ILTER: 1st Open Science Meeting Skukuza 2016

Savannas of the North-Eastern South Africa

Departing from OR Tambo International Airport (Johannesburg)
at 10am*, Friday 7th October.

Ending at Skukuza (Kruger National Park)
4pm, Sunday 9th October.

* The exact departure time can be adjusted slightly to accommodate participants flying into OR Tambo on the morning of the 7th October

The Savanna Field Trip will take you through many of the diverse range of savanna ecosystems of South Africa, with stops at many of the long-term research sites that have produced key advances in savanna ecology in South Africa over the past decades. 

Travelling north from Johannesburg, the first stop will be Nylsvlei Nature Reserve, focal site of the South African Savanna Biome Project. This ran from 1974 to 1990 and was one of South Africa’s first and largest long-term ecological research initiatives. The project produced over 100 scientific papers, and a book summarizing the key results (“An African Savanna. Synthesis of the Nylsvlei study”). Prof Bob Scholes (WITS University), co-author of this book, will guide us through this 40 km2 protected area. Nylsvlei Nature Reserve is also home to a RAMSAR wetland of international significance , and over 370 bird species, and is a good site for spotting two of the more endangered and rare species of antelope in South Africa (the Roan, Hippotragus equinus, and Tsessebe, Damaliscus lunatus). Visit for an overview of the site. More detailed information on the site, and past research conducted there is available here

From Nylsvlei we head north-east to cross the Great Escarpment mountain range. While passing through the low altitude, sub-tropical mountains, we will have a brief walk through the Haenertsburg Grassland, a small patch of a critically endangered grassland ecosystem with remarkably high plant diversity. This site marks the upper altitudinal limit of savannas in this part of South Africa, and is threatened by conversion to thicket or forest due to alteration of natural fire regimes and global climate change. Dr Dave Thompson (SAEON) will conduct a short tour and provide preliminary results of a long-term research project initiated here in 2006 that illustrates the role of fire and mowing in maintaining species-rich grasslands at this savanna-grassland-forest boundary. 

We then drive through the narrow band of mesic savannas on the lower slopes of the Great Escarpment, the most poorly conserved savanna type in the country. Much of the extent of this ecosystem has been lost to forestry, cultivation and settlements, while many of the untransformed fragments have suffered severe bush encroachment, ostensibly due to alteration of the natural fire regime. 

We finally emerge from the lush green slopes of the Great Escarpment and enter the starkly contrasting semi-arid savannas to the east. These areas are likely to be dry and brown at the time of the tour, and still bearing the scars of the unprecedented drought which they are currently experiencing. We will pass two strongly contrasting land use types that characterise the areas neighbouring the Kruger National Park. Firstly, the private game reserve and wildlife ranches that support a multi-billion rand hunting and eco-tourism industries (more details on South Africa’s massive wildlife ranching industry can be found here). We will pass one of the farms that was a fore-runner in the development in the intensive breeding of indigenous antelope (more recently White Rhinoceros.) 

Then a short trip through a very different world within the same general ecosystem type: communal rural rangelands that surround the hundreds of poverty-stricken rural villages of the region. Examples of the intensive utilization of natural resources, which still provides an important component of livelihoods here, will be seen, as well as some results of recent long-term projects that aim to determine the ability of ecosystems in these areas to continue to provide such services. A brief stop at Phalaborwa town will be used to illustrate the impacts of yet another common anthropogenic impact in southern African savannas: mining. 

The trip will finish with visits to two long-term experimental research sites with the 20 000km2 Kruger National Park. Firstly, the Letaba Exclosures, which were erected in 2002 to exclude large animals from two plots of pristine semi-arid Mopaneveld savanna along the banks of the Letaba River. They illustrate the strong effect that these herbivores, particularly elephants, have on the structure of savanna ecosystems. Dr Tony Swemmer (SAEON) will give a tour. 

After some discussion on the current state of the perennial rivers in savanna ecosystems, when crossing the Olifants River (the largest River in the Kruger National Park), we make a final stop at the Satara Experimental Burn Plots. This is one of four sites within the park that constitute one of the oldest long-term burning trials in the world. A variety of burning regimes have been applied to plots of 7ha size since 1957, and we will walk through various treatments to see first-hand the effect that fire has on both the grass and tree layer of these savannas, as well as view some more recent herbivore exclosures that illustrate the interactive effects of fire and herbivory. From there an afternoon game drive to Skukuza, arriving in time for registration for the Open Science Meeting.

Detailed Itinerary



·         Collection at OR Tambo International Airport (10am)

·         2 hour drive to Nylsvlei Nature Reserve.

·         2 hour tour of Nylsvlei, with packed lunch on site.

·         3 hour drive to overnight accommodation and dinner at the Orion Magoebaskloof Hotel.


·         Breakfast at accommodation, followed by morning walk at Haenertsburg Grassland (7:00-9:00am)

·         2 hour drive to Phalaborwa area, with brief stop to look at wildlife ranching area.

·         Visit rural rangelands, then lunch at a mine viewing site (1 hour).

·         Enter Kruger National Park at Phalaborwa and travel to the Letaba Exclosure research site (1.5 hour drive), and short tour (30 min).

·         2 hour drive to overnight accommodation and dinner at Letaba Rest Camp.


·         Breakfast at accommodation (7:00-8:00am)

·         3 hour drive Satara Experimental Burn Plots and Herbivore Exclosures, and 1 hour tour.

·         Lunch at Satara Rest Camp.

·         3.5 hour drive to end at Skukuza Rest Camp.

What does the tour include?

  • Two nights accommodation in single rooms on bed and breakfast basis.
  • Two packed lunches,one restaurant lunch and two restaurant dinners.
  • Transporation in an airconditioned coach/minivan from OR Tambo International Airport to Skukuza Rest Camp as per the itnerary.
All beverages are excluded. 

Places Available:  12

Booking and Cost:

Cost:  R5253.65
Should you share the room with another person the cost would be reduced by approximately 30%.

Please email: for booking and further information. 

You will be able to add this field trip to your conference invoice when you register for the conference under: