A shrink­ing ecosys­tem: all the fuss about fyn­bos…

Few cities out­side the trop­ics can boast Cape Town’s bio­di­ver­sity

Cape Argus - - OPINION - Alanna Re­belo

HAVE you ever looked at fyn­bos and won­dered what the fuss was about? You may have lived in Cape Town all your life and won­dered why it draws so many lo­cals to the moun­tains ev­ery day and lures mil­lions of tourists each year. The fact is: fyn­bos is a gem of a veg­e­ta­tion type, cloth­ing our sig­na­ture land­scapes and ab­so­lutely teem­ing with life of all kinds.

Fyn­bos is known for its hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent types of flow­ers, cone-bushes, pin­cush­ions and sup­port­ing many di­verse types of rep­tiles, amphibians, in­ver­te­brates, mam­mals and birds.

There has re­cently been con­tro­versy over one par­tic­u­lar type of fyn­bos at Tokai – Cape Flats Sand Fyn­bos – which is dif­fer­ent to that which grows on the moun­tains. Sand Fyn­bos is to Cape Town what the Ama­zon is to Brazil: ex­tremely rich in plants and an­i­mals and also heav­ily threat­ened by de­vel­op­ment.

The dif­fer­ence is we have only a tiny area left, only 14 per­cent of the orig­i­nal area, mostly in poor con­di­tion.

Per­haps most ex­cit­ing of all is that this Sand Fyn­bos oc­curs within our city.

There are few cities in the world out­side the trop­ics that can boast of sup­port­ing such high lev­els of bio­di­ver­sity within their bound­aries. Sand Fyn­bos only oc­curs on the flat ar­eas of Cape Town, and this is why there is so lit­tle left: we have “paved par­adise and put up a park­ing lot”, to quote Cana­dian singer-song­writer Joni Mitchell.

Some 147 plant species be­long­ing to Sand Fyn­bos are cur­rently threat­ened with ex­tinc­tion. Of these, 26 oc­cur at Tokai Park, an arm of the Ta­ble Moun­tain Na­tional Park in the south­ern sub­urbs. There are also two frog species at Tokai that are listed as threat­ened in the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture’s Red List. Ac­cord­ing to Dr Tony Re­belo of the Threat­ened Species Re­search Unit at the SA Na­tional Bio­di­ver­sity In­sti­tute, the num­ber of species threat­ened with ex­tinc­tion has in­creased by 36 in the last decade. Sev­eral plant species are al­ready ex­tinct.

We hear this sad news about na­ture al­most weekly. A few weeks ago, the World Wide Fund for Na­ture re­leased its lat­est Liv­ing Planet Re­port.

They found the wildlife pop­u­la­tions they have been mon­i­tor­ing have de­clined by about 58 per­cent since 1970, mainly due to agri­cul­ture, fish­eries, min­ing and other hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties. They ex­pect this fig­ure to in­crease to 67 per­cent by 2020.

How­ever, it’s not all doom and gloom for South Africa. As a sig­na­tory to the Rio Con­ven­tion as well as the Global Strat­egy for Plant Con­ser­va­tion, we have pro­posed to con­serve a min­i­mum of 17 per­cent of each veg­e­ta­tion type for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions and slow the pace of plant ex­tinc­tion. Since 4 per­cent of Sand Fyn­bos re­mains in good con­di­tion, and 2 per­cent is con­served, we have an obli­ga­tion to pro­tect and re­store it.

Tokai Park con­tains a large pro­por­tion of the area that has po­ten­tial to be con­served, and there­fore pro­vides a per­fect op­por­tu­nity to right some of our en­vi­ron­men­tal wrongs.

You might ask whether Sand Fyn­bos can be re­stored at Tokai Park? How could it have sur­vived be­neath the pine plan­ta­tions for more than a cen­tury? Well, fyn­bos is more than what meets the eye. It in­vests its re­sources in seeds and puts these away into a “bank ac­count” in the soil. Sci­en­tists call these seed­banks. Some parts of Tokai have al­ready been re­stored af­ter 100 years of plan­ta­tions and the re­sults are as­tound­ing.

Data col­lected by ecol­o­gists at Tokai shows more than 320 plant species have nat­u­rally emerged from these seed­banks. Fur­ther­more, a 2016 Mas­ter’s study by Elana Mostert at Stel­len­bosch Uni­ver­sity showed Sand Fyn­bos re­cov­ers well in terms of species rich­ness and struc­ture af­ter pine tree re­moval.

It’s not all just about the flora: for an­i­mal lovers, many dif­fer­ent species have been sighted at the re­stored sites in Tokai. Now you don’t even need to climb a moun­tain in the Cape to catch a glimpse of Cape fox, por­cu­pine and cara­cal, all of which are now recorded at Tokai – and more an­i­mals are ex­pected to come in the fu­ture.

At Tokai we are for­tu­nate to have the legacy of Wil­liam Fred­er­ick Pur­cell, a nat­u­ral­ist of note, who recorded over 500 dif­fer­ent plant species at his home on Bergvliet Farm from 1905-1919.

Thanks to Pur­cell, sci­en­tists now have an idea of what to ex­pect from the seed­banks at Tokai.

Hope­fully, many of the other 180 plant species will emerge from the fi­nal blocks that are still un­der pine plan­ta­tion.

The re­main­ing plan­ta­tion trees at Tokai are cur­rently owned by Moun­tains to Oceans (MTO), a forestry com­pany who leases the land from SA Na­tional Parks (SANParks). Af­ter the dam­age caused by last year’s fires, MTO de­cided to re­move all the re­main­ing pine trees this win­ter, which was ear­lier than had been set out in a SANParks man­age­ment frame­work.

This de­ci­sion caused an out­cry among a group of Capeto­ni­ans who re­fer to them­selves as Parkscape. Parkscape re­sponded strongly to the re­moval of the pine plan­ta­tions by ini­ti­at­ing a le­gal cam­paign to stop the felling. Their case against MTO and SANParks was heard in court on Novem­ber 7.

They con­tested the de­ci­sion to ac­cel­er­ate felling of the pine plan­ta­tions be­fore 2018 as “pro­ce­du­rally un­fair”, say­ing it re­quired pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion.

Both MTO and SANParks ar­gued con­vinc­ingly there was no need for pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion be­fore felling and that the re­moval of the plan­ta­tions was im­por­tant for eco­nomic rea­sons and for restora­tion.

Judg­ment has been re­served un­til early next year, and un­til then no pines may be felled.

This de­lay is un­for­tu­nate as it will af­fect the tight sched­ule needed for restora­tion. Tim­ing is ev­ery­thing. Af­ter the pines are felled, the slash needs to be burnt – af­ter the rains are over – to trig­ger ger­mi­na­tion in the fyn­bos seed bank stored in the soil.

Ac­cord­ing to Re­belo, the har­vest­ing of pines from March to Septem­ber will be detri­men­tal to restora­tion, as seeds will have to ger­mi­nate with­out fire, which means grass com­pe­ti­tion and that alien plants will not be con­trolled. At this point any fire that gets to the seed banks will kill any seeds that have ger­mi­nated.

In re­sponse to Parkscape’s le­gal ac­tion, an­other group of Capeto­ni­ans called Friends of Tokai Park cre­ated a pe­ti­tion to save the crit­i­cally en­dan­gered Sand Fyn­bos at Tokai. It was signed by 2 850 peo­ple. This con­ser­va­tion is­sue also drew in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion, with one sig­na­tory, Pro­fes­sor Peter Lin­der, a highly re­garded and in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised botan­i­cal sci­en­tist at the uni­ver­si­ties of Zurich and Cape Town stat­ing that not de­vel­op­ing the Tokai “for­est” as fyn­bos is in­com­pre­hen­si­ble, a self­ish act of mak­ing the small­est plant king­dom even smaller.

More re­cently, South African botanists, zo­ol­o­gists and ecol­o­gists have united to sup­port the restora­tion and con­ser­va­tion of Sand Fyn­bos at Tokai Park. So far, 16 prom­i­nent sci­en­tists have agreed re­plant­ing Tokai with alien trees is, from a botan­i­cal, con­ser­va­tion and eco­log­i­cal point of view, in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. Con­se­quently, they strongly sup­port the con­tin­u­a­tion of the restora­tion of Sand Fyn­bos.

We have the priv­i­lege and re­spon­si­bil­ity to con­serve and re­store our nat­u­ral African her­itage for the en­joy­ment and ben­e­fit of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. With the fu­ture of this her­itage in jeop­ardy, Capeto­ni­ans should do all we can to pro­tect our Cape Flats Sand Fyn­bos.


TIM­BER! The pine trees in Tokai Park that have pro­vided many with shade for many with dogs, are un­der threat.

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