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Nelson Mandela University associate professor in marine ecology Ronel Nel is one of eight marine researchers from around the world selected to the 2018 Pew Marine Fellows Programme.

Nelson Mandela University associate professor in marine ecology Ronel Nel is one of eight marine researchers from around the world selected to the 2018 Pew Marine Fellows Programme.

The Pew Marine Fellows program was created to seek solutions to the problems affecting the world’s oceans and awards annual fellowships to midcareer professionals whose future contributions to marine conservation will be significantly enhanced by their Pew-funded projects.

Each year, an independent advisory committee made up of global experts and leaders in marine conservation is invited by Pew to nominate outstanding individuals engaged in interdisciplinary, innovative work on marine conservation.

Hailing from seven countries, the eight new fellows join a group of scientists and conservationists who have received support from the Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation to research important topics and test solutions to marine conservation issues.

Prof Nel will research what factors can cause turtle populations in South Africa to become “refugee” species and will consider the impacts when this endangered species is displaced into less suitable habitat, where it may struggle to survive.

For Prof Nel, becoming a Pew Marine Fellow is the culmination of a series of life-changing events and she is excited about the work ahead, which brings together the academics and conservationists.

“Globally, anthropogenic pressure on marine systems is growing, including in Africa. Leaders from countries on this continent have drafted integrated development frameworks to enhance ocean-based economies to address issues of economic imbalance, poverty and food security,” she said.

“Marine conservation and spatial planning (MSP) approaches are expected to provide an all-encompassing balance between ecological and socio-economic needs.

“However, decades of focal species protection have not always resulted in the recovery of endangered species such as 53 years of protection of South Western Indian Ocean leatherback turtles.”

Prof Nel’s research will see her studying two sea turtle species in South Africa – the South Western Indian Ocean leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) and loggerhead (Caretta caretta) – to determine whether their populations have been displaced from suitable habitats by human activities or changing climatic conditions.

Displaced migratory populations on land, sometimes called “refugee species,” may be unable to recover their population sizes when in inappropriate or low-quality habitat, despite adequate protections, and Prof Nel’s research will compare the two turtle species’ habitat use and population dynamics to test whether this concept can be applied to marine environments.

Scientists and conservationists often use the presence of rare or threatened species for identifying natural areas for protection. Though well intended, these recommendations may overlook the fact that certain species or populations are already displaced into these locations as environmental refugees, and thus unable to thrive there even when such protections are in place.

Nel will reconstruct the demographic histories of the sea turtles using a combination of contemporary, historical, and genetic data and will deploy satellite tags to evaluate movements, and conduct field surveys to collect critical information about the health of their populations.

Prof Nel is a coastal conservation scientist who has dedicated her career to ensuring that conservation actions are based on knowledge and sound science. After an introduction to conservation management, working for a provincial agency, she moved to an academic position in the Zoology Department at Nelson Mandela University.

To date, Prof Nel has trained 23 masters and doctoral students doing research in sea turtle biology and ecology, sandy beach ecology and coastal zone management, all with the explicit purpose of enhancing marine biodiversity conservation in South Africa.

With a PhD in sandy beach ecology it was natural to engage with sea turtle conservation as most management activities are centred around beach protection of females and their nests.

Contact information
Prof Ronel Nel
Associate Professor
Tel: 27 41 504 2024