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South African Journal of Science

On-line version ISSN 1996-7489
Print version ISSN 0038-2353

S. Afr. j. sci. vol.115 n.9-10 Pretoria Sep./Oct. 2019 



Identifying research questions for the conservation of the Cape Floristic Region



Nicky AllsoppI; Jasper A. SlingsbyI, II; Karen J. EslerIII

ISouth African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) Fynbos Node, Cape Town, South Africa
IICentre for Statistics in Ecology, Environment and Conservation, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa
IIICentre for Invasion Biology, Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa





We conducted a survey among people working in the nature conservation community in an implementation, research or policy capacity to identify research questions that they felt were important for ensuring the conservation of the Cape Floristic Region. Following an inductive process, 361 submitted questions were narrowed to 34 questions in seven themes: (1) effective conservation management; (2) detecting and understanding change: monitoring, indicators and thresholds; (3) improving governance and action for effective conservation; (4) making the case that biodiversity supports critical ecosystem services; (5) making biodiversity a shared concern; (6) securing sustainable funding for biodiversity conservation; and (7) prioritising research. The final questions were evaluated against the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Conceptual Framework to test whether the questions addressed elements identified by this Framework as those essential to ensure that conservation contributes to a positive future for the Cape Floristic Region. We found that all elements in this Framework received attention from the collective group of questions. This finding suggests that the conservation community we approached recognises implicitly that research in multiple disciplines as well as interdisciplinary approaches are required to address societal, governance and biological issues in a changing environment in order to secure the conservation of the Cape Floristic Region. Because the majority of people responding to this survey had a background in the natural sciences, a challenge to tackling some of the questions lies in developing integrative approaches that will accommodate different disciplines and their epistemologies.
We present a hierarchical compendium of research questions to generate the knowledge required to conserve the Cape Floristic Region as a social-ecological system.
The conservation community of the Cape Floristic Region collectively recognises that effective conservation management needs to be supported by knowledge of ecosystems, factors that impact them and context appropriate conservation approaches. In addition, knowledge to develop effective governance and institutions, sustainable funding and broader societal participation in conservation are also identified.
The questions reflect the elements and linkages of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Conceptual Framework, suggesting that the questions presented follow global prerogatives for developing a sustainable future.
The range and complexity of knowledge gaps presented suggest the need for a broader research agenda that includes the social sciences and humanities to address conservation in the Cape Floristic Region

Keywords: Fynbos biome, environmental sustainability, Mediterranean-type ecosystem, IPBES Conceptual Framework




Globally, initiatives such as the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) emphasise the need for wise management of the natural environment, because its decline will impact human well-being and ultimately our future on this planet. Similarly, the World Economic Forum has increasingly highlighted environmental risks as threatening ecosystem services.1 Environmental pressures with global or local impact are threatening systems such as the Cape Floristic Region (CFR), a globally unique biodiversity hotspot and conservation priority.2 Effective conservation of natural systems and countering of anthropogenic drivers of change that threaten the environment, biodiversity and ecosystem services requires guidance from well-grounded research. Conservation research, in turn, needs to be prioritised by stakeholders more broadly than the research community alone.3

Several features set the CFR apart from other globally important conservation areas. The dominant vegetation is a shrubland, generally on low nutrient soils, in a winter rainfall regime, with 68% of the over 9000 plant species present endemic to this region.4 Stochastic fire cycles drive many processes from evolution to biotic interactions.5 Hence, many environmental mitigation schemes promulgated at global levels (e.g. the Bonn Challenge's forest-themed restoration) may be unsuitable in this unique ecosystem.

In this study, which formed part of a larger study to identify research priorities for global Mediterranean-type ecosystems26, we adapted the approach of Sutherland et al.3,6 by canvassing widely in relevant communities for their research priorities for conservation. Although ours is not the first attempt to collate conservation research priorities in the CFR, it differs from Steyn et al.'s7 in that it was not developed as a funding strategy for biophysical conservation research nor as an expert review of research directions.8

We present a summary of the conservation research questions provided by the community of practitioners and scholars in public and private sectors in the CFR and evaluate their research questions within local and global contexts.

The questions address conservation of biodiversity, which is recognised as underpinning many of the SDGs directly or indirectly. We wanted to know whether the questions related to the CFR are reflective of the kind of knowledge required by current global initiatives, such as the SDGs, to ensure an environmentally sustainable and societally equitable future, by assessing how many elements and linkages these questions addressed in the IPBES Conceptual Framework for connecting people and nature.9



This project formed part of an initiative of researchers from the five Mediterranean-type ecosystems, associated with the Society for Conservation Biology Europe Section and the International Society of Mediterranean Ecologists, to identify the 100 priority questions that, if answered, would have a high probability of increasing the success of actions targeted at the conservation of biological diversity in the five Mediterranean-type ecosystems of the world.26

Identifying stakeholders and soliciting questions

Following ethical clearance from Stellenbosch University for working with human subjects (SU-HDS-000323), the questionnaire (Data set 1)10, in the form of an online Google Form, was distributed by email to people associated with conservation in the CFR through implementation or research. Each recipient was asked to provide up to 10 questions which, if answered, would, in their opinion, have a high probability of increasing the success of actions targeted at the conservation of biological diversity in the CFR. We did not explicitly request, nor prohibit, the sharing of the email, so some respondents may have been additional to our distribution list (see below). Respondents submitted their questions anonymously online, and responded to additional questions aimed to solicit a profile of educational, work and sector characteristics of respondents (Data set 2)10. Respondents received at least one reminder by email.

The broader CFR conservation community is small and well networked.11 We selected potential respondents on the basis of key sectors in conservation and key people within these sectors or organisations (decision-makers, public and private conservation practitioners, and researchers working at government policy, conservation or research agencies, non-governmental organisations, consultancies and universities). Generally, these were people that we knew personally, had met at meetings, who held relevant positions in key organisations, or who had attended the annual Fynbos Forum (a conservation research, practice and policy conference) in the last five years. Our biases were towards people who had worked in conservation-related fields (i.e. not students). We had difficulty identifying people in the business world associated with conservation (e.g. those involved in environmental responsibility programmes) and recognise this as a gap.

Processing responses

While respondents were asked to assign their questions to predetermined categories for the global project (a deductive approach), we chose to derive the summary questions for the CFR following an inductive approach, clustering the submitted questions until generalised themes emerged.

All three authors jointly reduced the original 361 questions (362 after splitting compound questions and eliminating submissions that could not be turned into questions)(Data set 3)10 to 34 summarised questions and clustered these into seven themes. We then revisited the original questions and extracted more specific questions (126) which added further context to the summarised questions.

We chose this approach over that taken by Sutherland et al.3,6 because we felt that it captured the array of questions and topics posed by respondents more fully than an elimination of questions to select 100 original questions favoured by a committee.

We concede that there are opportunities for bias in whichever approach is taken, but in our approach with fewer original questions to manage, it was possible to better preserve the intentions of the original questions. Our approach also allowed us to include the essence of poorly articulated questions on an equal footing to grammatically well-constructed and scientifically nuanced questions, as we wanted to provide a platform for a broad cross-section of active participants in different spheres of conservation irrespective of their written English fluency. We were also able to explore poorly constructed questions which yielded yes/no type answers for their underlying research requirements.

We assessed the conservation scope of the questions to provide an additional verification that the clustering process correctly emphasised general themes and topics of the submitted questions in terms of what aspects of conservation they addressed. This was done by counting how many times words (or the core of words e.g. implement or implementation) or terms appeared in the submitted questions. These terms were clustered into topics (Data set 4).10

Finallly, we assessed each of the final 34 questions against the IPBES Framework9 to see which elements and linkages of the IPBES Framework it addressed. For example, for the question 'How effective are restoration interventions in restoring biodiversity and ecosystem function?', restoration is seen as falling into the element 'Direct drivers' that, if successful, will influence 'Nature' which in turn affects processes that influence 'Nature's benefits to people'. We scored how many times the elements and linkages were addressed by the 34 summary questions.



Respondent profile

We sent the questionnaire to 176 people (114 men, 62 women) and 53 (30%) responded (26 men, 23 women and 4 undisclosed)(Data set 2).10 Respondents provided, on average, 6.8 questions each for a total of 361 individual questions. Of those who responded, 17 were employed in research, 16 in government conservation entities, 10 in environmental non-governmental organisations, 7 were consultants, and the balance of 3 were in other employment. From the original pool of solicited people, researchers were less likely to respond (24% responded) than people in government conservation entities, environmental non-governmental organisations or consultants (average response rate 35%). The average age of respondents was 45 years (range 29-63 years), average years of experience in broad conservation was 16.8 years (range 1-39 years) and average length of employment in their current capacity was 9.4 years (range 2 months to 35 years). In terms of qualifications, 22 held doctoral degrees, 19 master's, 5 honours, 1 bachelor's, and 2 post-school diplomas (4 were undisclosed). The majority of respondents had studied the biological (n=24) or conservation (n=13) or environmental (n=5) sciences. Among this group, eight were from other disciplines: two each from the humanities and education, while horticulture, agriculture, business management and energy studies had single representatives and three did not disclose their studies.

Conservation perspectives were evenly distributed across plants, animals and society; the scale most focused on was landscape or ecosystem (Figure 1).



The synthesised questions

We developed a hierarchical classification of the 34 summary questions under seven themes (Table 1). Further elaboration of the themes and derived questions was provided by 126 sub-questions. This structure provides a means of directing people to the area of their interest and a more accessible way of presenting research questions, thus allowing readers to more readily identify their areas of interest and proceed from the more general to the specific depending on their objectives.

The scope covered

An assessment of the words used by respondents in their questions shows a strong focus on the environment, its characterisation, properties and the processes that regulate them (Table 2, Data set 4).10



Words associated with conservation action were also frequently mentioned. Primarily, the interest was focused on vegetation, with freshwater systems also predominant. The dominance of vegetation as the focus of conservation effort by the group submitting questions is emphasised by the fact that terms associated with various types of fauna were only mentioned 38 times, while terms associated with vegetation types were recorded 210 times. However, the focus was not exclusively on biodiversity as terms associated with the human dimension and covering social, economic or governance aspects were mentioned 354 times (Table 2). Terms associated with tracking change and monitoring impact of interventions (monitoring and assessment in Table 2) were mentioned 139 times. Direct drivers of change were mentioned predominantly in the context of land use (both urban and agricultural), followed by invasive species and climate change.

Meeting current global environmental challenges

An assessment of how reflective the 34 CFR conservation research questions (Table 1) are of the elements and pathways in the IPBES Conceptual Framework is depicted in Figure 2. There are strong emphases on how direct drivers affect nature; how nature provides benefits to people and how this affects quality of life. Many questions also emphasised the role of institutions and governance.




We are fortunate to have documentation of early efforts to prioritise conservation research in the CFR.8,12 The first on formal record was concerned with diminishing streamflow in the 1930s.13 In response, the Jonkershoek Small Catchment Experiments were established to understand the effect of fynbos versus plantation pines on water delivery.13 In the current study, questions associated with the management of freshwater systems and control of invasive alien species remain high priorities.

In 1945, Wicht and other prominent biologists under the auspices of the Royal Society of South Africa investigated the causes of the 'degradation' of Cape vegetation.12 Enduring themes from that period and that remain of concern today are fire management, catchment hydrology, invasive alien species and land-use conversion. Issues that have receded as conservation priorities are grazing management and soil erosion.14 However, an emerging concern is the impact of stocking natural areas with wild herbivores, many extralimital. Conservation for the sake of providing recreational and educational opportunities for city dwellers was touched on in the Wicht report,12 but the need for research on these topics and on urban ecology is more recent. Governance, institutional arrangements and interactions between wider society and conservation practitioners are more urgent in the current era, reflecting the nexus between conservation and the broader society that informs the SDGs and IPBES.

A further assessment of research needs and funding priorities for the CFR identified six themes.7 Steyn et al.'s7 first theme (Discovering and understanding the Cape Floristic Region's biodiversity) is similar to A1 in the current study (Table 1) but their subsequent topics (Ecosystem health and services, Fragmentation, Climate change, Alien Invasives, and Freshwater systems) speak more narrowly to specialist biodiversity researchers than to implementers of research findings. We consider land use as a driver of change more broadly, and issues around social, governance and conservation management which emerged strongly in our study as requiring research in their own right, are dealt with by Steyn et al.7 as communicating with and influencing people under each theme but are not elaborated on as research topics.

While questions around fundamental biodiversity knowledge (A1) and impacts of global change on biodiversity (B1) are dominant, most of the other questions in our Themes A and B focus on research to inform the design, management and monitoring of conservation measures. Over a third of all the questions (Themes C-F) deal with developing knowledge around topics which do not focus directly on biodiversity, including governance, promoting conservation through ecosystem services, communicating and eliciting conservation action from broader society and how to fund biodiversity conservation sustainably. A 2014 synthesis of CFR research suggested a focus predominantly on biodiversity components.5 While in respect of invasive alien species, South African research is largely focused on ecological processes and impacts, with social and applied research under-represented.15

The use of words and terms in our respondents' questions suggests independently that the derived questions reflected the intentions of the original questions. Vocabulary focused on understanding ecosystems and transferring this knowledge into conservation action, while recognising that governance, institutions and wider society are important elements. One lone, but somewhat relevant question in Theme G, is how researchers might be encouraged to pursue conservation relevant research. This question is pertinent because the majority of questions we solicited came from people working broadly in conservation implementation and not from researchers. Thus the research agenda is driven mainly by conservation practitioners and policymakers. Moreover, many of the questions require research in the social sciences and humanities and these groups were poorly represented among our respondents. The challenge of integrating social sciences and humanities effectively in conservation research, and not merely delegating them to service provision roles, is well recognised.16-18

There is general congruence between Sutherland et al's.3 global questions and our CFR questions, although 23 of the global questions were not addressed for the CFR (e.g. marine systems, polar ice or permafrost, and sea level rise). In contrast, while gaps in fundamental ecological knowledge are explicitly addressed by CFR participants, Sutherland et al. mention this only in their preamble3 to their Ecosystem Management and Restoration section.

The shrublands of the CFR have the highest number of threatened ecosystems19 and the highest density of taxa of conservation concern in South Africa20. Soils are of very low organic content and wildfire regularly destroys above-ground biomass as an intrinsic process that sustains fynbos; so this system is unlikely to support ecosystem-based carbon capture projects to mitigate climate change. This highlights the need for locally relevant approaches to manage biodiversity in shrublands even when they run counter to the global focus on forestation as a mechanism for capturing carbon. Global conservation topics that are also not germane to the CFR are nanotechnology, GMOs and climate change associated animal vectors.

In contrast to the global questions,3 the CFR questions more frequently dealt with the nuances of governance and human values, perceptions and behaviour associated with conservation (and how these can be influenced). These are probably best addressed at the local level and reflect heightened awareness for research on these topics as a consequence of initiatives such as the Cape Action Plan for People and the Environment (C.A.P.E.).21 The IPBES Conceptual Framework9 also strongly emphasises the interlinkages between these components, suggesting the local questions reflect concerns that are globally recognised as important for biodiversity conservation.

Historically, concern by the public for conservation in the CFR was vested in resources such as game and wildflowers that wealthy or propertied people wanted to protect from the competing demands made by poor people for livelihood support.22 In the modern era, understanding the social context of conservation, and of using conservation to provide pathways out of poverty is pronounced. While acknowledging the interdependence between people and the environment, as reflected in the IPBES Conceptual Framework,9 some questions also addressed how development prerogatives for poverty alleviation could be met while ensuring a sustainable future. Similar questions have been raised around the SDGs.23

The capacity of the current questions to populate most of the elements and major linkages of the IPBES Conceptual Framework9 suggests that our respondents are well aware that ensuring conservation of the CFR requires knowledge that includes people and their institutions as well as biodiversity. The alignment of the questions with the IPBES Conceptual Framework suggests that a large sector of the general conservation community in the CFR regard conservation in the context of global sustainability and connectedness to society, mirroring the role that conservation can play in attaining the SDGs. Despite this, the original questions overwhelmingly reflect a positivist approach of delivering evidence based on natural science methods of research, not surprising given the background of the majority of respondents in this study.

The CFR questions reflect that an interdisciplinary and intersectoral approach is called for that addresses dynamic social-ecological systems changing through time as a consequence of global and local pressures. The concept that biodiversity conservation is about pristine areas is also eroding with matters being raised around urban and production landscapes.

Our results are unlikely to be affected by low survey response rates or non-response bias. Sheehan24 showed a decline in response rates to email solicited surveys from rates over 50% in the early days of email to an average response of 33% for the period 1996-2000. In this context, and given that there is a negative relationship between response rates and long surveys such as ours,25 we consider our response rate of 30% (53 respondents) to be high. Variation in response rates by occupation was low, and researchers, who showed a slightly lower response rate, still made up the largest respondent group. We feel that our online approach made our survey accessible to a broader range of respondents from different sectors and the anonymity of respondents facilitated submissions on a broader range of topics than alternatives like workshopping.

We conclude that the questions provided by the conservation sector in the CFR show a willingness on the part of this community to work towards conservation in a societal context that will support, for example, the SDGs. However, we recognise that inclusion of multiple disciplinary and societal perspectives is missing from this analysis. Such a broadening of perspectives is likely to change the nature of the questions presented here as plurality of knowledge is brought to bear on this broadly natural science approach to conservation knowledge generation.16-19



This work was carried out in the scope of the 'Priority questions for Mediterranean biodiversity conservation' initiative, promoted by the Society for Conservation Biology and the International Society of Mediterranean Ecologists. We thank the leaders of this project, Francisco Moreira and Pedro Beja, and the research team for providing a stimulating environment in which to conduct this research. We are grateful to the anonymous respondents who contributed their priority research questions, reflective of careful thought and considerable time investment.

Authors' contributions

This project emerged from a project proposed by Francisco Moreira and Pedro Beja, University of Porto, to a global group of Mediterranean-type ecosystem scientists at a Society of Conservation Biology meeting attended by K.J.E. who invited J.A.S. and N.A. to make up the South African team. Henceforth, all the authors worked as equal partners in developing the project approach based on the international team's proposal, developing an online questionnaire and inviting respondents. K.J.E. obtained ethical clearance from Stellenbosch University. All authors worked together to inductively reduce the submitted questions to a shorter list of priority questions presented in this manuscript. Individually, the authors worked on co-agreed aspects of the analysis of submitted questions that overlapped with the global project and which informed our analyses but are not necessarily presented in this paper. N.A. wrote the first draft of the paper. All authors participated in further revisions. N.A., with advice from K.J.E. and J.A.S., prepared the data for archiving.



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Nicky Allsopp

Received: 20 Dec. 2018
Revised: 11 Mar. 2019
Accepted: 30 May 2019
Published: 26 Sep. 2019



EDITOR: John Butler-Adam


Supplementary Material

The open data set is available here: [Open data set]

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