Nasiphi Bitani: The ecology behind saving birds

For Black History Month, the British Ecological Society (BES) journals are celebrating the work of Black ecologists from around the world and sharing their stories. The theme for UK Black History Month this year is Time for Change: Action Not Words. Nasiphi Bitani—a PhD researcher from the Centre for Functional Biodiversity, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa—shares her story below.

How did you get into ecology?

Nasiphi Bitani (right) with Her friend and mentor, Dr. Thobeka Gumede (left), at Her home in the Eastern Cape, South Africa.

I am Nasiphi Bitani and I grew up between the Eastern Cape and a small township south of Durban in the KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa. My main research interests are Forest ecology, Biological invasions, and Ornithology. When I was a second-year undergraduate student in Environmental Science I was introduced to ecology. I was fortunate to have been one of the top two students in a vertebrate biology course that year and I was selected as a research assistant for the following year (2016). My passion for ecology was sparked when I worked as a research assistant for my lecturer, Dr. Manqhai Kraai, who was researching plant-herbivore interactions. The opportunity introduced me to the field and lab work that doctoral students do. I was inspired by the work she was doing and decided that for my Master’s degree I would pursue ecology. In retrospect, that was the first time I was lectured by a black lecturer—for the first time, I felt that exploring this path was possible for black girls like me. In 2018, I got an opportunity to do my Master’s degree in ecology with Prof. Colleen Downs focusing on the seed dispersal of fleshy-fruited invasive plants by native avian species funded by the National Research Foundation and the Centre for Invasion Biology. I was awarded the MSc degree cum-laude in 2021 and produced 3 publications from it (Functional traits of fleshy-fruited invasive plants; Native birds disperse Lantana camara; Impact assessment of fleshy-fruited alien plants).

What are you researching/working on right now?

Nasiphi Bitani out in the field in Fountain Hill Estate, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

Currently, I am in the midst of completing my 3rd year Ph.D. in Ecological Science. My current research focuses on the Mistbelt indigenous forests of the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Midlands in South Africa. In the past, these forests were heavily logged affecting the ecology of the system. I am studying the effects of land-use change on bird and plant communities in these forests. Understanding changes in species composition through anthropogenic disturbance is important for the conservation of biodiversity in a changing world. This study will help stakeholders to formulate more effective species conservation strategies in forest systems and will allow for a more targeted conservation approach. One thing I enjoy most about my work is that it allows me to travel and explore beautiful landscapes. My most amazing travel experience so far must be when I went to the Frugivore and Seed dispersal conference in 2020 hosted in Uttarakhand in India. I love the fact that ecology allows me to combine my love for nature, travel, and statistics.

Looking for?

I would like to connect with other ecologists around the world who are interested in forest ecosystem functionality, seed dispersal, and landscapes, and who are willing to host international students for a research visit and are open to collaborations. I am looking to connect with the global community of ecologists and join any available online networking events. I am seeking a Postdoc opportunity in global, landscape, and conservation ecology for 2023.

Who are your role models—within ecology and beyond?

Nasiphi Bitani on a birding trip during the International Frugivore and Seed dispersal conference in India.

Within ecology, one of my black role models is Dr. Manqoba Zungu who is doing amazing work on the ecology of human-dominated landscapes. Beyond ecology, I am inspired by the unmatched work ethic of my parents.

As I was writing this blog post, I realised I do not know a lot of black ecologists. There is certainly a need for diversity and inclusion in ecology and STEM fields at large. If there is anything we can learn from the ecological systems we study, it is the fact that the importance of diversity in the functionality of systems is critical. 

I am honoured to be part of the 2023 group of black ecologists that are being spotlighted in this BES blog series. I am glad to see such initiatives and I hope they continue beyond UK Black History Month.

I would like to give a shout out to:

* Dr. Caswell Munyai who is a senior lecturer at UKZN conducting research in invertebrate ecology. I admire his enthusiasm and intent in supporting and providing a supportive environment for black postgraduates in ecology.

* Dr. Nhana Gwedla who is a Postdoctoral researcher at North-West University, South Africa, working on urban ecology and urban forestry research.

* Sethabile Mbatha who is an ecologist at Agreenco Environmentals and, with her team, they provide ecological solutions to mines in and around South Africa.

Enjoyed the blogpost and want to reach out to Nasiphi? Contact her via Twitter or email!

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