KEYNOTE SPEAKER: PROF M TIMM HOFFMAN – Looking back to conserve the future: the role of historical ecology in conservation practice

(Monday 6 November 2017)

Historical ecology is the study of the interactions between people and the environment over long periods of time, usually decades to centuries. Historical ecologists draw on a wide range of tools including archival records, historical ground and aerial photographs, and field surveys to make inferences about the nature, extent and rate of change in the environment. In doing so historical ecology has the potential to establish baseline conditions for a particular region, identify the trajectories of change in communities, populations and ecosystem processes and in this manner explore the causes of change. It can also use this information to make inferences about the future. Historical ecology is useful for conservation practice as it can test theories of degradation and change, determine benchmark conditions and help in the setting of conservation objectives. It can also extend the timeframe for monitoring and evaluation of environmental health. Historical ecology provides a powerful way of documenting and communicating changes in the environment to a wide range of interested user groups from the lay public to reserve staff, researchers, policy developers and state officials. Using examples from South African biomes the potential role of historical ecology (as outlined above) in conservation practice, will be highlighted. The emphasis will be on documenting long-term change in the vegetation of South Africa in which a relatively stable western part of the country will be contrasted with a dynamic and fast-changing eastern region where both local and global drivers of change have influenced what is evident in the landscape today.

Timm Hoffman holds the Leslie Hill Chair of Plant Conservation in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Cape Town where he is Director of the Plant Conservation Unit. He teaches undergraduate and postgraduate students within the applied biology and conservation biology academic programmes. His primarily research interests are in understanding how southern Africans in both private and communally-managed areas have used the land and its resources over time and how these practices, together with changing climates, have influenced what we have around us today. This inter-disciplinary approach focuses on the nature, extent and rate of environmental change over the historical period and on the implications of these changes for conservation and management.