College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

A PhD in Ecological Sciences for Dr Samke Ngcobo.

PhD Focuses on Avian Diversity in KZN and Eastern Cape Mistbelts

Research on local and landscape drivers of avian diversity in the naturally fragmented southern mistbelt forests of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and the Eastern Cape earned Dr Samukelisiwe Ngcobo her PhD in Ecological Sciences.

She was supervised by Professor Colleen Downs and husband and wife, Drs Yvette and David Ehlers Smith.

‘Naturally fragmented forests harbour resilient species, but novel challenges experienced by these species have unknown consequences,’ explained Downs. ‘Samke assessed local avian diversity in selected southern mistbelt forests of KZN and the Eastern Cape using a multifaceted approach. She revealed how key landscape features affected local bird diversity and mapped the connectivity of core forest patches providing the highest avian diversity. She also provided recommendations for the long-term survival of species in these forests.’

‘I examined the many-sided nature of the biodiversity of bird communities in these forests influenced by habitat loss and fragmentation, that is, the arrangement of forests after the removal of habitat,’ said Ngcobo. As a KZN local, UKZN was the obvious choice of institution for her research.

‘My research highlights the importance of conserving forest habitat in order to maintain the bird diversity that is dependent on forests. This is vital since the forest biome is the smallest of the biomes in South Africa and further degradation and loss could negatively affect forest-dependent plants and animals,’ she said.

‘Little is known about how naturally fragmented forest biotas respond to present-day anthropogenic (ie human-induced) fragmentation effects, and my research helps to fill this research gap.’

Ngcobo has always loved nature and being able to get out to study these forest communities was a dream come true.

She paid tribute to her mother as her primary supporter who made personal sacrifices to get her where she is; and to her supervisor Professor Downs for academic and financial support. ‘And I could not have finished this PhD had it not been for the grace of God,’ she said.

Not one to miss an opportunity, Ngcobo spends her spare time studying free online training courses. With a PhD under her belt, she hopes to continue pursuing an academic career by undertaking postdoctoral research.

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Sandile Ndlovu