Through the Eyes of an Intern

Through the Eyes of an Intern
Published: 18 November 2013

My name is Suné Rossouw, I am currently a Nature Conservation student at the University of South Africa (UNISA). For the past 2 and a half months I have had the great opportunity of working with Elizabeth Martins as an intern with the Cape Leopard Trust on their environmental education camps.

The quiet lifestyle of living in the Cederberg, away from the rush and noise of the concrete jungle is more exciting than it might seem. The veld hides tiny flowers and the most amazing patterns only to be found at a closer look, there is a constant rustling of insects, birds and lizards. Animal tracks pattern the soil providing evidence of the diversity of animals all around and quite often many of these animals can be spotted on the surrounding hills. There is a history of culture in the air and the amazing rock formation sites hide evidence of the hunter-gatherers who once roamed these mountains. At night the skies are buzzing with more stars than you can imagine and one can find scorpions, glowing under UV light.

In my studies I learned about ecotones – a zone of gradual change in climatic and other physical conditions where two plant communities meet – one of the most amazing experiences for me was actually seeing this. Matjiesrivier is situated in the ecotone where the Fynbos biome meets the Karoo biome and not only can you see the gradual change in vegetation as one biome changes to another but you can actually see the climatic change! Standing in the Toktokkie campsite (CLT environmental education camp) looking towards the Fynbos biome you can see rain pouring down on a rainy day and when you turn around looking towards the Karoo biome only a few clouds dance happily in the sunny sky.

Recently we have started to include river health tests in our camp programmes. The miniSASS method is an easy-to-learn river health biomonitoring* tool which is ideal as an environmental education tool for learners, but can equally be used by the general public to monitor the health of rivers in their communities.

MiniSASS is based on the South African Scoring System (SASS) and uses the presence of macroinvertebrates** to indicate the health of a river. Macroinvertebrates are generally easy to collect and identify, they are relatively sedentary which allows the source of pollution to be detected, they have different sensitivities to pollution, and they integrate the water quality condition at a site, providing an overall measure of the health of a river.

This is how it works:

  • Hold a small net in the current.
  • Disturb the stones, vegetation, sand etc. of your sample site with your feet or hand.
  • Do this for about 10 minutes while ranging across the river to different habitats.
  • Rinse the net and turn the content into a plastic tray.
  • You can also lift stones out of the current and pick insects off gently with your fingers or forceps.
  • Identify each group using the miniSASS identification guide.
  • Add up the sensitivity scores to determine the average score which indicates the general quality of the water.

We have done two miniSASS tests in the Matjies river and one on the Driehoek river so far. The schools all showed great interest and experienced just how fun research / conservation can be. After about 20 minutes of splashing, searching and exploring the river, the buckets with the captured organisms were brought to the beach for identification. They found crabs, dragonfly nymphs, damselflies and bugs and beetles showing a healthy river system. The miniSASS tests gives the participants insight in how an ecosystem works, how important every part is to maintain a healthy ecosystem and also how humans impact freshwater ecosystems. It fits in wonderfully with our other activities and what we want every person to learn and take home with them after a camp with us in the Cederberg.

For more information on the miniSASS river health tests visit their website:

* Biomonitoring: the monitoring of biodiversity using biological organisms

** Macroinvertebrates: animals that have no backbone and can be seen with the naked eye.

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