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Summer 2003
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Cape Peninsula National Park, South Africa, Develops a GIS-Based Environmental Information System

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The EIS introductory screen and examples (insets) of the management focused map services (themes) developed using ArcIMS. The insets show the user interfaces for the Land Management, Vegetation Management, and Terrestrial and Aquatic Diversity themes.

The Cape Peninsula National Park (CPNP) at the southern tip of Africa encompasses a 60 km mountain chain bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the west and False Bay on the east. The area is globally recognized for its rich floral and faunal diversity as well as its remarkable scenic, historic, cultural, and recreational attractions. CPNP is located within the Cape Floral Kingdom (one of only six such kingdoms), which is internationally recognized as a hot spot of plant diversity. More than 2,285 plant species have been recorded in the CPNP, of which 90 are found nowhere else on earth. To put this into context, the British Isles has 1,492 and New Zealand has 1,996 plant species.

The incredible diversity of this region of South Africa has been threatened for many years by encroaching urbanization, incorrect fire regimes, and the invasion of pristine habitats by alien plants. In addition, the area is a major local and international tourist destination. In response to these threats, CPNP was established as a national park in 1998 under the management of South African National Parks.

In 1999 the CPNP initiated a project to develop a GIS-based environmental information system (EIS). A related project aimed at developing a management system consisting of publicly acceptable management policies and strategic and operational planning guidelines within a strategic management plan was initiated at the same time. The EIS was aimed at providing park management staff with access to information and information management tools facilitating the planning, implementation, and monitoring of park activities. A grant from the World Bank funded the EIS project.

CPNP has a staff complement of 210, of which approximately 30 are directly involved in management activities requiring strategic environmental information. These staff are distributed in one main and five field offices, all of which are connected to an organizational Intranet.

What Did the EIS Have to Do?

An exhaustive requirements assessment process was undertaken to ensure that the final system catered to users' needs. Essentially, the EIS had to provide a user-friendly interface to data describing the key management concerns for park staff. These primary concerns are as follows:

  • Land acquisition—The CPNP is still being established, and park staff needed to be able to easily view progress in park establishment as well as obtain relevant information on earmarked properties.
  • Alien vegetation status—The CPNP has been extensively invaded by alien plants (especially Australian Acacia species), and the park has focused management programs aimed at removing these plants. It is critical that users be provided information on the extent and nature of clearing activities.
  • Fire regimes—The dominant vegetation type within the area (fynbos) is fire-prone and, in fact, requires fire for its continued health. However, the park's location within a predominantly urban environment provides additional challenges and threats for fire management within the park. It is thus critical that park staff be provided with information on the area's fire history, areas of potential fire hazard, and measures used to restrict the spread of fires (e.g., firebreaks).
  • Biodiversity distribution—Considering the importance of the area as a biodiversity hot spot, it is essential that users have access to information showing the distribution of important species.
  • Cultural and heritage features—The area has a rich array of historic resources, often requiring active maintenance. Management activities should not compromise the integrity of any of these valuable resources, so information on their location and characteristics is essential.

In response to these requirements, a process of gathering and cleaning existing data or generating novel data from scratch was initiated. During this process a number of data-sharing agreements were initiated with a range of private and public third party data sources. This resulted in a comprehensive GIS database with approximately 70 different layers representing the primary management concerns.

The Solution

The development of the EIS took a number of interesting turns before finally settling on an ArcIMS software-based solution, which accesses a centrally located ArcSDE/SQL database. Separate database and application servers form the heart of the system, with the users accessing the EIS through the organizational Intranet via an introductory HTML screen. This provides links to a series of ArcIMS map services (termed themes) with each focusing on a particular management concern. Layers are grouped again within each theme, providing drop-down lists within the layer list window. Within each data grouping, the primary attributes for rendering were chosen, which provide users with a rapid means of visualizing relevant data. A critical concern for users was the speed of response, so a thin client solution using an HTML viewer and image server was chosen, rather than a Java Viewer or Feature Streaming Server.

The standard ArcIMS interface was amended to provide a specific look and feel for the CPNP, which was made easier by the predominant use of HTML and JavaScript in the ArcIMS services chosen.

The interfaces also provide access to both generalized and detailed metadata generated with the ArcCatalog functionality of ArcGIS; users are also able to access map services via hyperlinks through the metadatabase.

The EIS is accompanied by a detailed data management plan, which provides data quality requirements and guidelines as well as the procedures needed to maintain the system.

The Future of the EIS

It is critical that the data available to users be maintained and updated regularly. A formal set of procedures has been developed to capture dynamic data and update the ArcSDE/SQL database. These procedures rely heavily on SQL scripts that assess the integrity and quality of the data before integrating new data sets into the database. The scalable and customizable strength of the EIS will be used to develop additional tools for providing users with specific information. For example, a set of standard reports is envisaged that would provide regular information on the progress and success of alien clearing operations using standard report formats. Additional tools allowing users to capture data are also being planned.

Furthermore, it is envisaged that the CPNP EIS will become the standard for similar systems developed for parks within the South African National Parks network. In addition, a similar model could be applied to developing information tools for managers and decision makers at the corporate level. This would provide these key decision makers with park-level information on management activities, allowing for more efficient budget planning.

For more information, contact Grant Benn, with consultant GISCOE (e-mail: or Len Gardner (e-mail:

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