30 March 2023


The vehicle will support the UMP research team to continue with a collaborative research project aimed at conserving the most valuable and threatened fishes found on the East Coast of Africa, with a focus on the ecology of Western Indian Ocean Anguillid eels.

Receiving the vehicle at Wesvaal Numbi Ford in White River, Professor Gordon O’Brien, Director of the Rivers of Life Programme at the UMP School of Biology and Environmental Science, expressed his gratitude for the donation, stating that the car would assist their team  to continue conducting the necessary research.

He went on to explain that the vehicle would also help to reduce the funds used for travel and accommodation for the students working on the project.

The UMP researchers are focusing on the conservation of Southern Africa’s freshwater eels, the world's mightiest migrating fish species, swimming more than 10 000km, upstream from the Indian Ocean into the eastern-flowing rivers. Unfortunately, over-harvesting and various other issues have endangered these species.

Professor O'Brien notes, "all of our eels are threatened by habitat loss due to barrier formation, pollution, alien species and over-exploitation."

The team's preliminary data indicates that up to 60% of freshwater eel habitat has been removed in Southern Africa and up to 40% across the entire African East Coast distribution area. However, there are still viable populations that can support a recovery plan, and the team has an opportunity to contribute to the sustainable, formal use, conservation, and management of these eels in the region.

The collaborative research project, supported by the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association, involves scientists from South Africa, Mozambique, and Kenya. Professor O'Brien explains: "We have at least three years to go with our study and hope to turn it into a program dedicated to the sustainable conservation and management of the Western Indian Ocean freshwater eels."

UMPProfessor Gordon O'Brien received the vehicle on behalf of UMP and Rivers of Life Programme.

Despite the team's efforts, the research has been limited because many of the riverine habitats are in wild areas that are difficult to access, and the project was subsequently also hampered by COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021. The FWF's donation of the Ranger Double Cab 4x4 will enable the teams to reach remote areas necessary for their much-needed research.

FWF Manager Lynda du Plessis, commends the freshwater eels research project, stating that it is a fantastic collaborative initiative that not only addresses the issue of a threatened species but also the connected freshwater and marine ecology and sustainability as a whole.

"We look forward to seeing our FWF Ford Ranger helping the team gain valuable information that is essential to protect the rich biodiversity of the region. Partnering for projects such as these reflects on Ford’s values and commitment – caring for each other and protecting the environment.”

UMP Research Director, Professor Phindile Lukhele-Olorunju, expresses her gratitude for the donation, "it is an indication and recognition of the high level of research conducted by UMP staff and students." She also emphasizes the importance of collaboration between institutions and stakeholders, stating that the vehicle will further the reach of the work they continue to do.

Relief for research students 

PhD student at UMP, Annelize van der Merwe, is one of the students who will benefit from the vehicle donation, as her research focuses on freshwater ecology, specifically on multiple stressors affecting Anguillid eels. 

"This car will get us everywhere we need to go for conducting this research. We drive around a lot for our project because eels are found all around the coast. They are born in the ocean and come up in the rivers. There are very few rivers that are still in good condition to be able to accommodate these eels because they are an endangered species, and we don't know much about them due to their charismatic lifestyle."

Van der Merwe explains that in countries such as China, eel meat is considered a delicacy, and it is very expensive. However, she added, "We need to save them because people are exploiting them at high numbers, and for us to have the populations in a sustainable way, we need to study them and ensure there is more for our children to see in the future," she concluded.

The vehicle donation will go a long way in helping the UMP team to achieve their goals of conducting research that will save the eels.

@ Story and pictures Cleopatra Makhaga.