NOTICE | SA’s rich plant heritage: combating the loss of biodiversity

South Africa is unique in its biodiversity, which faces threats in some neighborhoods where European ideals of what landscapes should look like are perpetuated, writes Alanna rebelo.

A wave of solidarity is spreading across the world as the international community counts the days before the adoption of a new global biodiversity framework. This framework will be based on the negotiations that will take place in the run-up to the United Nations Conference on Biodiversity in China from October 11 to 24, 2021 (# COP15).

On May 22, we celebrate International Day for Biological Diversity, and we have the opportunity to increase our understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues, locally and internationally.

South Africa is extremely special globally in terms of biodiversity, the rich diversity of life on earth. We rank in the top 10 mega-diverse nations. We have the second highest plant endemism in the world (i.e. they do not occur anywhere else), and the third highest endemism of marine species, according to our National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA) 2018.

The Cape Floristic Region, in which Cape Town is located, is also a World Heritage Site and the only biodiversity hotspot found entirely in one country. It represents less than 0.5% of Africa but contains about 20% of African flora.

A unique biodiversity

How unique Cape Town is in terms of biodiversity, it emerged from the latest iNaturalist City Nature Challenge, where the city of Cape Town officially won two out of three awards.

Out of 150 participating cities around the world, 1,315 Capetonians recorded more than 71,142 natural observations and 4,250 species. The cities in second place are far from close: the Washington DC metropolitan area with 43,254 sightings and Hong Kong with 3,548 species.

Why should we care about our rich heritage of biodiversity? Besides the proof of the importance of nature for our health and well-being, biodiversity also creates jobs. The 2018 NBA estimated that there are more than 418,000 biodiversity-related jobs in South Africa. This was in addition to the jobs that nature brought each year through tourism.

Despite the value of biodiversity to our health and well-being, biodiversity loss (species extinctions) continues to increase globally and at an alarming rate. According to WWF Living Planet Report 2020, there has been an average 68% decline in birds, amphibians, mammals, fish and reptiles since 1970. That’s a 10% increase since their 2016 assessment. They conclude that “our relationship with the nature is broken “.

READ | PhD student in botany rediscovers extinct plant in Piketberg

A little closer to home, the South African NBA 2018 found that 22% of South Africa’s 458 ecosystem types were threatened and 13% of all taxa were threatened. The city of Cape Town has the second highest extinction rate in the world (just behind Hawaii).

Table Mountain National Park is a World Heritage Site and a major tourist attraction. In terms of biodiversity, the park alone contains more than 2,200 plant species. It also contains Granite Fynbos Peninsula (43% remaining, only 30% retained) and Cape Flats Sand Fynbos (14% remaining, only 1% retained) which are critically endangered types of fynbos. Threats to these types of fynbos include vineyards and urban development.

Sometimes threats to biodiversity may not be blatantly obvious, such as the Cape Flats Sand Fynbos bulldozer for a real estate development or the Virgin Granite Fynbos Peninsula for a vineyard expansion. Sometimes biodiversity is threatened by seemingly harmless initiatives, such as plant trees in the wrong places (or Spekboom), or the installation of beehives for honey bees, which threaten our wild bee populations.

See again

Currently in Cape Town, the review of the Tokai Cecilia Management Executive, scheduled for May 25, 2021, is making a lot of noise and is a prime example. Conserve the plantations, or transitional tree planting, which will be discussed in the review, at the cost of restoration, is a seemingly harmless activity that has serious consequences for biodiversity.

Part of Table Mountain National Park, Tokai Park is one of the last remaining biodiversity corridors connecting mountain fynbos to Cape Flats Sand Fynbos. Tokai Park is very rich in biodiversity, with more than 550 native plant species, including unique rare plants on the verge of extinction (almost extinct Tokai Cape Flats Silkypuff, extinct in the wild Erica verticillata and Erica Turgida).

However, the fate of this site and all these plant species is in the hands of the public.

SANParks is leading a stakeholder engagement process around the future of the Tokai and Cecilia sites. This review provides an opportunity to eliminate exotic tree plantations and restore and conserve these sites, which will be a massive victory for our native biodiversity.

Yet some people still wish to conserve the low biodiversity plantations or push for the planting of transitional trees instead of the restoration of fynbos at the expense of biodiversity.

READ | Cape Town’s plants are dying and local authorities need your help

In a country trying to decolonize, it seems that struggling to conserve the European-style woodlands in the fynbos runs counter to a transformational agenda. Especially when there are many city parks and more than 10 local green belts where shaded recreation can be enjoyed and more trees planted. Who will stand up to defend the voiceless native plant species on the brink of extinction?

This lack of appreciation for fynbos may, in part, be a legacy of pre-democratic South Africa’s biology program, which perpetuated European ideals of what landscapes should look like, and misconceptions about the value of trees. For example, thinking that trees should be planted everywhere instead of realizing that many South African ecosystems have no or few trees, such as fynbos shrubs and grasslands.

The famous words pronounced by the Senegalese forest engineer Baba Dioum in 1968, underline the importance of education in shaping our value systems:

“At the end of the day, we’ll only keep what we like; we will only like what we understand; and we will only understand what we are taught ”.

The slogan for this year’s Biodiversity Day is: “We are part of the #ForNature solution”. Do you feel hopeless at the loss of biodiversity, but helpless as to how to help? If so, you can make a direct contribution by:

  • participate in local advocacy related to biodiversity, for example, review of the Tokai Cecilia management framework;
  • get involved in a local nature conservation group, for example, a certified WESSA Friends group;
  • join a local alien elimination group (find your closest group here);
  • plant native species in your garden and get rid of alien invaders;
  • avoid the use of pesticides, herbicides or other household poisons; and
  • reduce your carbon footprint by buying more local products and consuming fewer animal calories.

Every day left before the United Nations Conference on Biodiversity counts in making your voice heard loud and clear. Since South Africans have such a rich biodiversity heritage, it is our duty to let the world know that we want a strong global biodiversity framework that will “bend the curve” on biodiversity loss.

– Dr Alanna Rebelo is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology at the University of Stellenbosch.

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