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Golden Gate Highlands National Park management plan
South Africa’s Golden Gate Highlands National Park
The Golden Gate Highlands National Park (GGHNP) is on the foothills of the Maluti Mountains and is the only
national park in the eastern Free State Province of South Africa. The park is famous for its impressive sandstone
formations.1 It was established in 1963 for the purpose of protecting a pristine area with much emphasis on
conserving the sandstone formations and the montane and Afro-Alpine grassland biome.2 The GGHNP is situated
in QwaQwa, which is well known for lacking sustainable development,3 and has been declared a Presidential
Nodal Point because of high poverty, population growth and unemployment. These problems persist despite the
fact that the park is the province’s major tourist attraction. Previous research in and around the park has focused
on geology, palaeontological finds, slope forms and the prominent lichen weathering,1 and remarkably little has
been done on the institutional framework and policy environment governing the management and conservation of
park resources. The current park management plan was compiled in 2011. This plan provides the legal base for
managing resources in the GGHNP. The absence of a comprehensive database on heritage sites complicates the
park management process. Whilst remarkable progress has been made in zoning the park to establish a coherent
spatial framework, more still needs to be done in using GIS to develop an Environmental Management System.
Here we explore the extent to which the current institutional framework and policy initiatives in the management
plan foster collaboration between community and national bodies, for purposes of enhancing conservation and the
economic potential of heritage resources whilst broadening the scope for scientific research. The broad objective
of the park management plan is to conserve biodiversity, with an emphasis on provision of an excellent learning
platform, sustainable tourism opportunities and building of cooperation between stakeholders in order to promote
local and regional economic development.
Golden Gate Highlands National park management plan: The bad
Despite the presence of good strategies and initiatives in the park management plan, there are areas of concern that
may compromise the long-term future management and conservation of resources in the GGHNP. Although the park
management plan states the need to stimulate conservation in communities and alleviate poverty, the situation on
the ground suggests otherwise. The park has a tradition of shipping important archaeological and palaeontological
findings to distant museums, both in the country and abroad. An important palaeontological discovery – fossil
dinosaur eggs containing foetal skeletons – dating to the Late Triassic (200–230 million years ago) was made in
the park.4 Although this discovery would have provided excellent learning opportunities and tourism potential for
the local area, the fossil eggs were sent to museums which are hundreds of kilometres from the park, outside the
community and the province in which they were discovered. This arrangement does not promote local economic
development, let alone conservation of park resources by adjacent communities. The park management plan omits
the fact that without a local museum, adjacent communities are being deprived of benefiting from their heritage
resources. It has been observed that local communities have historically co-existed with tourism attractions such
as museums.5 Park management plans that undermine co-existence of local communities and park resources
HOW TO CITE:
are self-defeating. The park management plan should rather foster establishment of an integrated approach in
which ex-situ (museum) and in-situ (immovable land-based features) park resources can be managed together
while simultaneously broadening the scope for scientific research and economic development. The absence of
a local museum which could house important discoveries from the GGHNP is undoubtedly worrisome to local
communities, given that museums can significantly contribute to the local economic development by providing
tourism potential. Museums are tourist destinations which are widely ignored as a development tool and their
potential to contribute to poverty alleviation efforts is rarely considered.
Drawing on discussions with community members, it has been conclusively established that the majority of
residents adjacent to the park has not significantly benefited from activities taking place within the GGHNP. The
exception is a few individuals who graze their livestock in the park or harvest thatch grass and medicinal plants
or those who take part in the activities that take place at the Basotho Cultural Village. In some cases, resources
such as grass, firewood and wild animals are harvested illegally, thus limiting the benefits that trickle to local
communities. The participation of local communities in park-based tourism is minimal. This finding concurs with
that of Schoemann6, who observed that the tourism industry in the Free State Province does not currently contribute
significantly to the economy of the province. Consequently, some community members tend to vandalise heritage
resources in the park, such as the San paintings, even though the park was proclaimed to conserve them. Some of
the paintings that have been vandalised are about 8000 years old.7 The park also has a heritage site where a battle
was fought during the Anglo–Boer war. Large quantities of ammunition that was used during the war can still be
found at the site. The site constitutes an important record of South Africa’s history and struggle for independence
from the Boers. Surprisingly, the site is easily accessible to tourists and passers-by, making it prone to vandalism.
If the park management plan accommodated a more socially oriented benefit sharing scheme, then communities
living adjacent to the park might more readily embrace it, and thus illegal harvesting of park resources would be
minimised. Although the management plan states the idea of incorporating public opinion and society towards
promoting conservation values, it is regrettable to note that public involvement is not from a grassroots but an
The GGHNP, like many other African heritage sites, is threatened by various forms of economic development.8,9 The
park is home to domestic livestock which is overgrazing and competing for food with wild animals. Agricultural
activities and settlement expansion of adjacent communities is worsening this situation. However, the GGHNP
management plan does not adequately demonstrate combative measures. In discussions held with 20 local
South African Journal of Science
Golden Gate Highlands National Park management plan
community members who herd domestic livestock in the park, 80%
under certain conditions as part of benefit sharing to strengthen
stated that livestock grazing was the best way to benefit from the park.
relationships with communities living adjacent to parks.13 However, the
Such a situation creates a conflict between land uses. Even if alternative
GGHNP management plan does not adequately demonstrate what is
land is made available to resettle communities which live a few metres
being harvested, or the extent and impact of harvesting in the GGHNP.
away from the park, research must be done to determine whether
Consequently, the capacity to monitor, evaluate and set the boundaries
these communities would be prepared to move to a new area. A raft of
for such harvesting is limited.13 There is, however, a general lack of
measures should be put in place to deal with vegetation loss from grazing
published research on resource extraction from protected areas in South
by domestic animals, in addition to loss from veld fires, invasive alien
Africa,14 particularly in national parks.
species and climate change. Elsewhere, heritage sites faced with similar
threats include the iconic World Heritage Site of Mapungubwe which
has been in the media for the last few years because of threats posed to
There must be speedy documentation of cultural heritage sites to
its integrity by mining.10 In Sudan, vast stretches of cultural landscape
promote route tourism development. In several parts of the world,
hosting valuable heritage are under threat from dam construction.11
heritage routes are used particularly in the context of promoting rural
Undoubtedly, national heritage resources can be used as a foundation for
tourism.15,16 According to Meyer17, routes are a good opportunity for
poverty eradication, for example, heritage sites such as Goree Island in
the development of less mature areas with a high number of cultural
Senegal, Timbuktu in Mali and Robben Island in South Africa are famous
resources that appeal to tourists. Given that QwaQwa is undoubtedly
for attracting large numbers of tourists; even human origins sites like
one of the poorest areas in the eastern Free State Province of South
the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa are now significant revenue
Africa, general development pressures from tourism and rural residential
generators.10 The GGHNP could also become an important revenue
perspectives do exist for the area.18 The GGHNP has rich cultural and
generator and possibly promote local economic development.
heritage resources, yet is unable to effectively preserve them and to
Often there are uncontrolled fires in the park which can destroy
turn these assets into tourist attractions that earn revenue and provide
important heritage sites, both known and as yet unknown. Whilst the
opportunities for local economic development. This development
park management plan acknowledges the significance of fire in the
requires creativity, commitment and resources, which is precisely what
ecosystem, which evidently is becoming uncontrollable and often
the GGHNP management plan lacks. There must be serious engagement
occurs unexpectedly, fire management requires huge financial and
of the government, given that heritage funding ranks very lowly in terms
human resource investment. A revision of the current fire management
of government priority scales.10 It is also noble for the park management
policy is necessary in light of new and advanced global fire-fighting
to immediately engage academics and researchers, for instance those
strategies. Wetlands in the park are being destroyed by fire and the
from the local University of the Free State (QwaQwa Campus), which is a
magnitude and severity of this destruction is unknown. Immediate
mere 5 km from the GGHNP. Academics from this local university could
research on the impact of fire on wetlands is called for because the
contribute significantly to research and sustainable management of park
biophysical environment is being altered.
resources, and, unlike previous researchers who came from faraway
places, will not disappear with heritage trophies collected from the
A prominent feature of the park is that it forms a huge watershed which
area or publish research results elsewhere without providing feedback
provides water to most parts of South Africa. However, the ecological
on the state of park resources. On the issue of revenue generation, the
intergrity of the park to maintain water quality and quantity is being
park must man various viewpoints in order to stop unpaid viewing of
compromised by erosion and invasive species. Gullies are fast becoming
the park’s beautiful scenery. In addition, a small levy should be charged
the prominent feature of the park. Some of the gullies are a few metres
to motorists using the provincial road. Furthermore, access to the
away from the provincial R712 road which passes through the park and,
park and heritage sites should be only for those visitors who check in
sooner or later, the road will crumble. Furthermore, this road allows
at certain control points and are issued with tickets or entry permits.
uncontrolled access to the park, which is a matter of concern. The R712
The controversy surrounding the road must be resolved for the park to
road is also the shortest route from the port of Durban in South Africa to
generate enough revenue. There is a need for close cooperation between
Maseru, the capital city of Lesotho, and almost all imports from abroad
various stakeholders to come up with a management plan that embraces
to Lesotho are transported via this road.12 Uncontrolled access into the
sustainable development principles. Management of park resources is
park means the revenue collection base of the park will remain low. The
a complex undertaking which requires technologies and support tools
management plan fails to demonstrate mechanisms to control traffic
such as GIS. GIS and remote sensing technologies encourage the
passing through the park using this road. Huge volumes of traffic may
adoption of ecological principles in land-use policy and management
cause pollution of air and water bodies inside the park, both of which are
plan formulation, as well as collaboration of various stakeholders, which
vital resources for wildlife. The management plan omits to acknowledge
is essential for establishing comprehensive environmental databases19
that noise from vehicles may also cause stress, and consequently affect
the mating and feeding habits of wild animals in the park. This road
also increases the potential of poaching because it gives access to
secondary roads in the park that could be used by poachers,12 and itself
The GGHNP management plan can only succeed in promoting
biodiversity and heritage conservation if it provides livelihood oppor-
The park management plan is commendable for stating the need
tunities that safeguard continued socio-economic benefits.20 Local
to document the cultural heritage sites in the park. Nevertheless, the
communities must embrace the existence of the GGHNP if resources
management plan does not have information on the actual number of
are to be conserved for current and future generations. Park resources,
heritage sites in the park. Knowing the actual number of heritage sites
if managed properly, can provide long-term sustainable benefit to
is important in identifying and declaring sites of national importance.
individuals, communities and institutions. However, there are areas of
Furthermore, the promotion of responsible tourism and development of
concern in the GGHNP management plan that need to be addressed.
route tourism can only be successful if sites of national importance are
Whilst the park management plan has its own remarkable strengths, it
identified. The development of detailed heritage inventories is essential
lacks depth – arising mainly from the multiplicity of unpublished sources
because robust risk management frameworks require the establishment
that were consulted in the process of its compilation. Apart from the
of up-to-date inventories and GIS databases for management purposes,
analytical flaws discussed here, the park management plan provides
in particular for saving heritage during disasters and conflict.10 The
a good basis for developing a comprehensive scheme for natural and
current database has GPS coordinates for only a few sites and GIS maps
showing the location of heritage sites in the park must be created.
Finally, the park management plan fails to quantify and account for the
resources being harvested from the GGHNP by adjacent communities.
The Cluster on Sustainable Development and Poverty Alleviation of the
Resource harvesting is allowed within South African protected areas
University of the Free State is thanked for providing research funds.
South African Journal of Science
Golden Gate Highlands National Park management plan
10. Chirikure S. Heritage conservation in Africa: The good, the bad, and the
challenges. S Afr J Sci. 2013;109(1/2), Ar
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the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, South Africa, in a global context. Koedoe. 2011;53, Ar
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the Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project at the Fourth Nile Cataract (Sudan). Conserv Manage Archaeol Sites. 2011;13:253–280.
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12. Kotze N. The consequences of road development in the Golden Gate Highlands
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13. Van Wilgen NJ, Dopolo M, Symonds A, Vermeulen W, Bester E, Smith K, et
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17. Meyer D. Tourism routes and gateways: Key issues for the development
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of tourism routes and gateways and their potential for pro-poor tourism.
QwaQwa National Park, South Africa. Cur Issue Tourism. 2002;5:287–308.
London: Overseas Development Institute; 2004.
18. Taylor S, Atkinson D. Socio-economic and environmental challenges in
Lesotho and the Eastern Free State border region: A literature review and
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South African Journal of Science
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