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Welwitschia (Welwitschia mirabilis)

Mohamed bin Zayed Species project number 182519816

Filling the gap of knowledge for a science-based assessment of the conservation status for an iconic species (i.e. Welwitschia mirabilis).

Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation (Project No. 182519816) - Welwitschia - Awarded $13,000 on March 04, 2019

Welwitschia mirabilis is recognized as a symbol of the Namib Desert ecosystems, where it also plays a crucial ecological role. Despite considerable attention to the plant, the conservation status of W. mirabilis is largely unknown. Available data indicates highly variable population densities across the species range, with uncommon to rare individuals in the Kunene subrange. A substantial reduction of climatic suitability in northern Namibia by 2050 was predicted as a consequence of climate change and increasing threats from black Aspergillus fungi, ecotourism, domestic livestock, and mining were evidenced.

Main aim of this project is laying the basis for the development of a long-term management plan for this species. To do this, we will address the lack of data in the Kunene subrange, collecting relevant information to fulfill the following secondary objectives:

1. Define the area of occupancy of the species in this remote region. Detailed data on species distribution will allow identifying priority areas for conservation and planning management activities.

2. Clarify demographic trends of the populations. Basic information related to population size, recruitment, mortality rate, and fungal infection will be collected for defining population structure and recent dynamics.

3. Quantify local threats to populations. Effects of intensive browsing on individual plants were reported and mining activities become a larger problem in the last years. Threats to the species are evolving but their effects have not been adequately defined.

4. Assess the current conservation status in the area. An objective assessment of the level of threat inspired to the IUCN criteria will be performed using field-based information.

5. Identify possible effects of climate change. Possible effects of climate change on the species will be detected by analyzing the geographic pattern of response, representing an early warning system for the Namib ecosystems.

All the data collected by this project will be merged with those already available for other populations from other sources to allow: (i) the assessment of the threat level and factors, (ii) the definition of conservation units and priorities, and (iii) the development of a management plan for the long-term conservation.  


From the field 

The Local Himba community, in particular the Okondjombo Communal Conservancy, provided us the precious knowledge of its field officers as an in-kind contribution to this project, as defined during a meeting with the Conservancy authorities and the community Chief in the Okandjombo village (Fig. 1). The Okondjombo field officers guided us across the study area, allowing to substantially improve our efficiency. The SCIONA project (Co-designing conservation technologies for the Iona-Skeleton Coast Transfrontier Conservation Area of Angola and Namibia) is an initiative of the Namibia University of Science and Technology and of the Higher Institute of Education Science of Angola, funded by the European Union. This initiative aims to strengthen cross-border ecosystem management and wildlife protection in the Iona - Skeleton Coast Transfrontier Conservation Area through co-designing and implementing conservation monitoring technology with the park authorities and surrounding communities. In collaboration with SCIONA long-term monitoring of Welwitschia populations was activated (Fig. 2). 

The main aim of the project was to address the lack of relevant data in the Kunene region for the long-term conservation of Welwitschia mirabilis. The activities carried out allowed us to fill substantially this gap of knowledge, collecting the most complete, robust, and updated set of data available. We made a significant effort, organizing and conducting a field expedition in the remote area of Kunene region where welwitschias are known to occur. We spent ten days in the study area (plus additional eight days for traveling to and from the area and for verifying discontinuity with the other subranges), walking more than 65 km (Fig. 3) and driving more than 330 km across the species subrange. Doing this, we inspected a total surface that can be roughly estimated in about 15 km2 and we observed more than 1300 individual plant (Fig. 4), grouped in 12 isolated stands in the study area. Most of these stands were completely unknown before our study. The efficacy of our field activity was greatly enhanced by the contribution of Himba people, which have a deep knowledge of the local flora and guided us around the area. In addition, a good understanding of the species requirements allowed us to focus on the most suitable areas. Therefore, we can estimate that our dataset is sufficiently comprehensive to fulfill all the project secondary objectives (i.e. define the area of occupancy of the species in this region, clarify demographic trends of the populations, quantify local threats to populations, assess the current conservation status in the area, and identify possible effects of climate change). These secondary objectives will be targeted in the next months through an appropriate data analysis. 

As expected, the main challenge we faced during our field activity was related to the nature of the study area, which is remote, vast, and wild. This is the reason why very few data were available before our project and it forced us to organize a self-sufficient expedition for the entire duration of the fieldwork. We used two 4wd research vehicles of the GOBABEB Research and Training Station for moving (Fig. 5) and spent the nights in temporary camps we set up in different sites within the study area (Fig. 6). Our commitment was to reduce as far as possible the environmental impact of our staying. Thus, we deleted every sign of our presence (even footprints) after moving the camps. In this remote and arid environment, one of the most crucial points was the water and food supply. We retrieved water from cattle water pumps and stored it in two tanks on the back of the vehicles. Food was bought in Opuwo, before reaching the study area, and stored in two freezers on the vehicles. The large dimension and the rough surface of the study area forced us to inspect just a small percentage of it. Nevertheless, as mentioned above, we took advantage of our and local knowledge for improving the representativeness of the collected data.  

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