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Preserving plants to sustain life

Tasneem Variawa (28) believes plants play a huge role in sustaining all life, keeping Planet Earth balanced and controlling the climate.

This is why she finds her job as a botanist for the scientific authority at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) in Pretoria fascinating.

Variawa is part of a team that coordinates research and gathers information and data to help experts make decisions on whether the use and trade of animals and plants is sustainable.

The scientific authority is a group of expert scientists from conservation organisations, such as SANBI and zoos, whose work is in line with the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act of 2004. They assist with regulating and restricting the use and trade of plants and animals that are threatened or in danger of becoming extinct.

At the end of the day, the job that they do contributes to the protection and preservation of plants so that they do not become extinct.

Part of Variawa’s job is to educate people on the importance of protecting plants as natural resources for future use.

“Plants have ecological and economic importance in the sense that they give human beings and animals food, building materials for shelter, medicinal benefits and also play a role keeping the air and water clean and the soil intact,” she said.

Variawa defined botany as the scientific study of plants and said that the field is important because botanists’ knowledge can be used to improve the growing of food, extract medicines from plants and understand what causes harm to life or biodiversity.

Botany has various aspects to it, such as taxonomy, plant pathology and plant physiology, but Variawa is more involved in the biodiversity and conservation parts of it.

“Conservation is important for everyone. People’s lives actually depend on animals, and plants ensure that they have resources for future generations,” she explained.

On the other hand, she said biodiversity is important because all life depends on it.

“For everything to function as it should and in balance and for human beings to enjoy things like fresh air, clean water and rich soil to grow plants we need biodiversity, we need everything to be working properly,” she explained.

“I always knew that conversation is about protecting animals and plants but for a girl like me who grew up in the city, I sort of disconnected from how much we actually rely on animals and plants to survive,” she said.

“It was only when I visited rural areas while studying that I realised how people are directly reliant on animals and plants; in rural areas they use medicinal plants, wood to cook, they plant their own vegetables and some even hunt animals to have a meal at the end of the day,” she said.

Destined to be a scientist

Growing up in the streets of Johannesburg, she always knew that she wanted to become a scientist.

“I am the only girl child at home and I grew up playing with my two brothers. We climbed trees and played with sand a lot. I always had that itch to explore and when I started school, I enjoyed subjects related to science and biology. I found it fascinating to be able to understand the world and how things work. I knew at that age already that I wanted to become a scientist,” she said.

After completing matric, she enrolled for a BSc degree at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

“I thought I would major in microbiology because it would be cool to work in a laboratory with microscopes and study micro-organisms but at the end of my first year, I found microbiology a little bit boring,” she said.

Variawa was introduced to animal, plant and environmental sciences and was captivated. She subsequently graduated with a BSc degree in Zoology and Ecology before doing her Honours Degree in 2012, focusing on conservation.

“I have very supportive parents. It is not always easy for young people in the Indian community to pursue the career of their choice because most parents tell them that they have to be a doctor, lawyer or teacher, but my parents were not like that,” she said.

Career journey

In 2014, after a gap year, Variawa started an internship at SANBI under the National Research Foundation programme and worked for the Coordinator of the Scientific Authority for about a year and eight months.

“I was fortunate to be part of the group I was in because the work that we did was put into policy and implementation, which is the ultimate goal for any conservation expert,” she explained.

At the end of her internship, she enrolled for a Master’s degree in Resource Conservation Biology at Wits, which she completed in 2016.

Because she already knew that she wanted to work for SANBI, especially in the conservation field, she applied for a research assistant post that was advertised and got the job towards the end of 2017. She worked under the threatened species programme before accepting her current position with the Scientific Authority.

“My job is never boring. We deal with natural resources that are being used. There are economic, social and conservation sides to it, so it cuts across many disciplines. It is always challenging to find a solution to every problem because we know that it is never a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’; we have to understand that people rely on the plants that we are trying to preserve – whether it is a source of income for them or healthcare related – and we have to question whether their use is sustainable,” she said.

Variawa is exactly where she wanted to be in her career, at this stage of her life. Her goal is to become an established scientist, something she said requires the publishing of many research papers.

She finds the environment she works in thrilling because she constantly learns and shares her lessons with people.

Effects of climate change on plants

With climate change affecting all nature, she said it is a bit tricky for plants… unlike animals that are able to move around when the environment is a bit too hot or cold for them.

“Even in South Africa, we have those kinds of plants that are restricted to a certain environment. There are many outcomes – the plant may adapt to a new climate, its seeds might be carried to an area more suitable for its survival or it might keep contracting and contracting,” she said.

The latter results in us losing a lot of species because of climate change. “It is one of the biggest challenges for plants,” she said.

To lessen the effects of climate change, Variawa advised everyone to be cognisant of everything that they do.

“Education is key, always, and in everything. When people are informed they can do better. They should always think about the consequences of their actions for future generations,” said Variawa.

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