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World GIS Day: Applications of GIS in Biodiversity Conservation

NOV 18, 2020 | Written by Zoë Chapman Poulsen. Photos by Darren Hanner, South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), by iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority/Debbie Cooper and Zoë Chapman Poulsen and supplied by Anisha Dayaram and Kiara Ricketts (SANBI).

Biodiversity Conservation



Above: Mizimvubu River, Eastern Cape. Photo by Darren Hanner. Supplied by Kiara Ricketts/SANBI.


Celebrating World GIS Day

This week we celebrate World GIS day, which raises awareness about the importance of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and the plethora of different applications for these powerful spatial data analysis tools.

Highly skilled GIS professionals are in demand across a variety of sectors in South Africa including biodiversity conservation. This week on the BotSoc Blog we take a closer look at GIS and why it is so important in the conservation space.


Above: Grootbrak floodplain, Western Cape. Photo by South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON). Supplied by Kiara Ricketts/SANBI.


What is GIS?

Geographical Information Systems are complex software programmes that can be used to analyse data through the production of maps and 3D scenes by visualising many different types of data. Spatial datasets can be used to produce different layers of information to reveal different insights into the data.

GIS software is a powerful problem solving tool with many different applications and is available to users through paid licences or as freeware. Numerous courses and tutorials are available online for those getting to grips with the software.

GIS software used to be used predominantly for institutional research-based applications, with software costs being relatively high. Today, GIS software is becoming increasingly accessible through freeware programmes such as QGIS, Google Earth and Earth Engine. Even the GPS devices on smart phones use GIS software to operate.


Above: Forest patches in Table Mountain National Park. Photo by Zoë Chapman Poulsen.


How can GIS be used in biodiversity conservation and applied research?

Geographical Information Systems software has many different applications for conservation and biodiversity focused research. One of the most common applications of GIS is for the creation of maps to help conservationists understand the state of biodiversity in a given area at different spatial scales. A combination of existing GIS layers, satellite imagery and ground-truthed data are used to delimit areas such as natural vegetation, wetlands, rivers, climate, soil and topography. Land cover can also be used to delimit the current extent of landscape features.

This can be used to document changes over time that impact on biodiversity, such as transformation of habitat for agriculture or urban development. Examples include mapping extent and distribution of renosterveld vegetation in the Swartland using aerial photographs (Newton & Knight, 2005), or mapping changes in forest distribution in Table Mountain National Park (Poulsen & Hoffman, 2015). These datasets can then feed into conservation planning, playing an integral role in management focused decision making to best achieve conservation goals.

Furthermore, use of GIS software also contributes to researchers exploring future scenarios for South Africa’s biodiversity, such as impacts of climate change and land use change. Changes can be monitored that allow land managers to prepare for increasing and variable threats to try and improve preparedness and resilience in the face of uncertainty.


Above: iSimangaliso Wetland Park, KwaZulu-Natal. Photo by iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority/Debbie Cooper. Supplied by Kiara Ricketts/SANBI.



Our partners at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) offer a variety of downloadable GIS layers that can be accessed via their Biodiversity GIS or BGIS portal for use by conservation and biodiversity practitioners and researchers. These include local, regional, provincial and national level conservation planning resources, such as national distributions of alien invasive plants, fine scale conservation plans for critical biodiversity areas (CBAs), the Eastern Cape Biodiversity Conservation plan and much more.


GIS and the National Biodiversity Assessment

Use of GIS plays an essential and integral role in the development and compilation of South Africa’s National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA). One of the main areas of emphasis for the NBA is spatial information for both ecosystems as well as for species.

For the NBA, many features such as wetlands of South Africa require data capture of available data, such as aerial photographs and satellite imagery. Findings are then ground-truthed during fieldwork. Multiple partners work together in the compilation of these datasets, including the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries , provincial Departments, conservation agencies, NGOs, academic institutions and citizen scientists.


Above: The South African National Biodiversity Institute’s (SANBI) National Vegetation Map Project webpage. Supplied by Anisha Dayaram/SANBI.



One of the most important GIS based foundations of biodiversity conservation in South Africa is the national vegetation map, produced as part of SANBI’s VEGMAP Project. Vegetation mapping is available at a variety of different scales, from biomes to bioregions and vegetation type levels.

This important dataset is updated on a regular basis and is continually being refined as improved information becomes available. The VegMap can be used alongside the National Vegetation Database and the National Vegetation Descriptions Database.


Above: the latest version of the vegetation map of South Africa, Lesotho and eSwatini. Supplied by Anisha Dayaram/SANBI.


How can you support the VEGMAP project?

Users of the VEGMAP datasets and associated information resources are encouraged to send any feedback they may have by filling in an online survey. More information is available here.

The VEGMAP team have also launched a specific project for citizen scientists on the biodiversity platform iNaturalist where photos documenting South Africa’s different vegetation types can be uploaded for use.

Many thanks to our partners at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) for supply of photos to illustrate this blog post.


Above: iSimangaliso Wetland Park, KwaZulu-Natal. Photo by iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority/Debbie Cooper. Supplied by Kiara Ricketts/SANBI.


Further reading

Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI): www.esri.com

Newton, I.P. Knight, R.S. (2005) ‘The use of a sixty year series of aerial photographs to assess local agricultural transformations of West Coast Renosterveld, an Endangered South African vegetation type’, South African Geographical Journal (Volume 87): pp. 18-27.

Poulsen, Z.C. Hoffman, M.T. (2015) ‘Changes in the distribution of indigenous forest in Table Mountain National Park during the 20th Century’, South African Journal of Botany (Volume 101): pp. 49-56.

QGIS: www.qgis.org

SANBI’s BGIS Portal: www.bgis.sanbi.org

Swetnam, R.D. Reyers, B. (2011) ‘Meeting the challenge of conserving Africa’s biodiversity: The role of GIS, now and in the future’, Landscape and Urban Planning (Volume 100): pp. 411-414.


1 Comment

  1. I get excited seeing this, I’m a student studying environmental science at the university of Venda and I would like to volunteer or get training based on GIS or remote sensing because remote sensing is my major

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