Change the world


South Africa is known for its rich biodiversity, attracting tourists from all over the world. However, protecting this precious asset is a complex task, says Lize von Staden, who received her PhD in Botany at Nelson Mandela University’s Autumn Graduation.

Dr Von Staden’s research focused on three area-based conservation interventions: the National Protected Area Expansion Strategy, maps of biodiversity priorities for guiding land use decisions, and regulations to protect threatened ecosystems.

By using counterfactual methods, her study aimed to determine the outcome of these interventions compared to what would have happened without them.

Her findings revealed that protected areas are highly effective conservation interventions. However, there are limitations on where these areas can be implemented due to land availability and limited resources.

Dr Von Staden's study also found that considering biodiversity priorities in land use decisions is a good complementary conservation intervention, because most of the areas identified as most important for maintaining biodiversity are currently outside protected areas. She showed for the first time that this innovative conservation method effectively reduces biodiversity loss.

In contrast, Dr Von Staden found that regulations to protect threatened ecosystems are less effective. These ecosystems are under high pressure for conversion to other land uses, and their protection relies on supportive mechanisms, such as biodiversity mainstreaming and multi-sector land use planning.

Her conclusions suggest that South Africa's landscape-wide approach to biodiversity conservation is generally effective, but there is still room for improvement. Specifically, stronger policy engagement with the economic sectors driving biodiversity loss, is needed to develop solutions to reduce overall pressure on biodiversity.

Dr Von Staden is a researcher at the South African National Biodiversity Institute, where her work focuses on monitoring and reporting on state of South Africa’s biodiversity. She says that the consequences of biodiversity loss are significant because it supports sustainable and inclusive development and many people's livelihoods depend on biodiversity.

Biodiversity elements, such as healthy soils, pollinators, natural pest controls and natural rangelands, support many aspects of food production. If we lose biodiversity, we will have to use more costly and less effective man-made solutions to make up for the loss of these important functions.

When asked how she chose her research topic, Dr Von Staden related it to the exposure to South Africa’s legal frameworks and policies to protect biodiversity she obtained through her work at SANBI. She noticed that South Africa's systematic and comprehensive landscape-wide approach to biodiversity conservation is quite unique, and that many practices and policies are considered good, but there was no evidence that they are achieving their intended outcomes.

Conservation science has been slow in adopting counterfactual methods, which quantifies the difference that an action or intervention makes. “Using these methods, we can get a better sense of whether an action is worth investing in”, she says.

She hopes that many more people will join her in doing this important and necessary work in conservation science and that her research will be considered in further development and refinement of South Africa's conservation policies and legislation.

“I already have my dream job! Scientists make many important contributions to our collective knowledge, but to make an impact they cannot remain stuck within the academic space. At SANBI we serve as a connection between academic science and broader society by translating the findings of scientific studies into evidence-based policy advice and as a scientist it gives me great satisfaction to see to how our research achieves real-world impact”.

Dr Von Staden’s supervisors, Prof Mandy Lombard and Dr Stephen Holness, have been working in systematic conservation planning in both terrestrial and marine environments for over 30 years.

They are excited about Dr Von Staden's results because she provides the very first assessment of how the conservation planning science is being used to inform policy in South Africa, and how this is being translated into action.

Prof Lombard believes that “Dr Von Staden's work is a game changer and tells us what we need to focus on going forward; we need a multi-pronged approach to secure the ecosystem services that biodiversity provides, and her work tells us which prongs are working well and which still need work”.

Contact information
Ms Elma de Koker
Internal Communication Practitioner
Tel: 041-504 2160