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In addition to their daily tasks of digging holes in the dirt, wading through rivers and communing with nature, SEF specialists have recently taken to dangling off cliffs. Apart from the fact that they say its good fun, this new service offering has a very real application which is generally termed Vertical Ecology.

SEF embarked on this new initiative in the field of ecology and data gathering capability in 2013 in response to the need for a better understanding of the impact of the Skywalk project at God’s Window on the edge of the Mpumalanga Escarpment. The area is characterized by steep slopes and cliffs, which are often neglected in terms of ecological sensitivity analysis as a result of inaccessibility during field verification studies.

Steep slopes and cliffs are regarded as highly sensitive environments as highlighted in various official ridge policies (i.e. GDARD, 2009, Mpumalanga Guidelines for Biodiversity Assessments) as well as international research and often represent habitat for rare and endangered fauna, flora and unique ecosystems.

These high relief areas are often targeted particularly for tourism developments, alien vegetation control programs as well as linear infrastructure developments, e.g. road, pipe and electrical infrastructure developments. Rope Access methodologies allow for safe working conditions in an otherwise inaccessible environment and yield a surprising array of information on biological sensitivities.

During the recent study at God’s Window, this new approach showed dividend through the identification of large populations of plant species of conservation concern such as Monopsis kowynensis, Aloe nubigena, Schizochilus lilacinus, Streptocarpus fenestra-dei and Merwilla plumbea as well as caves and crevices which provide suitable habitat for various threatened bat species.  Several other unique features were discovered on site including groundwater-fed mini wetlands that have not been described previously, which also host species of conservation concern.

The identification of sensitive features on site allowed the team to put forward viable mitigation measures that have the potential to enhance tourism through appropriate design and showcasing of some of the unique ecological features.

SEF’s vertical ecology team is now in the unique position of being qualified to conduct detailed vertical ecological surveys. The range of applications is endless, apart from the ecological surveys of developments affecting cliff faces, this technique can be applied to the establishment of new canopy tour routes, bat research (including the installation and monitoring of bat detectors and inspection of caves for possible roosting sites), ringing of raptor chicks for monitoring purposes and monitoring of rare and endangered plant species or their host habitats.

Don’t try this at home…

Conducting vertical ecology field surveys involves more than just tying a rope around your waist and taking a leap of faith. Following national and international best practice guidelines, two of SEF’s ecologist qualified as Level I and Level III Rope Access technicians respectively through rigorous training     courses and past experience.

The Level III Rope Access qualification represents more than 3 500 hours of rope access experience and caters for aspects such as supervision, rigging, construction planning and methodologies for working at heights.

A unique feature of the Rope Access system is the utilization of a minimal two point system, thus catering for a completely independent back up system which dramatically increases the safety factor, differentiating it from standard mountaineering techniques.

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