School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Ecological Sciences PhD graduate, Dr Nasiphi Bitani.

PhD Graduate Explores Bird Life’s Response to Forest Destruction

Gaining an understanding of how bird populations respond to the land-use changes experienced by their forest system habitats, specifically the Southern Mistbelt Forest of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, was the focus of Dr Nasiphi Bitani’s research.

With deforestation occurring owing to human-induced disturbances, including urbanisation, logging, and agriculture, biodiversity is declining so Bitani was interested in investigating how avian communities respond to these changes and what habitat characteristics are important at the microhabitat and landscape level scales.

This work led on from Bitani’s cum laude master’s research on woodland birds’ dispersal of the invasive Lantana camara. Wanting to expand her ornithological knowledge through a similar project in a different habitat, Bitani was able to access a PhD opportunity through the research lab run by Professor Colleen Downs, South African Research Chair (SARChI) in Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

Her work formed part of an ongoing project on avian and mammal communities across different South African forest types co-supervised by Dr David Ehlers Smith and Dr Yvette Ehlers Smith.

Bitani’s research is important because to manage and conserve forests and their endemic bird communities effectively, particularly those vulnerable to extinction, understanding their response to the destruction or alteration of their habitat is vital. She hopes her results will help managers formulate more effective species conservation strategies in forest systems and allow for more targeted conservation approaches.

Originally from the Eastern Cape, Bitani grew up in the eMagabheni Township in Umkomaas. She enrolled at UKZN for all her qualifications, from undergraduate studies in environmental science to her PhD in Ecological Sciences.

Pursuing her PhD studies at UKZN enabled Bitani to benefit from the supervision, mentorship and guidance of Downs, an internationally renowned biologist. She also took advantage of the University’s research support structures, including the University Capacity Development Project, its writing retreats, and the Student Support Services’ offerings.

During her studies, Bitani worked as an academic support co-ordinator in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science, a boarder mistress at Epworth School, and an ad hoc lecturer. Attending various sessions with Student Support Services and keeping up with her running helped her maintain her mental and physical health during her studies, as did the support of her friends.

The COVID-19 pandemic struck during the first month of Bitani’s studies, delaying her fieldwork for an entire season and forcing her to rethink her research timeline and focus on her writing until fieldwork was possible.

After completing her PhD, Bitani took up a postdoctoral research position at UKZN, working with Dr Manqoba Zungu and Downs, focusing on the impacts of climate change on the distribution of KwaZulu-Natal’s forests. She has just accepted an appointment as a lecturer in Zoology in the School of Life Sciences.

The opportunity to travel for her work and collaborate with and mentor other scientists has prompted personal and professional growth, and she is enjoying expanding and developing her long-term research goals.

She expressed gratitude to her parents, family, and her friend and supervisor, Downs, for their support, patience and encouragement and for holding space for her, and thanked all those who assisted her along her PhD journey.

Words: Christine Cuenod

Photograph: Sethu Dlamini