A shrinking ecosystem: all the fuss about fynbos…
Few cities outside the tropics can boast Cape Town’s biodiversity
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.