The edition that celebrates Cape Town winning the City Nature Challenge
Winner in categories MOST OBSERVATIONS and MOST SPECIES in the international City Nature Challenge organised by the Citizen/Community Science Teams at the California Academy of Sciences and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles Country.
Cape Town’s participants were able to record an impressive 53 775 observations and 4 587 species across the city.
Biodiversity – bedrock and shifting sands
By Dr. Rob Anderson
What is biodiversity? Broadly, it is the variety of life on earth, and we can measure it in three main ways. Most of us understand it as species diversity, but genetic diversity and ecological diversity are equally important.
Genetic diversity refers to the subtle genetic differences between individuals within a species or population. These differences are coded into DNA and equip individuals of a species differently for life and survival. A large pool of genetic diversity makes a species resilient when times get hard, and that is why natural populations become more vulnerable as their numbers shrink. For example, if among a million frogs of one species there are a thousand that can survive higher temperatures than the others, when only a thousand of these frogs survive there will only be ten heat tolerant individuals. Once we reduce their population too much, we leave insufficient individuals with that genetic trait to get together and breed, and so the survival of that species is threatened.
Ecological diversity refers to the variety of ecosystems and their complexity. As with genetic diversity, loss of ecosystem diversity creates vulnerability. For life on earth, the motto should be not “Eendracht Maakt Macht (“Unity is Strength” – sometime motto of several European nations and the old Transvaal Republic), but rather Diversity is Strength!
We humans now have the dubious distinction of causing a loss of biodiversity as fast as any of the five major extinctions in the 5 billion-year history of our planet. And those extinctions were caused by vast climatic and geological changes and never by one living species. We are doing this by our sheer numbers, as we destroy habitats by relentless consumption of living and mineral resources, and now we are changing the earth’s climate. What we do in the next 10-20 years will determine the fate of our children and grandchildren, and even the survival of humans. It sounds dire, because it is.
From the bedrock of facts, let us move onto the shifting sands of opinion. All species are evolutionary experiments, and it would be a pity if Homo sapiens turned out to be one that failed so soon. I am an optimist (as Churchill said – “what point is there in being anything else?”), and I hope we will muddle our way through what is truly a crisis in the history of humankind. We must change, but many of the necessary changes will threaten the world’s current economic and social set up and certain vested interests. However, there are signs that our children are leading the way, with demonstrations all over the word against political short-sightedness.
During the recent South African elections, no political parties made coherent statements about environmental issues, if they made any at all. (One party’s posters promising free organic vegetables for all indicated a level of delusion that was as amusing as it was sad). Political pressure might begin to work when politicians can think further than the immediate election. But what can we do as individuals, even if that just makes us feel better? The pundits and common sense suggest many things, some of which we might find more acceptable than others, but all of which aim at reducing our human footprint on this planet. A few are listed below, so let us take our pick.
Should we have fewer children or none at all? This is a contentious question, because it runs counter to many social and religious customs, and probably even to our evolutionary instincts. We all think we are just the ticket when it comes to the human species, and that our genes deserve to survive. This delusion pervades nations, tribes, families and individuals. When it is justified by religious fundamentalists, they like to think that their deity will sort things out and look after them if the world around begins to fail. What they forget is that their deity’s methods involve the four horsemen of the apocalypse (famine, death, war and conquest) – and when those boys are out riding nobody is safe! Nevertheless, we should support efforts that strive for smaller families, even if indirectly, for example by improving education for women in poor societies, since that has been shown to lead to smaller families.
Probably the most effective thing individuals in the developed world can do is to consume less of everything. Simplify – research shows it also makes us happier!
It hardly needs saying that we should not waste, and that we should use only what we need, whether that applies to food, clothing, appliances or any of the other things that advertising urges us to buy and consume. When things break, fix them rather than replacing them: it’s good for the planet (and the soul).
Part of not wasting means recycling what we can – another no-brainer. A concern at present is SUPs (Single Use Plastics, not the huge surfboards some choose to teeter on). These are designed to be used once then discarded: those flimsy plastic bags that supermarkets provide in rolls, the hard plastic “oyster boxes” in which fruit is often packaged, the Styrofoam fast-food boxes, etc. Resist them and bring your own re-usable fruit and vegetable bags! To their credit, SPAR (at least in the Eastern Cape) are trying to phase these out. (A note: Karoline Hanks, a NEAG member and eco-campaigner, makes excellent reusable bags).
Do we ever think about all the chemicals we use? Sorry to upset you further, but to quote from the magical interweb: “European Chemicals agency estimates there are more than 144,000 man-made chemicals in existence. The US Department of Health estimates 2000 new chemicals are being released every year”. Man-made chemicals have been found in every environment on earth and nearly 300 of these have been found in humans – and some are known to be toxic. Many come from such apparently innocuous sources as shampoo and deodorants, leading some people to make their own (although I am told that the results are not always satisfactory). Anti-perspirants? Even a limited understanding of human physiology makes me ask why on earth would I want to prevent myself perspiring! Are anti-urinary pills next?
I could go on, but we all know what the problems are and that we should all do what we can, even if our individual effect is slight. So, I will end with my own SUP (Single Unavoidable Paradox): by doing my little bit for the environment I will be happier. Because I am happier, I will live longer. Because I live longer, I will place a greater strain on the earth’s resources.
The World’s Richest Coastal Dune Flora
Dr Donovan Kirkwood (Curator, Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden)
Dr Rob Anderson (chairman, NEAG)
Prof Richard Cowling (Nelson Mandela University)
(Photos D Kirkwood and R Anderson)
Few of us who stroll through the dunes behind Noordhoek Beach realise that our coastal flora is up to three times richer in species than anywhere else in the world with a similar winter rainfall (Mediterranean) climate.
Globally, the floras on coastal sands are distinct from inland floras because the soil is always alkaline due to the calcium carbonate of shells, and the plants are subjected to strong, salty winds. Also, because sea levels have changed in the recent geological past, these species are also all relatively recent, most having evolved in the past one to three million years. During the ice ages, lower sea levels exposed bigger coastal plains, providing a far greater area in which different species could evolve. Even though the sea level has risen considerably since the last glacial maximum 15,000 years ago, we are still left with this high floral diversity.
Conditions on Mediterranean-climate dunes are particularly harsh because the very dry summers limit the number of species that can survive. But unusually, the Cape had such a richly diverse fynbos flora from which the coastal flora could evolve. What also increases our floral diversity is that our species could evolve from tropical, subtropical as well as the older and incredibly rich temperate fynbos floras.
Noordhoek has several areas of outstanding dune and Strandveld vegetation. The Chapman’s Peak Sanctuary (below the Red Herring) covers only 3.7 hectares (ha), of which roughly half is endangered Cape Flats Dune Strandveld, and the other half is Southern Coastal Forest (milkwood forest). The more extensive dunes behind Noordhoek Beach, being closer to the sea, contain fewer species than the Sanctuary, which lies further from the sea, but have a few very hardy and salt-tolerant species of their own.
While dune floras from similar-sized areas of other Mediterranean regions would at most contain 40-50 species, our dunes are home to well over a hundred. NEAG surveys here have already identified approximately 110 indigenous species, and that doesn’t even include most of the native grasses and many small annuals and herbaceous plants. There are certainly many more plants still to be identified.
Sadly, our rich Cape dune flora is highly endangered, because we have left only a small fraction of what used to exist. Development has covered most of the sandy areas in the Western Cape, especially the richest habitats just behind the beach dunes. Many habitat remnants are under threat. The Cape flats, once a vast swathe of Strandveld, was deliberately stabilised by the planting of alien trees, and is now almost covered by human settlement, roads or farms. The first land to be developed in coastal towns was invariably the flat, sandy lowlands – the Strandveld.
Our Strandveld is irreplaceable. In Noordhoek the back-beach dunes are reasonably safe from development, because they (mostly) fall within a SANParks protected area. The Chapmans Peak Sanctuary, with its even richer flora, is especially in need of long-term protection. So next time you feel like a stroll, have a careful look at the flora, and enjoy the privilege of walking in the richest Mediterranean-climate, dune flora in the world!
This is an Alert
In our next newsletter we will look at South Africa’s amazing marine biodiversity, and how essential it may have been to the ancestors of all modern humans
How do South Africans feel about Nature: A quantitative study by Andrea Marais
Why is False Bay warmer than the west coast in summer but often colder than the west coast in winter?
Summer visitors are seldom surprised at a cold west coast (although the actual temperature may still leave them breathless!), but they are often surprised that in winter the west coast water is often a little warmer than that of False Bay in winter. The reason is simply wind direction. In summer, prevailing south-easterly (SE) winds bring warmer, offshore water into False Bay, where it generally circulates clockwise, warming between the Fish Hoek area to the Gordons Bay area. The wind also tends to trap the water in this shallow bay, where the sun warms it more. The same wind blows offshore along the west side of the Peninsula, driving the water along the sea surface, away from the coast, and drawing in cold water (as cold as 7-8 oC) from underneath and a bit further out (a process called upwelling). It is that beautiful, clear aquamarine, water that is so deceptive on beaches like Noordhoek or Llandudno in summer. It looks tropical but feels Arctic. However, this does have the benefit of reducing the potential influx of surfers from the east of the country! In winter the pattern is to some extent reversed. Prevailing north-westerly winds drive warmish surface water onto west coast beaches, where the temperature can (for a few days at least) reach a relatively balmy 17-18 oC. However, these winds are offshore in False Bay, drawing in cooler, sub-surface water onto the shore. The effect is compounded by the lack of summer sun that normally helps to warm False Bay, and so in winter, beaches such as Fish Hoek and Muizenberg become relatively chilly, with temperatures around 13-14 oC or even lower.
A fiery reminder of summer – by Tessa Oliver and Jo-Anne Smetherham
Extreme weather events, such as the heat waves that have spread across the Western Cape this summer, are a feature of climate change. These events lead to a more severe and longer fire season and this in turn will lead to more frequent and larger veld fires.
Invasive woody alien plant species introduced to the Fynbos biome have a detrimental impact on fire safety, water production and biodiversity in the region. These invasive alien vegetation species originate from fire-prone environments and their ecology is intrinsically linked to fire. Frequent and large veldfire events in the Fynbos biome have enabled these plants to infest vast tracts of the natural landscape, which in turn has contributed to increases in the frequency and intensity of fire events. The risk is expected to be exacerbated by climate change, which could cause larger and more frequent fires– and unless we develop a greater understanding of how to manage wildfire, it will become increasingly difficult to reduce the damage to people, the economy and the environment. Recent big runaway fires in the Western Cape have reignited the debate about unplanned and unmanaged wildfire, and how much of a threat it is to the preservation of plants, some of which most likely will never recover if the fynbos burns too frequently. Not often mentioned is the threat that unmanaged wildfire also poses to wildlife – including birds, which depend on healthy fynbos for their survival. Historically, wildfire management has been heavily dependent on suppressing un-managed fire and pre-emptive, planned burning.
Recently, more sophisticated tools to help fire management have become available, as have advances in fire modelling and improved fire weather prediction. There is consensus now that fynbos needs fire, which can be an agent of rebirth or an inferno of destruction – the question is how frequent and how hot. If fynbos is burnt every seven to twenty years, aging plants are killed off, many kinds of seeds burst into life and bulbs start to grow again. “Without fire, there would be no fynbos – it’s as simple as that,” says Dr Brian van Wilgen of Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Invasion Biology. However, it’s not altogether so simple. Different species of fynbos plants are favoured by fires of different frequencies within the range of about seven to twenty years. If fires come too soon and too frequently, or too seldom, then some species may be eliminated. Dr Tony Rebelo of SANBI suggests that fires in veld over 25 years old, or due for a burn with-in two years, should be allowed to run. However, he points out that it has not been established who would make such a decision or which risk factors should be considered. One problem with this, is that many of these areas are infested with invasive alien vegetation. These “fuel loads” can lead to greater intensity of fires, with negative consequences for indigenous seed banks. Moreover, this can also lead to a mass germination of invasive alien plant seedlings. If the dexterity is not in place to deal with the follow-up clearing of these invasives, it can lead to massive additional clearing costs at a later stage, and many very negative ecosystem service impacts, such as water loss, biodiversity loss, an impact on the productivity of land and much more – ironically including the likelihood of worse fires in years to come. While this complex debate continues, there appears to be agreement on a single under-lying principle: fires should be managed. Steps in this direction are already happening. Critical scientific data about climate change is being gathered, wildfire behaviour is being monitored, and the formation of Fire Protection Associations is being encouraged to help landowners work together to practice Integrated Fire Management. Importantly, the project is encouraging experts from a wide range of related disciplines to research their work together and encourage open public debate with the aim of avoiding the threat of destructive fires wreaking irreversible damage to the people, homes, the economy and the environment.
WHAT WAS NEAG UP TO DURING WINTER?
DARK HORSE FUNDRAISER
The Dark Horse in Noordhoek hosted a vegan dinner fundraiser for NEAG and ToadNUTs that managed to raise R9 350
PROJECT NOORDHOEKED COLLABORATION
NEAG sponsored worm bins for Project Noordhoeked to help reduce plastic waste and dog poo on our beach
NEAG and ToadNUTs were interviewed by Cape TV to clarify issues with the Public Participantion Process and the city’s application to build a road that will compromise the health of the Noordhoek wetlands
Longbeach Mall shifting its tenants and customers toward a zero ‘single-use’ plastic future – Glenn Ashton
A recent initiative by Long Beach Mall management to move its food outlets away from ‘single-use’ plastics has started to bear fruit. This was put into place through the Environmental Liaison Committee, which meets quarterly to oversee the environmental management of the Mall. This committee comprises municipal councillors and officials, civil society representatives, mall ownership representatives and independent environmental consultants.
The first two outlets to sign on to this initiative, Karma Café and King Pie, wasted little time in aligning themselves with good environmental practice by removing some ‘single-use’ plastics from their establishments in phased approaches.
Karma Café has shifted from plastic to biodegradable straws. They also do not provide plastic bags for takeaways, nor do they give away wrapped sweets. They are investigating options for biodegradable take-away containers and bags in order to further reduce plastic consumption, in their eventual aim of going plastic-free.
King Pie has stopped giving away plastic straws from the start of May.
These efforts are all part of a shift that has been encouraged in the South Peninsula after a detailed survey was made of all food outlets in the area by the Far South Peninsula Civic Forum – the regional civic association for the area – by its members in 2018. The survey found that locally-owned businesses were the most responsive and responsible, while national and internally-owned food outlets were less likely to have taken action, tending to focus on profit ahead of planetary sustainability.
It is encouraging that some food retailers have begun to take up this important issue. We are surrounded by ocean in the far South Peninsula and most of the people who live here realise the risk of plastic pollution to our oceans and other natural resources. ‘Single-use’ plastics- those which are only used once and then thrown away- are entirely avoidable.
By investing in our future by purchasing durable coffee cups to replace paper take-away cups, avoiding the use of plastic straws, plastic bags and other plastic packaging, we can each make the difference that we want to, and indeed need to see in the world. It is important that customers ask establishments they frequent to do the right thing in order to encourage the changes we require, to leave a better planet for our children and generations to come.
It is exciting that nationally-owned malls like Long Beach Mall, owned by listed company GrowthPoint, support this approach from their tenants and that some tenants have demonstrated a positive response. We hope this initiative will be taken up both by other food outlets in Longbeach Mall and also by other malls in the region and across our beautiful land. Yet again, the far South Peninsula has demonstrated active leadership through this important environmental initiative.
MAKING DOG POO PART OF THE ECOSYSTEM
Project Noordhoeked does it again…
An exciting new project to manage dog faeces is being trialled in Noordhoek on the beach and at the common. The Scarborough Environmental Group (SEG) has been using worms to compost dog poo for over a year, and have successfully processed well over a ton of faeces. Karoline Hanks, who recently took over the management of the NPO Project Noordhoeked (started by Sonette Son), visited the SEG project, and was so inspired that she decided to apply the same model in Noordhoek. With funding from NEAG and the Noordhoek Common Committee, four bins and boxes have been built by SEG. The bins were installed about a month ago, and so far, around 100 kg of dog poo has been processed.
“The main objective of the project is to keep plastic out of the system, divert poo away from landfill and to process perfectly good, compostable, organic matter and turn it into soil”, explains Karoline.
Two options are offered to the dog walking community – compostable bags and poop scoops. The latter are provided in a box, and the idea is that users use them on their walk and return them when done. This method of “scooping poop” is preferable, as it does not require a bag at all. The cornstarch bags used have been shown to disappear in 3-4 weeks. R1000 worth of bags have been donated by Noordhoek vet, and another 1000 paid for by NEAG.
“This project offers a more circular economy approach to the dog poo pollution challenge, and ultimately serves to protect ecosystem integrity and our coastal biodiversity. Now, instead of sending plastic-wrapped faeces to landfill – the poo is being turned into valuable, nutrient-rich soil,” says Hanks.
For more information on the project, contact Karoline on 083 745 3060. To donate to the project, and help them continue to provide free compostable bags to the dog-walking public, use snapscan below. Any contributions will be most welcome.