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Ring of fire

- By Wits University

Eland and Benko 2015, an art and science fire-grazer collaboration between visual artist, Hannelie Coetzee, and Sally Archibald, Associate Professor at Wits University’s School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, was recently completed at the Nirox Sculpture Park in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site near Johannesburg.

Working on Fire performed a controlled burn of an Eland and Benko as an art performance at sunset to test whether small management fires can create more diverse, more productive grassland communities by altering how antelope use the landscape. MSc student Felix Skhosana is currently monitoring antelope usage of the burnt veld.

Coetzee’s practise explores human relationships with nature and how it evolves for the younger generation. This relation between land, fire, antelope and the audience have been captured in this video insert:

Finding a solution

Many artists comment on pollution, ecological infrastructure systems that are under pressure and fracking in sensitive rural landscapes. But for Coetzee and Archibald comment alone is not enough and their collaborative project aims to contribute to the solution.

“Fire and grazing have generally been studied as independent drivers of grassy ecosystems, but fire alters patterns of grazing by creating new green palatable regrowth at a time of year when animals need high-quality forage, and grazing affects fire by reducing the fuel available to burn,” says Archibald.

Kruger National Park and fire

Archibald has been involved in developing a theory around how this interaction between fire and grazing can be used as a management tool, to influence the type of grassland habitat available. She currently has a long-term landscape-level experiment in the Kruger National Park, the largest park in South Africa, which is aiming to use fire to increase grazing-lawn habitat.

Standard rangeland practice in southern Africa aims to maintain waving fields of tall, long-lived tussock grasses. Heavily-grazed patches where tussock grasses have been replaced by shorter, stoloniferous grasses are seen as signs of degradation.

Recent studies demonstrate however that these heavily grazed regions can be very productive during the growing season, and provide high-quality forage to grazing animals. Moreover, from a conservation perspective they represent a unique habitat-type with specialised bird, insect, and reptile species, and therefore increase the biodiversity of a landscape.

These ideas are slowly infiltrating conservation and rangeland literature, to the point that the Kruger National Park is investing in exploring ways to increase the proportion of these short-grass habitats - one of which is through manipulating fire.

Choreographed dance in the landscape

As this is a landscape-level experiment – involving burning different sizes and shapes of fires and altering movement of animals – it has a visual component fit for a large scale artwork.

When Archibald first commented that a controlled fire started by Working-for-Fire fire is like “a choreographed dance in the landscape”, Coetzee envisioned that it can become a context specific artwork.

Her work depicts some of the interactions between physical forces, such as fire and rainfall; biological forces such as animals and plants; and humans, as users and curators of natural ecosystems.

This is a rich medium for portraying conceptual thought and scientific experiments visually through the Nirox Sculpture Park in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.

When art and science collide

Says Archibald: “The role of science is to constantly push barriers of knowledge, which sometimes involves raising questions about accepted theory and management approaches. This experiment is a typical example of this, where new scientific information about the value of grazing lawns, and the role of fire in controlling grazing lawns, has been challenging long-held paradigms about appropriate management of rangelands and conservation areas.”