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SOUTH AFRICA: Cape Floral Kingdom as Vulnerable as It Is Biodiverse

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, May 28 2007 (IPS) - Climate change is threatening the Cape Floral Region, a World Heritage Site in South Africa’s Western Cape province, say environmentalists.

The region occupies 553,000* hectares spread over eight protected areas that form part of the Cape floral kingdom, one of six floral kingdoms around the world identified for their distinctive vegetation.

It is also amongst the most biodiverse localities on earth, being home to over 7,700 plant species, 70 percent of them unique to the kingdom – this according to Gavin Maneveldt of the biodiversity and conservation biology department at the University of the Western Cape. Plant life in the region is commonly referred to as “fynbos” (“fine bush” in Afrikaans).

Notes conservation biologist Gerhard Verdoorn, executive director of Birdlife South Africa, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), “Fynbos will be reduced by half in 50 or so years. We shall lose a lot of species in an area with the highest density of plant species per hectare in the world. There will also be a reduction in the total area of fynbos.”

Other life forms also stand to be affected, notably ants that carry certain fynbos seeds underground – a process essential for their germination. “Ants unique to fynbos will be lost…Without the ants, the survival of many of the plants will be greatly threatened,” Verdoorn told IPS.

Figures from the website for this year’s International Day for Biological Diversity (May 22) indicate that global temperatures have increased by about 0.6 degrees Celsius since the middle of the nineteenth century, with further increases of up to 5.8 degrees Celsius within this century predicted.

Many scientists believe these rising temperatures are due to higher atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, which absorb and trap solar energy.

Greenhouse emissions enter the atmosphere in part through the burning of fossil fuels – something Verdoorn singles out in the four actions he believes are key to saving the Cape floral kingdom: “One, cut down on fuel consumption. Two, reduce water consumption. Three, cut down on electricity use. And four, control alien invasive plants.”

According to NGO Earthlife Africa, South Africa is a leading contributor to climate change: “We get our energy from coal,” coordinator Richard Worthington told IPS. “Coal, coal, coal. It’s coal addiction.”

“This means South Africa is responsible for 40 percent of Africa’s total emissions,” he noted – or some 1.5 percent of greenhouse emissions worldwide.

Cape Town has plans to introduce solar water heating, while an additional nuclear plant is also on the cards. However, the latter has come under fire from environmentalists, who claim it will add to the emissions burden – albeit indirectly – through activities such as plant construction and mining the uranium needed to power the facility.

“Uranium mining is one of the most carbon dioxide…intensive industrial operations, and as demand for uranium grows CO2 emissions are expected to rise…” says the United Kingdom-based NGO, Friends of the Earth, in a statement.

Observes Worthington, “South Africa is trying to justify the nuclear plant in the name of climate change. But it doesn’t wash.”

These words are echoed by Noel Oettle of the Environmental Monitoring Group, an NGO based in the coastal city of Cape Town. “I think we are acting quite irrationally as a country,” he told IPS, in reference to the proposed plant.

Concerning alien invasive species, Verdoorn highlights the threat posed by the black wattle and the “rooikrans” (“red wreath”) species of acacia. “There are people clearing them up. They have to be removed – they cover massive areas,” he said.

Local conservation authorities spent about 2.5 million dollars on eliminating alien plants in the Western Cape between 2005 and 2006.

Verdoorn also took a swipe at developers. “We should prevent things like housing estates and golf course developments if we want to preserve fynbos,” he said. “A golf course uses a million litres of water a day. That is a lot of water. It could help the poor with no access to water.”

Fires also pose a threat to fynbos.

CapeNature, the environmental authority in the Western Cape, notes in its 2005-2006 annual report that “The incidence of uncontrolled fires in sensitive fynbos areas continues to increase from year to year.”

The body ascribes this to population increases, particularly in informal settlements; the warmer temperatures and “longer fire seasons” caused by climate change; and infestation by alien species that provide substantial fuel for fires.

“The fire season of 2005/06 experienced more than 100 uncontrolled wild fires in protected fynbos areas managed by CapeNature across the Western Cape,” notes the report.

“It is generally accepted that fire is an essential part of the natural ecosystem that sustains and evolves fynbos. With the increased incidence of uncontrolled fires, areas are burning repeatedly in much shorter cycles than would occur naturally. Too frequent fires will have negative, and possibly catastrophic consequences for the specialised fynbos ecosystem.”

Verdoorn hasn’t lost hope for the Cape floral kingdom, in spite of the numerous challenges confronting it.

“I think we can save fynbos. But we need a lot of work,” he noted. “We need to get all people involved.”

(* Please note that this item originally contained a mistake in paragraph two. The Cape Floral Region heritage site extends over 553,000 hectares – or 5,530 square kilometres – not 37,000 square kilometres as was first reported.)

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