the beauty of nature in this part of the country. For Simon, the highlight of the trip was being part of a successful project and to be among experienced scientists. He was the finder of the top specimen for the day at Springbok (haemanthus crispus). As part of the “Springbok team” he was also the one who spotted the hondebal, the common name for larrryleachia marlothii.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Day 4 - More unique finds

The group of scientists, interns and support persons divided into 3 groups today and travelled to different areas to collect as many species as possible.

Michele and her group left early morning for Springbok (the Springbokteam!) some 150km away. Once again local knowledge proof to be very valuable as Karel du Toit led the group to the best area for collection and they sampled 35 new species for this year’s project.

Springbok, the capital town of Namaqualand, is a very popular stop over for travelers from Namibia to Cape Town and can compete with Oudtshoorn for the most guest houses per local inhabitants!

The group at Gamsberg Mountain managed to collect in 3 diverse areas in the mountain – the wetlands, kloof and a quartz patch. They were very satisfied with their collection of 35 species with a few of these endemic to the Gamsberg Mountain. One of the special finds was the little Paradise Toad uniquely found in the Inselbergs of this area. They also counted more examples of the Trachyandra plant species, described yesterday.

Conophytum radatum
Bushmanland Tent Tortoise

The third group visited 3 different habitats on the Klein Pella farm and contributed 47 samples of species to today’s tally. We will be leaving this hospitable environment soon, and take some unique memories and new friendships with us…

The find of the day is the beautiful Haemanthus crispus found in Springbok.  

Haemanthus crispus
Karel, Simon, Pieter, Michelle & Mariaan
Some group members leave and new people join the group as their schedule allows it. We said good bye to a number of the media this morning and tomorrow will be Rupert’s last day with us. 
Rupert is the fynbos botanist in CapeNature’s Scientific Services unit. It has been his first Outreach and he has enjoyed it tremendously. He is quite aware of the importance of capacity building within the Biodiversity and Conservation sector an d the Outreach serves as a very good “field school” for students and interns to interact with scientists and conservation professionals. 

Rupert taking a photographic sample
This trip has also served as an opportunity to sample an area much more arid than the fynbos he normally works in and the contrast has been fascinating. “it has been a tremendous pleasure and privilege to work with this team as we increase data and knowledge of the flora of this area” 

Friday, 5 April 2013

Day 3 - Discovery of a new species

Today was a highlight day!! Scientists and students were delighted with the number and quality of the species collected. The media and representatives of the sponsors were treated to magnificent natural settings along the Orange River and breathtaking views from the Gamsberg overlooking the endless and vast landscape of the beautiful Bushmanland plains and inselbergs.

On the banks of the Orange River
Panoramic picture of the Karsten's Date Plantation

We benefited from the excellent knowledge of Karel du Toit from Springbok, an expert on the succulent species of this area. He opened our eyes to the details of the tiny and well disguised plants in the nooks and cracks of the rose quartz rocks and pebbles under our feet.

Karel du Toit

Simon & Kowiyou
The Team sampling at Gamsberg
We visited the town of Aggeneys and the nearby Gamsberg Mountain. Aggeneys is the Nama word for “place of water” and was founded in 1976 to service the Black Mountain Mine. This mine was bought by Anglo American Corporation in 2010 and currently mines zinc, copper, silver and lead. Mining at the nearby Gamsberg Mountain is planned in the future due to large deposits of zinc in the area.
The Gamsberg Mountain is a restricted area and the habitat and plant species may soon be affected by open shaft mining activities. The scientists and conservationists are therefore grateful and excited to be able to explore such a sensitive area.  With the assistance and knowledge of Karel du Toit more than 100 samples of different species were collected.

'Outreach on the rocks' - the best place to find plants in these conditions
Social weaver nest

The find of the day is definitely the Trachyandra.

This tiny bulb has an interesting history linked to its naming and classification. It was first discovered 7 years ago, without pictures or samples to support the finding. It could not be recognised as a new species; since that date no other examples could be found.

Trachyandra in its natural environment

Today’s find will now be used to confirm the authenticity of the new species and this will be added to the 100 or more new species found annually in South Africa.  It will be exciting to follow the classification process and to know that Toyota Enviro Outreach played a significant role in this achievement.

One of the outstanding features of this region is the striking quiver trees along the roads, farms and even as landmarks in towns. This plant is a distinctive feature in the Northern Cape landscape and is a specially protected tree under the Northern Cape Nature Conservation Act (no.9 of 2009).  According to Natalie Uys (Botanist for Research and Development Support, Northern Cape Depart of Environment and Nature Conservation) there are three quiver tree species occurring in this region; the quiver tree (Aloe dichotoma), the nooiens kokerboom (Aloe ramosissima) and critically endangered baster quiver tree (Aloe pillansii). Aloe pillansii is mainly restricted to the Richtersveld and southern parts of Namibia. The common name comes from the Bushmen who used the hollowed out branches of the trees to carry their quivers.

Quiver tree taken from Gamsberg
Horses enjoying the Quiver trees