South Africa 3 | Town and country: aiming for ecological restoration at the landscape scale

James and Thibaud Aronson offer their third photo essay from South Africa, highlighting FOSTER, a dramatically successful community-based restoration program in the Eastern Cape, aimed at eradicating an invasive Australian acacia, and reducing urban wildfire risk, and a private restoration program at Kaboega Farm, situated in a megadiverse landscape of extraordinary conservation and educational value.

The Republic of South Africa is rightly famous for its 22-year old Working for Water program, WfW, and offshoots such as Working for Wetlands. These government-funded programs aim at restoring both natural and social capital, which are clearly the wave and the way of the future. They are also increasingly working with NGO implementers, private companies, and landowners in the Karoo, as we highlighted in two earlier posts (here and here). Teams, partnerships, and networks are essential here, given the complexity of the landscapes – both biophysical and political.

To close our trip in South Africa, we traveled to Cape Saint Francis, on the coast of the Eastern Cape, where our friends Richard Cowling and Shirley Pierce, who have lived there for more than 20 years, long ago founded a restoration project they dubbed FOSTER (short for Friends of the St Francis Nature Areas).

Richard, a top academic, communicator, and world expert on the ecology, biodiversity, and landscapes of South Africa has also worked closely with the WfW government programs elsewhere in the country, not only in the fynbos (the mega-diverse shrublands of the mediterranean-type climate region of the Cape) but also the karoo and subtropical thicket (on which, more below).

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Richard Cowling and Shirley Pierce-Cowling in their adopted habitat, St Francis Bay. 2013.  

In and around Cape St Francis, and St Francis Bay, one of the main issue is Acacia cyclops (known in South Africa as rooikrans), one of many fast-growing acacias intentionally introduced from Australia 150 years ago for sand dune stabilization.

In 1994, Richard and Shirley took up the challenge of developing a conservation plan and implementation strategy for consolidating 230 ha of municipal land and existing protected areas into a network that would sustain – among other things – faunal movement. More than 50% of this was densely invaded with rooikrans; only 38 ha was officially proclaimed a nature reserve. It was a slow process. Rooikrans grows quicker and taller than the native plants. But they had a very strong motivation. Indeed, “as a result of its greater biomass and more flammable foliage, rooikrans increases fire hazard by several fold relative to uninvaded fynbos” says Richard.

Over 20 years, they achieved near total success in removal of seed-bearing alien plants through the generous funding from the World Wide Fund (WWF) and residents’ donations, but only on the 132 hectares of public lands where they could work, often with the enthusiastic help of school groups and volunteers who learned much along the way.

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FOSTER restoration workers conducting follow-up removal of the alien invasive rooikrans, Acacia cyclops, in the Cape St Francis nature reserve. Photo. R.M. Cowling.

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A learner from a local school enjoying the leaves of Brunsvigia gregaria (Amaryllidaceae) during an excursion organized by FOSTER. Photo. R.M. Cowling.

 

 

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Brunsvigia gregaria in bloom; this species is popularly known as candelabra flower.  Cape St Francis, Apr 7, 2016.

But there were hundreds of hectares more to clear, both on public and private lands around the town. Then, in late 2012, a fire swept through, leaving severe damage and a wake-up call.

By that time, WfW was ready to help with restoration on private lands, provided that landowners contributed to the effort. The help from WfW and others much expanded FOSTER’s reach, and in only four years, some 1000 hectares of rooikrans were cleared from private lands in the area.

This of course dramatically reduced the township’s vulnerability to wildfire damage. As proof, when another massive wildfire swept through the area in January 2016, only three houses were destroyed. Notably, all three belonged to owners who had refused access to WfW workers seeking to eradicate rooikrans.

Other communities along the coast have taken notice and hopefully will follow the example of Cape St Francis.

Second landscape example: Kaboega farm

Finally, following Richard’s advice we drove two hours inland from Port Elisabeth, not too far from St Francis Bay, to visit a truly remarkable place where four different ecosystem types meet and intermingle in a property of only 6550 hectares: 1) fynbos, 2) the karoo desert, here at its southernmost limit, 3) the northernmost temperate rain forest fragments of the South East, of which the only important remnants are found in the Knysna region, and 4) subtropical thickets.

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Outenieqwa-geelhout, or small-leaved yellowwood, Podocarpus falcatus. Outstanding specimen of the relict population growing near a perennial stream at Kaboega Farm.

What South Africans call subtropical thickets are in fact a remarkable tapestry of vegetation types, with as many as 116 distinct variants (Cowling et al. 2005). Of particular interest here is the so-called spekboom-dominated thicket, characterized by the spekboom (Portulacaria afra).

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Fully mature spekboom, one of the largest individuals known

Spekboom-dominated thicket once flourished on approximately 1.4 million hectares (3.46 million acres), but today it occupies barely one-seventh of its former area. “The remainder has been degraded by over-exploitation, mainly through injudicious farming with angora goats……” (see the report Investing in Sustainability). However, spekboom is an extremely hardy succulent tree, remarkably fast-growing and readily propagated from cuttings, or even large stancheons.

This makes it attractive for large-scale restoration work. Indeed, it has been the focus of much attention from Working for Woodlands, another member of the Working-for family of government restoration programs. The manager and co-owners of Kaboega Farm, Ian and Sandra Ritchie, stopped all agricultural activity on their land 20 years ago, to allow the land to recover from an estimated 135 years of over-grazing by small livestock. They live instead by hosting visitors, including succulent plant lovers, drawn to this hotspot of Haworthias, and university groups led by Richard Cowling. Among other recent discoveries, Cowling and co-workers have shown that subtle difference in community-level frost tolerance can determine the boundaries between tightly packed biomes at Kaboega, where diversity is sky-high despite an average rainfall of just 300 mm per annum and frequent, extreme droughts.

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Spekboom cuttings struggling to get going

Furthermore, Ian and Sandra Ritchie are attempting to restore swathes of spekboom thicket at strategic spots on their farm, as a part of an ambitious large-scale program with support of Working for Woodlands.

They plant spekboom cuttings, which over time create an enhanced micro-environment in an otherwise harsh and difficult environment for young plants, and thus try to kick-start the regeneration of the habitat, biological community, and ecosystem. Furthermore, spekboom traps large amounts of CO2, and the general hope is that carbon credits can help finance large-scale restoration in the future. In the meantime, this is a remarkably attractive destination for nature-lovers.  In addition to the flora and landscapes, giraffe, kudu, and other game are added and allowed to roam free for the pleasure of visitors (and the owners). When numbers grow too high, however, there is a risk of exceeding carrying capacity, and some animals are captured for resale to other land-owners. This provides an additional income flow as game ranching linked to tourism and recreational hunting is increasingly popular in the region.

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Portion of a thriving population of 28 South African giraffe or Cape giraffe (Giraffa giraffa giraffa) at Kaboega Farm. While some argue that giraffes are not native to the area, nearby millennial cave paintings indicate the contrary.

At this remarkable farm, science-based conservation and restoration are making progress in an attempt to enhance biodiversity conservation, tourism revenues, and ecosystem services of all kinds. Clearly, spekboom planting is not an all-in-one solution; for jumpstarting restoration and assisting regeneration in a complex landscape and land tenure situation like this one, where temperate forests, fynbos, thicket, and karoo shrublands all occur and interact, a landscape perspective on the challenges of ecological restoration is essential. We’ll be posting more on this challenge in the future.

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