A number of scientific breakthroughs carried out on Oppenheimer Generations and De Beers Group conservation properties came under the spotlight at the ninth Oppenheimer – De Beers Group Research Conference earlier this week, highlighting the importance of biodiversity conservation research.

The conference which took place at the Group’s head office in Johannesburg earlier this week, was opened by Mpumi Zikalala, Deputy CEO of De Beers Consolidated Mines, while Nicky Oppenheimer, Chairman of Oppenheimer Generations, presented awards for the best poster and best presentation.

The conference objectives are twofold, namely to provide:

  • a platform for researchers to share the outcomes of a range of research projects supported by Oppenheimer Generations and De Beers Groups, and
  • an opportunity for students and researchers to present their findings to a diverse audience of academics, students and environmental managers, as well as members of the media, guiding future research and post-graduate opportunities with Oppenheimer Generations and De Beers Group.

De Beers climate change specialist Dr Evelyn Mervine addressed the issue of climate change through carbon storage in mine tailings.

This year’s keynote speaker was Peter Fearnhead, CEO of African Parks Networks.  His captivating presentation, Perspectives of Conservation in Africa, focused on the experiences and challenges of developing this portfolio.

A leading NGO founded in 2000 in response to conservation crisis, African Parks Networks actively works to reduce poaching, increase law enforcement and tourism, and improve infrastructure across the continent, thus managing and protecting wildlife across the continent. The NGO pioneered the concept of public-private partnerships and works in partnership with governments.

Besides reintroducing a significant number of animal species like buffalo, elephant and lion to certain areas, the organisation also intimately involves people in the surrounding areas anchoring them in successful small enterprises and by building schools and other infrastructure.

Managing 16 protected areas in nine African countries and representing seven of the 11 biomes in Africa amounting to 10.5 million hectares undergoing restoration and being protected,  as of April this year African Parks employed more than a 1 000 rangers and, according to The Washington Post, has the largest anti-poaching force of any private organisation on the continent.

Despite the many threats facing the continent such as its burgeoning population, a growing demand for energy and protein, poor governance, terrorism and the illegal trade in high value commodities, Fearnhead is confident that the remaining intact and wild landscapes of Africa can be successfully conserved and that even those that are degraded can be restored by building on the organisation’s five pillars of protected area management, namely law enforcement, biodiversity conservation, community development;  tourism and enterprise, and management and Infrastructure. On the other hand, those protected areas that are unmanaged, will be lost, he cautioned.

“Fundamentally, we believe that in the wake of conserving and restoring Africa’s wild landscapes lies a better existence for mankind. And where nature is rehabilitated and restored, so too is our own humanity.”

The keynote address on the second day of the conference was delivered by Fred Swaniker, founder of the ALU School of Wildlife Conservation. The first of its kind on the continent, the school is dedicated to developing future generations of world-class conservation leaders in Africa. Launched in 2016, the first 10 conservation professionals began an MBA programme through the school in Kigali in July 2017. Since then, 300 undergraduates from across Africa have joined the ALU campus in Rwanda and nearly 40 top African conservationists have agreed to serve as guest lecturers in the school.

Keynote speaker Fred Swaniker, founder of the ALU School of Wildlife Conservation.

Swaniker explored the latest research in learning science and pedagogy and suggested a novel approach to building modern African research universities in the light of Africa’s unique resource constraints, developmental challenges, and breakthroughs in technologies. He also examined the concept of inter-disciplinary, “mission-driven” research as a methodology for developing world-class problem-solvers who can address systemic challenges like wildlife conservation, climate change, infrastructure development, and education in Africa over the next 100 years.

In addition, leading researchers, representing major universities and research institutions in South Africa and around the world, delivered presentations on other pertinent topics, including water quality and climate change.  Several bird-related projects were also be discussed, as well as dwindling giraffe and leopard figures, the effect of fire frequency on termite assemblage and carbon storage in mine tailings through mineral carbonation. 


Some of the research papers presented at the conference included:

  • Investigation of alternative molecular approaches for enhanced traceability of illegally traded ground pangolins. Despite the international regulatory processes in place to curb the illegal trade of pangolins, it continues to rise dramatically. One approach to limit the trade hinges on geographic origin-tracing of traded pangolins through DNA forensics of confiscated material. In this study, the focus is on the use of stable isotope and microbial signatures to complement current host genetics traceability initiatives.
  • Reading the Wind and Writing the Path: /xam stories spoke to the future. In the early 2000s, De Beers Group and the Ernest Oppenheimer Foundation contributed a considerable grant to digitise a collection of /xam and !kung texts, drawings, associated letters and documents. The archive came together as the book Claim to the Country (2007) and website.
  • The Digital Bleek and Lloyd (lloydbleekcollection.cs.uct.ac.za/) presentation focused on how digitisation transformed collection into one of the most significant South African online resources to shape identities, fuelling research all over the world.  Energy is the elusive part of the equation to achieving animal performance. Land is, ultimately, a ‘solar panel’ capturing energy from the sun. Because of the way it has been managed, this ‘panel’ has been destroyed and no longer captures the energy it should. Managing herds of cattle, with herders (no fences) to manipulate stock density and time, can achieve both animal performance, sequestrate carbon to improve soil life and keep the rain where it falls, reducing the effect of droughts and floods.
  • The effects of dense Seriphium plumosum on bird diversity. Large sections of Highveld grass is under threat of densification by Seriphium plumosum or bankrotbos. This indigenous encroacher spreads rapidly and dominates natural grass species, which lead to altered habitats for grassland-dwelling bird species. This paper focuses on how birds either learn to adapt, exploit changes in their environment or can’t adapt and move away altogether.

As in the past, the conference also included an exhibition of scientific posters on active research projects.

Poster viewing at the conference.