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The Eye in the Sky

Date: 2006-11-28

Kruger National Park Remote Sensing Monitoring Workshop

By: Izak Smit (Research Manager: GIS & Remote Sensing)

A view from above might help answer questions on the ground. In order to manage Kruger National Park effectively and to understand how actions like artificial surface water provision, management fires and animal numbers influence the system, effective and well-designed monitoring programmes are crucial. KNP has a proud history of monitoring thus providing long-term datasets that are used by many researchers, both internal and external to the park.

With the KNP covering an area of almost 2 million hectares, it is physically impossible to monitor the entire park using field-based monitoring techniques like vegetation surveys. In addition there is a greater understanding of importance of land uses and land cover in the wider region of which Kruger forms part. The communal land, commercial farming, private game reserves, trans-frontier parks, etc. bordering Kruger are all part of the bigger system and the management or mismanagement of resources in these areas can have a direct influence within the boundaries of Kruger.

The rivers running through Kruger provides a good example of a resource that needs to be co-managed by many land owners and water users in order to ensure that it can meet the expectations of commercial and communal farmers, neighbouring communities, mines, industry, municipal users and others, without compromising the ecological integrity of the river. There is also South Africa’s obligation to let water through to neighbouring Mozambique. So how can this immense area that spans different management, temporal and political boundaries be monitored and studied effectively?

Remote sensing is a tool that is increasingly recognized as a viable method of studying large regions like Kruger and its surrounding environment. In fact, remote sensing is largely immune to all the hard and artificial boundaries that have been created by man and can guide the way monitoring is conducted on the ground.

What is remote sensing?

Remote sensing can be defined in many different ways, but all the definitions have one aspect in common, namely, acquiring information about something (usually an area on the earth’s surface) without being in physical contact with that area.

Aerial photographs and satellite imagery are the most common data sources used in remote sensing, and both of these are employed in the Kruger National Park. For example, the GIS and Remote Sensing laboratory in Skukuza uses satellite imagery from the MODIS sensor (supplied free of charge twice daily) to map fire scars in the park. AVHRR satellite imagery has also been used to improve the mapping of herbaceous biomass in the park.

However, it is increasingly recognized that remote sensing could play a bigger role in monitoring in the park and this was the impetus for inviting remote sensing expertise from across South Africa to Skukuza for a one-day workshop on 13 November 2006. 25 scientists attended the workshop, including people from three universities, the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), CSIR, the Meraka Institute, the Satellite Application Centre (SAC), as well as delegates from SANParks.

The main aims of the workshop were
(i) to provide a forum and a networking opportunity for remote sensing scientists working, or interested in working, in the Kruger Park,
(ii) to discuss and develop some initial ideas on possible ways that remote sensing may be used for monitoring purposes in the park, and
(iii) develop a KNP Remote Sensing Monitoring Framework. It is anticipated that this Framework, compiled by experts in this field in combination with Kruger’s own researchers, will stimulate and direct future remote sensing research to be in line with Kruger’s research objectives, specifically exploring the potential of remote sensing as a monitoring tool in the park.

The concept of Threshold of Potential Concern (TPCs) and the associated monitoring programmes already existing in Kruger were introduced to the group.

During the workshop three main monitoring themes that remote sensing could contribute towards were identified. The scientists present were confident that current remote sensing technology can contribute to monitoring
(i) woody vegetation structure,
(ii) herbaceous layer (including herbaceous biomass and productivity)
(iii) fire in KNP, with heterogeneity cross-cutting all three these themes.

It was also recognized that remote sensing techniques would never be able to replace field-based monitoring, but would be able to contribute to monitoring on space and time scales previously not possible.

Groups of scientists and researchers, under the coordination of a group-appointed champion, are continuing the process by preparing a remote sensing monitoring framework for the three themes. Each framework will outline what remote sensing monitoring products should be developed, what field data, remote sensing imagery and other resources are needed to develop these products. The possible analysis techniques that can be explored to achieve these goals, together with logistical issues like timeframes and responsible persons will also be included. The 3 frameworks will finally be combined into a “Kruger National Park Remote Sensing Monitoring Framework” by the KNP GIS & Remote Sensing Laboratory in Skukuza, with inputs from all stakeholders.

The framework will ensure that a more directed, coordinated and collaborative approach is followed in future remote sensing research in the park, specifically focusing on using remote sensing for addressing some of Kruger’s monitoring priorities on different scales and in a cost effective manner.

The remote sensing research community is eager to become involved in remote sensing projects in Kruger - in fact, some are already! The KNP GIS & Remote Sensing Laboratory in Skukuza share this enthusiasm and will provide the necessary support to establish Kruger as a data rich, well-known, preferred and adequately supported remote sensing study site, with active involvement from national and international expertise. This also includes effective communication and information dissemination between all involved.

This workshop and the developing frameworks provide a clear message that Kruger, even though it is one of the oldest proclaimed protected areas in the world, embraces new technology in their vision to conserve biodiversity for the enjoyment of all South Africans.

P.S. If you want more detail or are interested in getting a copy of the KNP Remote Sensing Monitoring Framework (a first draft to be completed by early March 2007), please e-mail Izak Smit .