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Preserving plants to sustain life

Written by More Matshediso

Women's Month

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. Conserving plants is all in a day’s work for Tasneem Variawa.

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. 

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 explain to people why it is important to protect 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 and biodiversity. 

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.

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.

How to become a botanist

After completing matric with biology and mathematics included in her subjects. Variawa enrolled for a BSc degree at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). She subsequently graduated with a BSc degree in Zoology and Ecology before doing her Honours Degree in 2012, focusing on conservation.