Sister reserve links NRS with Africa

Gobabeb sister reserve
Gobabeb Research and Training Centre abuts the graceful dunes of the Namib Desert on one side, and stony plains on the other. Image: Oliver Halsey

The UC Natural Reserve System welcomes a new member to its family. This spring, the NRS entered into a sister reserve relationship with the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre in Namibia. The five-year arrangement aims to foster cooperative research into climate change and the ecosystems of arid lands in California and southern Africa.

A network of 39 natural areas managed for research and teaching across California, the NRS includes reserves located in each of the state’s deserts. These include Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center and Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center in the Sonoran Desert; Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center in the Mojave Desert; and White Mountain Research Center and Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory in the Great Basin Desert.

Gobabeb Research and Training Centre is located in a remote portion of southwestern Africa. The sand dunes of the vast Namib Desert border the field station on one side, while arid gravel plains stretch to the horizon across an adjacent river.

Gobabeb sister reserve
The ephemeral Kuiseb River flows past Gobabeb on a moonless night. Image: Oliver Halsey

“Arid lands face similar problems such as increasing desertification and water scarcity,” says Peggy Fiedler, executive director of the UC Natural Reserve System. “Having Gobabeb as a sister reserve enables comparisons of these regions and exchanges of land management knowledge and best practices.”

The partnership offers scientific and practical advantages to both parties, agrees Gillian Maggs-Kölling, executive director of Gobabeb. “Our field stations have a lot of interests in parallel. Collaborating would make our research proposals more competitive. Together they will have global relevance.”

Gobabeb sister reserve
Masters student and Gobabeb technician Martin Handjaba liquified zinc to produce this cast of the burrow of a barking gecko. Handjaba’s primary focus of study is scorpion burrows. Image: Oliver Halsey

The sister reserve connection is the product of decades of connections between the two organizations. Gobabeb’s previous director, Mary Seely, earned her doctorate at UC Davis. And Allan Muth, director of the NRS’s Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center, has visited Gobabeb nearly a dozen times to study dune lizards in the Namib Desert.

Muth says it’s eye-opening to compare the desert systems of California and Africa. “After working in the Colorado Desert for a few years, I thought I knew arid lands, how they work, how the animals have adapted, how they go about life in ways that enable them to exist in these really harsh environment,” Muth says. “But in Africa, the plants and animals have adapted to that in surprising and sometimes very different ways. Once you realize that, you have a greater appreciation for how life goes about doing its business.”

Gobabeb sister reserve
A team of drone experts from Aukland University of Technology, New Zealand, to map fairy circles (regularly-spaced patches of land barren of plants) in the Namib Desert. Image: Oliver Halsey

In addition to studying lizards, researchers from around the world flock to Gobabeb to pursue topics such as restoring the ecosystems of former mines, understanding how dune landscapes change, and how desert species capture fog as a source of moisture. The field station gives researchers access to water, shelter, and amenities such as the internet in a sparsely populated wilderness.

“It’s not the Hilton hotel,” Maggs-Kölling admits. “But we do have facilities to accommodate students. And we hope staff from reserves or students wanting to do international research here could be encouraged to stay a couple of months and contribute working with Namibian conservation.”

Gobabeb sister reserve
Gobabeb Research and Training Centre offers shelter and research facilities to scientists in the sparsely populated Namib Desert. Hear, nearby Station Dune is partly obscured by low-lying fog. Image: Oliver Halsey

“We hope Gobabeb proves the first of many sister reserve relationships between the NRS and field stations or parks in the future,” Fiedler says. “International partnerships expand opportunities across UC.”

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