Kruger Park science centre aims to inspire a passion for ecology

South Africa has no shortage of problems facing its astonishingly rich biodiversity, from climate change and habitat encroachment to pollution and poaching. Skills and knowledge are required to meet these challenges, and helping to address the shortage of both is the Skukuza Science Leadership Initiative (SSLI), a state-of-the art science facility in the Kruger National Park’s administrative hub.

NW Architects - ReWild Africa - Alistair Daynes--6
The SSLI’s exterior.

Since it was launched in July 2017, the SSLI has been working with a lengthy pipeline of talent and experience, including local high school pupils, university students, SA National Parks (SANParks) employees and other scientists.

The design and materials of the SSLI campus — which includes a lecture theatre, library and laboratory — put sustainability at the forefront. Recycled girders and rubble from nearby parking bays and a helipad were used in construction. Mud bricks were baked on-site (a technique taught to the local builders who were involved in construction).

On one side, a breathable, fireproof rammed earth wall was built using local soil; its thickness helps to moderate temperatures and control humidity. Inside, the floors consist of stabilised earth, while external ones are “soil-crete” (half cement and half locally sourced soil). There’s no air-conditioning, but the campus was relatively cool on the sweltering summer day when I visited earlier this year. This is thanks to elements such as the lecture hall’s clerestory windows (which facilitate cross-ventilation) as well as a roof garden of indigenous plants, which shields the spaces below from hot sun.

Sustainability was at the forefront of the building's design. Picture: ALISTAIR DAYNES

SSLI co-founder Karen Vickers says that making the building as green as possible was important so as to highlight humanity’s role in ecosystems.

“​In order to demonstrate this, students need to think about their own environmental footprints on a daily basis,” she says. “In Skukuza, if you are filling up a bathtub, you are literally taking water away from the hippos. Everyone needs to make that connection. Kruger’s ecosystems are the classroom, but the facility enhances this learning by also allowing us to collect data on our own water use, electricity use and waste production, then to reflect on our consumption and challenge ourselves to do better,” she adds.

Vickers hopes that the sense of environmental stewardship that students gain while on the campus will continue long after they’ve returned home, because, even in cities, human “impacts are the same and nature is still present”. As the campus proves, it’s “possible to build comfortable, beautiful infrastructure that has minimal carbon footprint” and she hopes that this will inspire students should they ever consider building or renovating their own homes.

The campus also offers, she says, “a test case for sustainable infrastructure development” that could inform how SANParks builds infrastructure in Kruger and elsewhere in SA in the future.

The design of the Skukuza Science Leadership Initiative includes a laboratory.
The design of the Skukuza Science Leadership Initiative includes a laboratory.

Since July 2017, the SSLI has hosted nine groups from local universities (such as Nelson Mandela University, the University of the Western Cape and the University of Mpumalanga), and 21 from international institutions, including the University of Western Sydney in Australia, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Princeton University.

It offers an annual biodiversity training internship for local university students, technicians and environmental monitors. Over the course of six weeks, the interns learn various techniques for surveying biodiversity and understanding the relationships between animal behavioural patterns and vegetation.

Though the campus mostly hosts university students, the SSLI is committed to working with high school pupils too. Already it’s conducted 10 high school courses since opening.

“SA is not producing enough master’s and PhD-level students required to generate the expertise that the country needs to face its current and future environmental challenges,” explains Vickers. She hopes that the science camps offered during school holidays to local high school pupils will help to change that.

Aimed at imparting an understanding of science research, biodiversity and data analysis, the camps are designed to help students realise their potential as leaders while exposing them to myriad career opportunities in Kruger (and the environmental sciences more generally).

Vickers says that as passionate educators she and her fellow co-founder, Dr Laurence Kruger, believe that field courses have the potential to be transformative experiences for students because they challenge them not just cognitively but socially and emotionally too.

“By providing them with these transformational experiences, we hope to ignite a passion for science and an understanding of the importance of connected social-ecological systems, and hopefully inspire these students to study further and become the leaders that SA so desperately needs,” she says.

The SSLI is managed by the nonprofit Nsasani Trust on land provided by SANParks. Providing much-needed income to cover its costs and support its programmes is the campus’s anchor tenant, the Organisation for Tropical Studies (OTS). Offering ecology courses to university students predominantly from the US, the organisation uses the SSLI’s facilities for roughly one-third of the year. OTS has also assisted with fundraising and the conceptual development of the SSLI’s programmes.

There are big plans to expand the SSLI’s reach and impact. This includes additional construction of accommodation, and catering and administrative buildings. The founders hope to ramp up engagement with high schools, develop a teacher training programme and expand the existing biodiversity internship into a year-round ParaEcologist programme, which will teach important life and biodiversity science skills.

The SSLI also hopes to increase the number of tailor-made short courses and workshops it offers business professionals. One that is already up and running is the biomimicry workshop it hosts in collaboration with the Biomimicry Institute of SA. Over the course of several days, participants from diverse career backgrounds learn about the design principles that exist in nature and how these can be applied in a variety of contexts, from entrepreneurship and organisational development, to product design and architecture.

Vickers hopes that the long-term impact of the SSLI will be a global network of alumni who have been exposed to a life-changing experience and who now have the confidence and desire to become “change agents” themselves.

“It’s been so inspiring to see how people use and enjoy the space — how it enables deeper learning and connections,” she says. “Almost every participant I know who has attended a course at the SSLI longs to return for more!”

Pictures of the SSLI campus were taken by Alistair Daynes.

An edited version of this article appeared in the 31 October 2019 edition of Business Day.

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