What started for James Vonesh as a journey across the Virginia landscape to examine the James River soon sparked the creation of a four-week program in South Africa that carried students along the Tugela River watershed, Pongola River and African coastal plains. 

At least 19 hours apart by plane, Virginia and South Africa are very different regions, but Vonesh and his class at Virginia Commonwealth University noticed striking similarities between the James River and African waterways.

Vonesh, assistant director for the Center of Environmental Studies at VCU, spoke at the University of Richmond's South Africa Week on Nov. 13., and started his presentation by highlighting the importance of rivers and discussed his involvement in VCU's field-based course on the James.

Started in 2014, the VCU course “Footprints on the James” allowed students to step out of the classroom and explore biological components and history of the James River firsthand, Vonesh said. For four weeks, Vonesh, fellow VCU colleagues such as Dan Carr, experts from the Outdoor Adventure Program and students backpacked, canoed and boated an approximate 150-mile section of the James River. 

Students saw the natural treasures found in and around the James River, guest instructor Jonathan Moore said in a video about Footprints on the James. Students also examined a vital but fragile ecosystem. 

“River and aquatic habitats are among the most threatened,” Vonesh said. 

As much as 80 percent of freshwater ecosystems are threatened due to river fragmentation, disruption of water flow, urbanization, point-source pollution and water extraction, he added.

These threats damage the natural ecosystem and harm the human community because rivers provide us with raw materials and food sources, Vonesh explained. 

“If we don’t take care of our rivers, we will lose those functions that they provide for us,” he said. “We need water, but then so does biodiversity.” 

Vonesh’s experience with Footprints on the James and his understanding of the ecological and anthropogenic value of a river were rushing through his head as he traveled to South Africa in 2015 to pursue a Fulbright research grant at the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology, he said. At this center, part of Stellenbosch University in South Africa, Vonesh researched invasive species. While in Africa, Vonesh decided he wanted to develop a course that was similar to Footprints on the James in this region.

The program that was created in 2016 from this idea, “South African Summits to Sea,” where students spent four weeks during their winter break exploring natural history of waterways in South Africa and the influence that human history has had on these environments, Vonesh said. 

Vonesh partnered with Stellenbosch University, VCU, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and African Insight Academy to establish this program. The group arrived in Johannesburg in December 2017 and drove to Royal Natal National Park set up their first camp site. During the first portion of their journey, the class examined the Tugela River watershed. 

While studying the upper watershed of the Tugela River, students conducted South African stream assessments to analyze water quality, studied interbasin water schemes that transferred both water and species to new areas and examined the correlation between land-use decisions and biodiversity in the area. 

They then traveled along the Pongola River to examine animal natural history by visiting sites such as crocodile farms and game reserves, Vonesh said. They looked at sugar cane production and irrigation systems to learn more about the human community.

Vonesh observed the difference in the Pongola River between the first two years of South African Summits to Sea because of the Pongola port dam. The dam caused the river to become extremely choked up by the second year, which resulted in a very low flow of water, a lack of oxygen in the water as a result of excessive plant growth and an extreme overgrowth of cattails and nonnative species, Vonesh said.

The class explored the coastal plains, starting in the Bhanga Nek area and ending in Kosi Bay Mouth. Students also learned about microplastics, tidal pools, turtle nesting and artisanal fishing, he said. 

Students were required to keep a field journal filled with notes and drawings to document both the natural and human histories, Vonesh said. Once back at VCU, the students used their journals to write research papers.

South Africa has similar challenges to the James River, such as development and habitat fragmentation, Vonesh said. Issues of over-abstraction as well as poor water quality and invasive species were heightened in South Africa because of the country’s need for safe drinking water, he said.

“South Africa is a relatively water-poor country,” he explained. “Many households don’t have access to safe drinking water.” 

Both Kristine Grayson, UR assistant professor of biology, and Todd Lookingbill, UR associate professor of biology and geography and the environment, said they had enjoyed hearing about the parallels between the James River and South African waterways during Vonesh’s presentation. Grayson and Lookingbill have previously worked with Vonesh.

Grayson attended Vonesh’s lab meetings at VCU while completing her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. Her favorite part of the presentation was being able to see the images of the landscape and daydream about the beautiful vistas, she said.

“It felt like he kind of took the audience on a journey of what it’s actually like to be on the ground in South Africa,” Lookingbill said in agreement.  

Vonesh spent his childhood between the rainforests of Papua New Guinea and the cornfields of Illinois, Lookingbill said. Vonesh studied biology at Eckerd College and taught English in Japan for years before studying zoology at the University of Florida. He started as a herpetologist and now describes himself as a community ecologist, researching the linkage between aquatic and terrestrial systems.  

Vonesh emphasized that this program wasn't just for VCU students, and said he hoped he could partner with UR for future programs. 

Any interested students should email him about the 2020 South African program, Vonesh said.

Contact co-features editor Melanie Lippert at melanie.lippert@richmond.edu.