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Centre for African Ecology

This research group aims at conducting long-term research into Africa's complex ecosystems. In its search for a better understanding of the interactions between herbivores, humans and vegetation, the work is lighting the way for improved conservation actions across the continent.

About Us

The dedicated team at CAE has directed much of its past research towards exploring the ecology of large mammalian herbivores within one of Africa’s largest protected areas – the Kruger National Park, which covers nearly 20,000 square kilometres along South Africa’s border with Mozambique. With numbers of the rarer antelope species declining at an alarming rate, the team is working to identify the causes behind these shrinking populations.

The researchers are tackling these and other issues using eight main strands of research, extending from nutrient cycling in plantation forestry, savannas and grasslands, to animal movements, herbivore population dynamics, impacts of herbivores on vegetation and the spatiotemporal dynamics of woody vegetation inside and outside protected areas. Some of the latest technology includes GPS collars transmitting animal locations via the mobile telephone network or satellites, as well as airborne laser-scanning to detect tree canopy heights and structures. Field and remotely sensed data are synthesised using illuminating computational models and data analysis techniques.

The majority of the team’s recent focus has been on how ungulate populations are faring within the confines of fenced protected areas. However, the latest study is concerned with how gemsbok – or South African oryx – cope with extremes of temperature and aridity in the inhospitable Kalahari region of Botswana. This region is a great natural laboratory for this type of research since there are fewer fences, and the already-extreme arid conditions may be indicative of the types of climates this region will face under climate change conditions.


The Centre for African Ecology (CAE) is the successor to two earlier research groups in ecology established at Wits University: the Centre for Resource Ecology, established by Professor Brian Walker in the Department of Botany in 1980, and the Resource Ecology Group, formed after Professor Walker’s departure by Professor Mike Mentis in 1990 (check). The CAE was established by Norman Owen-Smith in 1992 after Professor Mentis left. Formally its name is the African Ecology and Conservation Biology Group, with the nick-name “Centre” retained as a legacy. Its stated mission is “To foster the development and maintenance of a centre of excellence in ecology and related biological disciplines, and their application to problems of conserving and managing biological resources, with special reference to African environments.” This allows wide scope for research on any aspect of pure or applied ecology.

The formation of CAE linked academic staff from Zoology and Botany Departments: Norman Owen-Smith and Graham Alexander (Zoology) with Mary Scholes and Ernest “Robbie” Robinson (Botany). Additional members were Charlie Shackleton, who established the rural resources programme at Wits Rural Facility, and later his successor, Wayne Twine. Through 1995-6 Professor Jim Ellis and Dr Kathy Galvin held temporary appointments to develop the rural conservation and resource development programme affiliated to CAE and supported by Nestle. Honorary affiliates have included Bob Scholes from CSIR, Tony Starfield from University of Minnesota and Tim O’Connor from SAEON. With the establishment of the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences in 2000, CAE was absorbed as a research group within this school. Membership involves the sharing of research funds and co-supervision of postgraduate students. Besides research activities, CAE members launched the postgraduate programme in Resource Conservation Biology in 1992. Following the departures of Graham Alexander (after 1997) and Wayne Twine (after 2005) to form their own research entities, CAE membership had shrunk to only Professors Owen-Smith and Scholes. It was rejuvenated and expanded when Dr Barend Erasmus took over leadership in 2013, following Professor Owen-Smith’s formal retirement (but continued involvement in research). Following Professor Erasmus’ move to direct the Global Change and Sustainability Institute in 2014, Dr Francesca Parrini assumed leadership.

Mission statement

The Centre for African Ecology (CAE) at Wits University in Johannesburg, founded in 1992, aspires to be a centre of excellence in ecology and related biological disciplines. Its ongoing research is focused on identifying the key factors behind changing animal populations and vegetation patterns in the savannah regions of Africa, with a particular emphasis on distinguishing human influences from consequences of global climate change. The mission statement of the Centre for African Ecology is:

"To foster the development and maintenance of a centre of excellence in ecology and related biological disciplines, and their application to conserving and managing biological resources, with special relevance to African environments."

This requires a comprehensive understanding of these intricate ecosystems which contain the richest legacy of large mammal diversity in the world, as well as a committed team of researchers with highly-relevant expertise.


AE maintains ongoing collaborations with various partners. Firstly, within Wits University the team is partnering with a medical physiology group renowned for its studies into the effects of environmental temperature variation on humans and animals (The Brain Function Research Group). This enables the broadened team to relate animal movements to the greenness of vegetation in the landscape, as revealed by satellite imagery on the one hand, and to body temperature regimes - as revealed by internal data loggers placed inside the animals - on the other. Knowing the internal body temperature of an animal, and relating it to its movement across a landscape monitored by satellite imagery, is a powerful method to understand how large ungulates cope with extreme environmental conditions.

In this and other research, CAE is cooperating with the Okavango Research Institute of the University of Botswana, which is conducting studies on the movement patterns of large herbivores elsewhere in Botswana. There is also wider collaboration with research centres internationally - including a French team assisting with interpreting ungulate movement patterns. As Owen-Smith articulates: "more financial resources and empowering research collaborations from wealthier countries with impoverished fauna are needed, because Africa's large mammal diversity is a global heritage.


  • Dr Simon Benhamou, CNRS, Montpellier, France
  • Dr Robyn Hetem, School of Physiology, Wits
  • Dr Wayne Twine, Wits Rural Facility
  • Professor Greg Asner, Carengie Institution of Science, Stanford, USA
  • Drs Konrad Wessels and Renaud Mathieu, Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research –