South African National Parks Scientific Services: The learning hub of Kruger National Park

Izak Smit, South African National Parks

Kruger National Park (KNP) has a long history of science, with the first research unit established in the Park in the 1950s. This function has grown over the years in number, location and influence, with Scientific Services currently comprising of 90 colleagues (including 40 scientists, 22 biotechnicians and 28 support staff) stationed across four different units and providing scientific support to South African National Parks (SANParks) across the country. Scientific Services conducts the bulk of SANParks’ research and monitoring actions, studying the complexities of socio-ecological systems, providing science-based advice to park managers, managing the interface between park management and scientists and advising on reducing the impact of the constantly changing socio-ecological environment. In doing this, Scientific Services acts in many cases as a bridging agent between the rigorous and more formal “academic science” on the one hand, and the more applied and “engaged science” on the other. SANParks scientists often “translate” and relate research into the management domain by exploring how research findings and changing paradigms can be used to inform decisions, adapt management actions, highlight risks and better prepare for an ever changing and uncertain future. Although SANParks scientists take the lead on various research and monitoring projects, a significant contribution to the learning is through established and continuously growing collaborative networks with external research collaborators (e.g. universities and research councils).

The facilitation of, and collaboration on, research is enabled by providing a range of support services to external collaborators in some parks, inter alia provision of subsidised research accommodation, game guards for protection from dangerous animals, long-term datasets and field experiments (e.g. fire trials), access to a laboratory and office space, internet access, and formal and informal opportunities to engage with in-house scientists and managers. This model of facilitating, supporting and engaging with external scientists has proved very successful, with SANParks leveraging significant research funding and expertise that is not available within the organization. This is for example reflected by the 545 papers (188 with SANParks authorship) that have been published in KNP between 2003-2013 by 1125 contributing authors, affiliated with 384 unique organizations from across the world (54% of all papers had authors from multiple countries). A recent analysis of park names as keywords on the Web of Science, suggested that KNP is the savanna PA in Africa giving rise to the most published research. Scientific Services can be viewed as a catalyst or enabler of “intellectual ecosystem services” flowing from national parks in South Africa to the science and research community, but at the same time ensuring that the knowledge gained from research in the park feeds back into effective and science-based management.

For more detail on Scientific Services and some of the work they are involved with, the following sources may be of interest:

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