Image 1. Mary (placement student) stood on a freshly burnt site, surrounded by ash and an unburnt tree, measuring soil respiration using an IRGA and chamber
As part of my ENVISION DTP PhD, I was lucky enough to undertake an internship in Kruger National Park. Working within Scientific Services, I worked with the Fire and Soil Teams for 2 months. As part of my role within Scientific Services, I got to work across a range of disciplines. My weeks consisted of a mix of field work, lab work, collaborating and working with international researchers and burning fires; it was a busy 10 weeks!
Kruger National Park at 20,000km2 is around the size of Wales. With at least 147 mammal and 1980 plant species, it is a globally significant site in terms of its diverse ecology and the application of advanced management techniques. Scientific Services conducts the bulk of South Africa National Parks’ (SANParks’) research and monitoring in the biophysical and social sciences across the parks. The knowledge generated by scientists and supporting staff within the division and in collaboration with external associates informs park management and promotes the conservation of biodiversity, landscapes and associated heritage assets across SANParks’ network of protected areas.
Image 2. Working on Fire Firefighters burning the fire breaks before burning a plot to prevent the spread of the fire
I got the opportunity to work across a range of projects. The first project was a ‘Time of Day’ Fire management experiment looking into the best time to burn in the summer season – morning, afternoon or night. The differing temperatures throughout the day have a big impact on the intensity of the fire and thus how easy it is to control the prescribed burn. However, if the temperatures are too low, the fire may not burn at all. We burnt throughout the day from 7am-7pm, working with firefighters, Working on Fire, and burnt a total of 25 plots. This was a really interesting process to be a part of and I quickly learnt a lot about fire factors and the environment I was working in. A very busy and exciting first week! Over the following weeks, I sampled the soil to track any impact on the soil from the different intensity fires.
Another big part of working in the fire team in scientific services is the long-term experimental plots (EBPs). Established in 1954, the plots are burned in different seasons and different frequencies and researchers all over the world work on them to look at the impact of fire on vegetation, animals, soil etc (including me for my PhD!). I got to be part of the team for the October burns, where we burnt 12 separate plots. There is a lot involved in the burning of these plots so it is a large operation. I was in charge of tracking the ‘Rate of Spread’ (useful data for tracking how quickly the fire is spreading) and patrolling around the plot to check if the fire may have jumped.
Image 3. Fires are burnt at either side of the plot and meet in the middle. This picture is just before the 2 sides have met. There is unburnt grass in the middle, 2 line of fire and then burnt grass and ash.
Image 4. The start of a fire burning a plot. The grass is very dry (not green), so the flames are quite high as there is plenty of fuel
In-between all the burning, I was in the lab performing soil analyses or out in the field with other researchers, helping with their fieldwork. I really enjoyed the collaboration aspect of the internship as it allowed me to make lots of connections with other researchers and work on research outside of my expertise. Another advantage of the job is that it is almost a permanent safari, it doesn’t take long for you to try and get the elephants to cross the road quicker so you can get on with your work!
Image 5. Mary collecting ash post fire using a small handheld hoover. Freshly burnt plot all around her.
Image 6. Mary taking a small break from fieldwork sat on a rock with green grass and trees all around.
This placement gave me the opportunity to gain a wealth of experience in field research, no-monitoring and conservation management in a multidisciplinary research environment. I’m so thankful to my mentor, Tercia Strydom, who has taught me so much. Thank you to my supervisors, Nick, Kate and Jeanette for all their support. Final thanks to ENVISION for providing me with the financial support to undertake this placement; it has been one of the most amazing experiences. I would really recommend that any ENVISION PhD students take the opportunity to do a placement; it is a great break from PhD studies, an opportunity to work on something a bit different and you’ll make lots of connections that may be very useful in the future! Thanks ENVISION!
Some of Mary’s photos of the African wildlife she saw.