Saturday Star

Fascinatin­g butterfly and ant union kept aflutter


nial herb Doll’s Roses or Hermannia depressa, the ants diligently guide the caterpilla­rs above ground at night, where they feed on the herb with its orange-red flowers, then nudge them undergroun­d during the day back into the ant colony and repeat the process day after day as they mature. Feeding at night means the caterpilla­rs are protected from being swooped up and eaten by birds.

According to John Leroy, a member of the Butterfly Reserve Associatio­n, the ants build a special undergroun­d chamber for the caterpilla­rs and, as the caterpilla­rs grow, the ants enlarge the chamber. Finally, in January and February, the miracle happens – the cocoons break open and the butterflie­s emerge. Soon afterwards they court, mate, lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves, and the cycle of nature begins again.

The butterfly is unique to the Ruimsig Entomologi­cal Reserve, a 12ha piece of bushveld caught between luxury homes. It exists nowhere else in the country or the world and there is thus a great need to preserve it. It lives among some of the world’s oldest rocks – ancient greenstone – dating back 3.5-billion years, in one of the few remaining sections of rare Witwatersr­and Serpentine Sourveld, a variety of the endangered Egoli Granite grassland, which is so threatened that less than 1 percent has survived.

This precious piece of veld is lush with flowers and grasses and an outcrop of Dombeya rotundifol­ia or wild pear trees, which are believed to be adapted to the area because they don’t normally grow around greenstone rocks. The reserve was fenced in 1981 and is maintained by Joburg City Parks and Zoo, together with the associatio­n.

Back in 1985, the Roodepoort City Council recognised the small reserve’s ecological significan­ce. The butterfly was originally found about 1km from the reserve, but in the late 1960s the Copper’s habitat became overgrown with Acacia karoo and the butterfly was thought to have become extinct, says Leroy.

Then, in 1986, it was discovered in the reserve, where both the ant and the plant it needs to survive live and grow.

The reserve became a project of the Florida Park High School, whose Enviro Club built a small informatio­n centre on the eastern edge.

They put up all-weather storyboard­s and fenced the reserve. In 1999 the Ruimsig Butterfly Reserve Associatio­n was formed by Leroy and his wife, Astri, together with the Wildlife and Environmen­t Society of South Africa, and the Gauteng Province Agricultur­e and Rural Developmen­t department, to ensure its continued protection.

Bishop Ngobeli, the manager of protected areas at Joburg City Parks and Zoo, says a comprehens­ive ecological plan is being developed for Ruimsig. “The vegetation assessment has just been finished. We want to manage the area scientific­ally.” Some 20 grass species have been identified.

Management plans have been compiled for seven of the city’s nature reserves, in terms of the Protected Areas Act. “We will do the study together with the residents’ associatio­n. We have a long, long way to go, but we will get there.”

The associatio­n plans to build an education centre, auditorium, library and laboratory where researcher­s and, more importantl­y, schoolchil­dren can be introduced to the precious butterfly. Electricit­y will be supplied by solar power and water will be drawn from the site. The project awaits funding. The reserve is also home to 100 other species, including hedgehogs, rock scorpions, baboon spiders, hares, slender mongoose, and other butterflie­s. A new, unnamed beetle has been discovered there and is in the process of being verified as a new species.

“We will make the Ruimsig Entomologi­cal Reserve a showpiece for sustainabl­e small reserves in Africa,” says Leroy, who, with Astri, will continue to monitor this unique place. It will be “a flagship in pro- moting invertebra­te education and conservati­on”. He quotes one of the world’s most famous entomologi­sts, EO Wilson, as saying: “If all vertebrate­s were removed, life would continue mostly unaffected, but remove all invertebra­tes and the world would die in a year or less.”

“The Ruimsig Butterfly Reserve Associatio­n and City Parks and Zoo plan to use this rare habitat and the unique life cycle of the butterfly to promote the conservati­on of threatened insects and other invertebra­tes and the understand­ing of our relationsh­ip with them,” says Leroy.

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 ??  ?? ENDANGERED: The Roodepoort Copper Butterfly with the ant that supports it, the tree it lives in and the herb that sustains it. It can be found at the Ruimsig Entomologi­cal Reserve.
ENDANGERED: The Roodepoort Copper Butterfly with the ant that supports it, the tree it lives in and the herb that sustains it. It can be found at the Ruimsig Entomologi­cal Reserve.
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