This week The unBalanced ecoLOGist features its first guest blog. Written by Ahmed Siddig and edited only lightly for posting, it re-caps themes of the short-course on the science of biodiversity that Ahmed and I taught in Khartoum, Sudan, earlier this month and sketches a proposal for establishing a long-term ecological research (LTER) program in Sudan.
Building capacity of African ecologists to engage in long-term ecological research is indispensable for better conservation
Ahmed A. H. Siddig
Africa has been described as one of the richest continents of the world because of its great diversity of species and ecosystems, but at the same time it is one of the most vulnerable places in the world in terms of anticipated impacts of global environmental changes. This vulnerability is particularly acute in sub-Saharan African countries where environmental vulnerability is exacerbated by socio-economic factors, political instability and conflicts, little governmental support for environmental conservation projects, and weak institutions that lack facilities and funding. For example, although the IUCN Red List identifies hundreds of plants and animal species endemic to sub-Saharan Africa as threatened or endangered, they also describe about the same number of species as “data deficient”—lacking sufficient information to assess their current population status.
This situation requires urgent conservation interventions. Baseline ecological assessments and long-term monitoring programs are sorely needed because of clear data gaps for sub-Saharan Africa. However, developing rigorous biodiversity monitoring programs and understanding how biodiversity will respond to ongoing and anticipated anthropogenic threats and environmental changes will not be possible without having aware and well-educated people working in the field. Thus, building the capacity for conservation researchers and practitioners in the vulnerable communities of sub-Saharan Africa to collect, analyze, interpret, and disseminate data is a prerequisite for establishing any new monitoring or research program.
I will never forget Aaron [Ellison]’s words to me before I left the Harvard Forest and beautiful Petersham, Massachusetts to return to Sudan; I was joking with him that he survived me as graduate student and now he should be happy and catch his breath. He replied, “Well, I am happy for you that you have successfully earned your PhD, but I will not be truly happy unless you take your turn to help others to learn, especially your students and colleagues in your home country, Sudan, where many people need you.” Shortly thereafter, I proposed the idea of developing a research initiative that aims to establish LTER sites in Sudan. As expected, Aaron has not only welcomed the idea but also added additional ideas, edited draft proposals, and traveled to Sudan to teach a short course on design of biodiversity monitoring studies and analysis of biodiversity monitoring data.
Establishing an LTER site in Sudan not only is timely for this vulnerable country where basic ecological data are missing or unavailable, but it also is consistent with recent international efforts that push for establishing international LTER (ILTER) sites in the sub-Saharan region. Over the years to come and if this proposal moves forward, my Sudanese colleagues and international partners will focus on three themes:
- Biodiversity and Ecological Assessment & Monitoring (BEAM) will develop a database on the distribution, abundance, and composition of biodiversity in Sudan using standardized protocols and long-term monitoring designs. BEAM methods will be transparent, and data and protocols will be freely available to anyone interested in them.
- Towards Resilient Ecosystems and Enhanced Services in Sudan (TREESS) will implement long-term research projects addressing pressing questions related to arid land ecology and biodiversity conservation in four research areas: 1) Drought, deforestation, and desertification; 2) Climate, soil, and biogeochemistry; 3) Biodiversity and ecosystem services; and 4) Policies, socio-ecological dimensions, and livelihoods.
- Summer Training and Research for Sudanese Students (STARSS) will initiate a program of student-centered research based on the US National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs. Sudanese students who have few opportunities for research at their home institutions because of lack of funding or adequate facilities will gain research skills working alongside established researchers in the field.
We began this endeavor with some kick-off events in February 2017: two public lectures; the aforementioned short course on monitoring and analysis of biodiversity data; and a workshop on establishing LTER sites in Sudan.
The specific goals for our short-course and LTER workshop in Khartoum were:
- Discuss issues of and reasons for ecological data deficiency in sub-SaharanAfrica, potential consequences, and ways forward.
- Provide broad background about ecological monitoring for, methods of, and applications to biodiversity conservation in Sudan.
- Develop practical skills in planning and implementation of biodiversity monitoring programs for the service of conservation.
- Introduce, explore, and apply different statistical methods for ecological data.
- Give participants knowledge to take back to their home institutions and encourage creation and teaching of similar courses.
- Create a nation-wide network of specialists and practitioners in Sudan who can support one another’s work in ecological monitoring and biodiversity conservation.
Forty-three participants (far more than the anticipated 30) took the week-long short course. Topics included an overview about ecology and biodiversity; types of ecological studies and data; importance of ecological monitoring; methods for monitoring, data collection, and analysis using the R software system; and reporting and disseminating outcomes to environmental policy makers, planners and the general public. Participants spent a half-day doing field work to gain hands-on experience in ecological data collection and group dynamics.
We organized and held a workshop on February 7 at the faculty of Forestry, University of Khartoum, to discuss establishing a network of LTER sites in Sudan. The workshop was attended by about 100 participants from different Sudanese universities, research centers, governmental and non-governmental agencies, and participants in our short course.
The goals of the workshop were to:
- Raise the awareness about the importance of LTER among Sudanese ecologists.
- Gather information about potential research directions.
- Develop a working plan and implementation strategy.
- Discuss challenges and ways to surmount them.
The workshop was facilitated by Professor Talaat Dafalla, University of Bahri, who presented a historical overview of the evolution of forestry and ecological research in Sudan. I presented a talk on the importance of LTER sites and details of proposed Sudanese sites. Aaron described US-LTER sites and more than 30 years of their significant achievements. During breakout sessions, participants discussed potential locations for LTER sites, research ideas, and challenges for implementing an LTER program in Sudan. Everyone enthusiastically embraced the idea, and are ready to break ground on an LTER site in Sudan as soon as possible.
Over the next few months I will hold follow-up meetings with local authorities, in-country partners, and international organizations to develop an implementation strategy for a Sudanese LTER. And of course, begin the arduous task of writing proposals and securing support for this effort.
We need your help.
So far, this effort has been supported by volunteer time and effort. To keep the dream of a Sudanese LTER site alive, we will be grateful for whatever support ecologists from around the world can offer to nurture this dream and help to make significant advances in building a sustainable Sudan.