School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Love of the Environment Inspires Research on Changing Rangelands

Ms Xolile Zuma’s Masters in Environmental Science used geospatial techniques to detect and map how communal rangelands in KwaZulu-Natal are changing.

UKZN’s dynamic academic environment inspired her to produce strong research that she hopes will have a positive effect on the communities and environment she studied.

Originally from Pietermaritzburg where she attended Carter High School, pursuing a degree at UKZN was Zuma’s first choice owing to its proximity to home. Having joined her school’s Enviro Club where she participated in clean-ups and engaged with other students about the environment, and having enjoyed the subject of geography, she enrolled for a Bachelor of Social Science in environmental management, a programme she felt matched her passion for environmental education and would help her engage with communities.

As someone who enjoys the outdoors, Zuma is cognisant of the need to care for the environment and is driven to engage with communities and young people about keeping rivers clean, not littering and taking responsibility for their surroundings.

During her studies, Zuma became interested in the applications of remote sensing and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to address environmental issues. To expand her experience, she completed her honours degree at the University of the Free State.

She took a break from academics after her honours but was persuaded by future supervisor Dr Mbulisi Sibanda of the University of the Western Cape to pursue a master’s degree as part of a Water Research Commission (WRC) project led by South African Research Chair in Land Use Planning and Management Professor Onisimo Mutanga.

Wanting to take advantage of this opportunity to work with such renowned researchers, Zuma set out to investigate rangelands in the rural and peri-urban communities of Nhlazuka and Vulindlela in KwaZulu-Natal to determine if the communal rangelands used for similar activities including livestock grazing were increasing or decreasing by applying remote sensing and GIS techniques.

She found that in Nhlazuka, encroaching alien species were being cleared by the community and other organisations, resulting in the spread of rangelands, while in Vulindlela, where the population was increasing as people moved closer to urban areas, rangelands were being converted by urban infrastructure and were shrinking.

Zuma visited the areas to set the co-ordinates for her study and ensure that they were not misclassified by the Google Earth engine she was utilising. She classified the land use on the sites over the past 20 years to view the changes, then predicted how these sites would look in the next two decades. Her results point to a continued increase of rangelands in Nhlazuka and a continued decrease in Vulindlela as urban infrastructure mushrooms.

Rangelands, particularly those in water catchment areas, provide important ecosystem services such as water storage and drainage and their transformation will affect the availability of water for people and animals. They are also a source of livelihood for those who graze livestock, and if not cared for, their loss will affect people’s survival.

Zuma hopes communities and the authorities will consider the conservation of the rangelands so that people dependent on livestock rearing can continue to make a living. She emphasised the importance of investigating grazing patterns and burning practices and educating people about these.

Zuma hopes her research will make a difference and that there will be opportunities for continued monitoring of these sites as well as engagement with communities. Research of this nature is also important given the increasing urgency to care for rangelands facing the threat of rapid land use change that results in the loss of species of flora and fauna.

During her master’s, Zuma worked with the Liberty non-profit organisation as an intern and subsequently on various projects, and appreciated the opportunities founder Mr Mlungisi Ntuli gave her to strengthen her skills and networks.

Despite the challenge of becoming proficient in the Google Earth engine and confidently generating code to analyse her results, Zuma said that support from other students and colleagues, and the input of Dr Omosalewa Odebiri inspired her to consider pursuing a PhD study in the future that incorporates more aspects of the deep learning he specialises in.

Zuma, who had to overcome a period of ill health shortly after submitting her thesis, is working on publications from her research and hopes to build her professional and academic profile in the environmental sphere. She aims to work with environmentally focused organisations where she can apply her GIS and remote sensing skills and is open to continuing to work in the academic environment after finding it an inspiring, dynamic, diverse arena where her skills were sharpened and she experienced personal growth thanks to the network she developed.

Zuma thanked Mutanga and Sibanda for their supervision and guidance, describing it as a great honour to work with them and especially for their patience and understanding through challenges that included a complicated pregnancy during her studies. She thanked staff in the Discipline of Geography for their support, especially Ms Anita Masenyama, Dr Trylee Matongera, Odebiri, Dr Mthembeni Mngadi and Mr Mohamed Vawda.  She acknowledged God and her ancestors as a source of strength and thanked the WRC and UKZN for supporting her studies.

Words: Christine Cuenod

Photograph: Sethu Dlamini