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.

South Africa 1. Restoring natural and social capital in Namaqualand

James and Thibaud Aronson post the third of four photo essays on their recent field trip to Namibia and South Africa.

As soon as we crossed over the border from southern Namibia into northwestern South Africa, it was clear that we were looking at a whole different story. We were now in the driest part of South Africa and one of the most sparsely populated. Also, Namaqualand – a winter-rainfall desert of ca. 50,000 km2 – is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world. The area is well known to tourists for the few weeks in August-September (the southern winter), when hundreds of plant species, benefiting from the winter rains, put on an incredible floral display and tapestry of textures and colors, down below your ankles.

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A rich community of toe-high succulents endemic to saline quartz patches . This photo was taken at Douse The Glim, not far south of Garies in southern Namaqualand. Many endemics of the Mesembs (Mesembryanthemaceae) occur here, including the sunken “Silver skin”, Argyroderma delaetii,  Cephalophyllum spissum, and “Redbeads”, Sarcocornia xerophila, a cousin of the cosmopolitan Salicornias. Identification of plants: Sue Milton and Richard Cowling, both of whom we will meet in the next blog post.

 

 

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Argyroderma delaetii, a dwarf, sunken ‘silver skin’, of a genus restricted to the Western Cape, South Africa, in the Knersvlakte Nature Reserve . This photo was taken by Sue Milton in 2014, a much wetter year  than 2016.

All in all, apart from natural history buffs, botanists, and conservationists, not much attention is paid to this poor, rural area. In a nutshell, the rapidly exploitable resources that could be had – copper, timber, and the like – are now long gone. What is left is – to speak bluntly – a lot of poverty and a lot of land degradation. And a lot of biodiversity: indeed the Succulent Karoo region of Namaqualand and southern Namibia is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world.

We met with some of the people making a difference there, working with South Africa’s most iconic environmental program, the Working for-family of government-funded programs, working together to restore natural capital and social capital at the same time.

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Sheep grazing on  abandoned crop land in Namaqualand, near Leliefontein.

The Western Cape, South Africa has had a tradition of rather damaging sheep farming for centuries. But the country as a whole has also had a proud tradition of nature conservation for over a century, which is a lot more than most countries can boast.

However, what is  even rarer is that ecological restoration has been part of the national vocabulary for a generation. A game-changing initiative that moved the country to the next level was a government program launched in 1995, called Working for Water, or WfW.

South Africa was faced with two metaphorical birds. On the one hand, approximately half of its population lived (and unfortunately still does) in poverty. On the other, several invasive non-native tree species had taken over many of the country’s waterways, outcompeting native species, choking river beds, and draining the water tables.

Working for Water was the stone. Every year it hires some of the country’s poorest people –  38,000 in 2015 –  in rural areas in all nine provinces and employs them to remove those noxious woody species. Since its inception, the program has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and provided desirable jobs near home each year. The benefits to people are in fact multiple. Workers are provided with both an income and on-the-job training and capacity-building, with some going on to start their own companies, providing ecological restoration services to private landowners. They also acquire an esprit de corps  and pride in their achievements.

With the same ‘stone’, over 2 million hectares, mostly along water courses, have been cleared of invasive trees and water supply has been notably increased for the associated communities. Finally, the large amounts of timber and vegetable biomass harvested from the invasive trees are used to produce eco-furniture, which is then sold to help finance the program. Research is under way to find methods for producing biofuel from the woody weeds as well as to improve the ecological impact of the effort.

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The small town of Garies, southern Namaqualand. The riverbed is completely dry, but there is enough moisture in the soil to support what may look like natural riparian vegetation. In fact, not a single tree is native. Instead they are Mesquites (Prosopis hybrids) from South America, Salt cedars (Tamarix hybrids), and Australian Wattles (Acacia karroo,  A. cyclops).

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The Australian wattle (Acacia cyclops), one of the worst invasive trees in various habitat types in South Africa.

WfW now oversees over 300 projects across South Africa, and its success has led to the establishment by successive government administrations of several other programs, such as Working on Fire, Working for Wetlands, and Working for Woodlands. The goals are ambitious and together this ‘family’ of Working for- programs exemplifies the emerging understanding that ecological restoration can be a bridge-builder between long-term conservation efforts, and sustainable socio-economic development goals. At a time when protected areas are menaced worldwide by dubious government cop-outs on protected areas, South Africa is a refreshing exception that deserves praise and celebration.

Thanks to introductions set up by our friend Dr. Christo Marais, the number 2 man of WfW, we had a chance to talk to Ronnie Newman, Amanda Bourne, and Halycone Muller from Conservation South Africa (CSA), who work in Namaqualand on restoration projects, in close liaison with SAN Parks (the body that governs South African national parks), and through financing of Working for Wetlands.

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From left to right, Amanda Bourne, Ronnie Newman, and Halcyone Muller at CSA offices in Springbok.

SAN Parks and CSA use funding from a new programme under WFW called Land User Incentive Programme, to hire people to restore degraded rangelands.  CSA and SAN Parks are thus implementing agents for Working for Wetlands in this arrangement, something new in the history of the Working for- programs. The focus of this trio here in Namaqualand is to repair erosion gullies, called “dongas” in southern Africa. These are very often a result of over-stocking and overgrazing by domestic livestock and get continually worse if left unattended. Thanks to this government-funded effort,  workers build beautiful gabions and other structures to slow water flowing downhill, catch sediments and eventually fill the gullies. Most of the gabions are made with metal baskets, or simply dry stones carefully assembled by skilled workers to make low but sturdy walls. However, in some cases, larger gabions are made out of concrete. As Amanda Bourne put it,  “this is about supporting the people who live and work on the land to restore and better manage it.  They are paid at a supplementary rate to undertake restoration on their own land, which will directly benefit their other (mostly agricultural but not only) activities.”

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Working for Wetlands workers building a series of stone retaining walls, near Kamieskroon. In small rivulets like this one the metal baskets of typical gabions are not easy to use and are not deemed cost-effective.

A week later, in Cape Town, we met up with Christo Marais, and with Sarah Frazee, the head of CSA. She told us that they aim at working at critical spots upstream of water points of importance to local communities whose livelihoods are largely dependent on sheep grazing. CSA also provides veterinary services at no cost to participating farmers, and tries to persuade them to reduce their herds and flocks to avoid over-stocking, especially in drought years like the current one. As Sarah put it, 80% of the biodiversity in Namaqualand is associated with wetlands, which makes focusing on their restoration important from a conservation perspective. But, as more broadly throughout South Africa, public-private efforts like this one can effectively address biodiversity, water supply, land erosion, as well as poverty and related social issues at the same time.

From a classical economics perspective, however, ecological restoration work in arid lands is slow, and often hard to justify, since the value of the land for production purposes is so low. However, not just here in the Western Cape, but throughout South Africa, the multiple goals of the Working for- program are being pushed forward and steadily refined.

There has been frequent criticism of the programs and not without cause. In particular, monitoring has not been implemented as well as could have been hoped, though the program has continually improved since its inception, both scientifically and in terms of its impact on ecosystems and people. It will be a long battle to achieve all of its goals, but despite its flaws, it remains one of the absolute best examples worldwide of programs that combine restoration of social and natural capital.

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Six months after the building of the stone walls near Lileifontein, complemented by brushpacking to help build up organic matter, things are looking pretty good.

We close with a mention of the fabled triple bottom line – the holy grail of progressive governments. How to achieve social, ecological, and economic benefits with a single program? Next steps in improving the work of the Working for- programs, according to  Christo Marais, should include: 1) still greater investments in education, capacity-building and outreach to bring all of South Africa’s society on board with the restoration movement, and 2) galvanizing private investment in restoration. The introduction of implementing agencies like SAN Parks and CSA should help with both.

In our next two blogposts, we will report on what some private landowners and three wonderful NGOs, including RENU KARROO and F.O.S.T.E.R. are doing in the Nama Karroo and Thickets biomes.

Namib 2: Large wild animals, fences and farming (with good news about education)

James and Thibaud Aronson post the second of four blogposts on their recent field trip to Namibia and South Africa.

Africa is famous for its megafauna. Most foreign visitors, who only ever see them on safaris inside protected areas, may think that Africa has managed something every other continent has failed at: a harmonious relationship between people and entire trophic chains including large animals. In fact, many if not most interactions between humans and large animals in Africa, just as elsewhere, are conflictual and complex. Nothing illustrates the problem better than fences.

A legacy of European agricultural practices, long fences have become ubiquitous in Africa. They primarily serve to delineate property, control the movements of livestock, and in some cases limit the spread of epidemic diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease and bovine TB, and their spread to and from wild animals such a wildebeest and lions.

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A typical small livestock herd in the Pro-Namib.

There are also the other kind of fences, the ones around protected areas, which often serve as effective protection for wildlife.  However, there is no doubt that livestock and veterinary fences have had and still have severe impacts on wild animal populations.

In particular, large mammals tend to range widely in search of food or water. Fences severely restrict their movements, with dramatic effects on populations in drought years. And mammals aren’t the only ones affected: large birds such as bustards suffer lethal collisions with power lines and fences, and tortoises are sometimes killed by electric fences.

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The amazingly camouflaged Rüppell’s bustard (Eupodotis rueppellii), which is endemic to the Namib. Like other members of the bustard family, it occasionally collides with fences.

In Windhoek, we met with Dr. Chris Brown, chairperson of the Greater Fish River Canyon Landscape (GFRCL), a mosaic of diverse properties, from private reserves to working cattle farms united in an association, whose working motto is “What can we do better together?” It is one of five such associations in Namibia today that are part of the NAM-PLACE project, started by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, and now supported by the United Nations Development Program.

Dr. Brown is also a director in a Namibian company, Gondwana Collection.  Chris told us “We have a triple bottom line approach to business, with both environment and social investment playing central roles.” The strategy is to buy land in marginal, overworked farming areas, “re-wild it” by taking off the livestock and taking down the fences, and then reintroduce indigenous mammals and reinforce populations that have dwindled. Next, they build lodges to attract medium- and high-end tourists interested in seeing wild nature. Their largest property to date – among 14 throughout the country – is a private, protected area of 130,000 ha on the east side of the Fish River Canyon, which is the largest canyon in Africa.

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The Fish River canyon. The river only flows like this after heavy rains.

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An Aloe dichotoma (Kokerboom in Afrikaans, or Quiver tree), one of the few trees in the southern Namib. In the past, Bushmen fashioned quivers for their arrows from the soft branches, hence the tree’s common name.

We were fortunate enough to spend two nights at one GFRCL partner’s lodge, a 40,000 ha reserve on the western rim of the canyon. This remarkable landscape has been inhabited by humans for millennia, as illustrated by the tools and rock engravings still found throughout, but ill-adapted sheep farming, along with the eradication of many species by white settlers over the last 150 years, had a massive impact on the landscape, which is only now beginning to heal.

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‘Pecked’ rock engraving and associated stone tools near the Fish River Lodge.

Through Chris Brown, we also met Nils Odendaal, CEO of the NamibRand Nature Reserve, which is part of the Greater Sossusvlei-Namib Landscape, another of the five current NAM-PLACE projects. Nils was upbeat, citing serious prospects for addressing conservation and human well-being issues simultaneously. This group focuses on the Pro-Namib, the transition zone between the arid Namib and the more mesic escarpments to the East. Much of the land there was given to white South Africans after World War II as a reward for fighting in the war and for voting for the South African National Party. However, after two generations of unsustainable sheep grazing on these already nutrient- and moisture-poor lands, the area became known as the ‘bankruptcy belt’, when farms began to fail one after the other in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1982, a Namibian businessman bought up a large tract of land and made it into a nature reserve. From this initiative, NamibRand has expanded and now includes 202,000 ha, comprising several properties linked by a common constitution that stipulates, among other things, the removal of internal fences. High-quality, low-impact tourism at ‘ecolodges’ built on concessions inside the reserve provide part of the funds for its conservation activities and “sustainable utilization of its resources”.

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A typical NamibRand landscape. Like most of the country, it has suffered a 4-year drought, which may now finally be breaking.

During our journey, we were able to stay one night at the flagship ecolodge, whose revenues help support an environmental education and sustainable living center called NaDeet (Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust), which aims to contribute to the hugely important task of teaching and capacity-building.

The pro-Namib is of critical importance for animals moving out of the Namib proper during droughts. Therefore the reserve is working on an agreement to take down part of its fences on its border with the massive Namib-Naukluft National Park, allowing mammals such as gemsbok to reach the highlands in times of drought.

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The gemsbok (Oryx gazella), is perhaps the most characteristic large mammal of the southern Namib, and one of the most supremely adapted ungulates to desert living. Despite the drought, about 2000 of them thrive on the reserve.

In sum, these are two remarkable initiatives in two of the driest parts of Namibia. Both focus on large wild animals and high-end tourism. Neither has any direct support from the government, and they both are in difficult, arid lands. On the other hand, the very low human populations limit the potential for social conflict so common around conservation areas elsewhere in Africa.

Unquestionably, one major priority for Namibia is more and better environmental education, in classrooms and, above all, outdoors. Both GFRCL and NamibRand undertake detailed monitoring of the wild animals for which they are the stewards and defenders. They are also stellar communicators for wildlife and nature conservation through all their activities and presence on the internet. But what about training in the science and practice of ecological restoration?

As mentioned in our previous post, we were able to visit the Gobabeb Research and Training Center, in the central Namib, as we noted in our previous post. This Center has been operating continuously for over 50 years, and has produced a large body of research on many facets of the Namib, including hydrology, geology, paleohistory and of course ecology. Since 2012, it houses the NEMRU (Namib Ecological Restoration and Monitoring Unit), headed by Dr. Theo Wassenaar. This group has been doing research on restoration of arid lands in the country and training Namibian students, and lobbying for more research and training in restoration ecology at various universities in the country as well. The Gobabeb Training and Research Internship Programme (GTRIP) a five-month field course now in its seventh year. It is intended for young Namibian scientists interested in the fields of conservation, land and ecosystem management and ecological restoration. Under the guidance of researchers and staff, students have the opportunity to design and implement independent research projects that should “contribute to Namibia’s ability to manage and restore degraded ecosystems”. Posts from the GTRIP 2016 trainees are well worth looking at. Hopefully, this generation of Namibians will be the one to make the difference.

One obvious source of inspiration should be its neighbor, South Africa, which has been doing world-class restoration for over two decades. We spent three weeks on the other side of the border, meeting some of the key people and visiting cutting-edge restoration projects, as we’ll discuss and illustrate in our next two posts.

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This year’s GTRIP students at the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre : Mathias Mwaetako, Fransiska Otto, Ailla-Tessa Iiyambula, and Kauna Kapitango, taken on the dunes south of the Kuiseb River. 15 February, 2016. Photo: Meg Schmitt.

Notes from the Namib 1. An ancient desert in transition

James and Thibaud Aronson post the first of four blogposts on their recent trip to Namibia and South Africa.

For the last trip for our book project on desert trees and restoration in arid regions, we started in Namibia, the only country in the world named after its desert! The Namib desert covers the entire coast of Namibia; it is more than 1500 km long and up to 200 km wide and extends north into Angola and south to South Africa. It is often said to be the oldest desert of the world, estimated by some to have continuously experienced arid or semi-arid conditions for the last 55- 80 million years. Certainly there is good evidence that it has been dry since the mid Miocene (11-16 million years ago). (The Atacama desert, from which we wrote last October, is also very old.  For comparison, the Sahara is less than than 7 million years old, and has experienced several much wetter periods since, some as recent as 10,000 years ago.

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Some of the highest dunes in Africa are found at Sossusvlei, in central Namibia. The highest one, ‘Big Daddy’, is just a bit taller than the Eiffel Tower, reaching 325 meters.

The Namib is an exceptionally dry part of the Earth, with the coastal sections hardly receiving any rainfall at all. It does however receive coastal fogs, often for more than 100 days per year, which provide a significant source of moisture. Furthermore, the desert is traversed by 12 ephemeral rivers, which form striking linear oases, with lush riparian canopies. These canopies are dominated in most cases by very large Faidherbia albida trees, that remarkable tree known, among many other names, as Ana tree in southern Africa, and Gao in the Sahel.

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Ana trees along the bed of the ephemeral Kuiseb river, central Namibia.

This tree – which until recently was classified as an Acacia, often shows a very unusual ‘reverse’ phenology compared to most woody plants in seasonally dry areas, as it keeps its leaves during the dry season and drops them in the wet season, when all the other deciduous trees and shrubs are growing new ones. Furthermore, its leaves as well as its pods – which it produces in copious numbers – are highly palatable to animals and high in protein. It is therefore an essential resource both for wild browsers and livestock. And there’s the shade it provides as well, which is a hugely important feature in all desert landscapes. In fact, Ana is one of the most important trees for herders throughout the continent, and is one of the few trees they deem more useful to them standing than cut down. As for the wildlife, these riparian canopies and the food they provide are very important. In fact, they enable some large mammal species, such as the kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), and even rhinoceros and giraffe in the northern Namib, to range into a desert otherwise too harsh to support them.

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A springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis) in the shade of giant Ana trees on the banks of the Kuiseb River. This animal is well-known for its pronking behavior: individuals like this can jump up to two meters straight into the air as a display of fitness to discourage predators from giving chase.

Unusual among deserts, and likely because of its age, the Namib is home to a large number of endemic animal species, mainly beetles, reptiles – such as the Wedge-snouted Sand Lizard (Meroles cuneirostris), and birds, including the Dune Lark (Calendulauda erythrochlamys), Namibia’s only endemic bird.

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The Wedge-snouted Sand Lizard. The shape of its nose is not just a funny accident of evolution: it actually allows this lizard to ‘dive’ into the sand to escape its predators. This lizard is also known to perform a ‘thermal dance’, lifting one foot at a time, or lie on its stomach with all four feet in the air, to reduce its contact with the sand that can reach a scorching 70 degrees C (158 F)!

 

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A Dune Lark, in the Namib-Rand Nature Reserve, in the process of building its nest in a hummock of grass. Its name is misleading; this bird actually prefers to live in the swale of vegetated dunes where its cryptic coloring makes it seemingly vanish as soon as you blink.

However, the Namib’s most famous endemic is undoubtedly Namibia’s national plant, the bizarre Welwitschia mirabilis. This is the sole species of the one genus in the venerable – dare we say inimitable? – Welwitschiaceae. This ‘monster’ is the only living member of a lineage more than 100 million years old. At a distance in certain lights you’d think it’s a beached giant squid…. but in fact it’s an ‘underground tree that can live well over a thousand years. Welwitschia is a near-endemic in Namibia as it occurs in southern Angola as well, but its entire geographic range is limited to the Namib Desert.

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Female adult Welwitschia in its habitat. Note how the ends of the leaves dry out over time.

According to Dr. Theo Wassenaar, researcher at the 54-year old Gobabeb Research and Training Centre, this remarkable plant survives for centuries in a hyper arid desert by finding pockets of slightly moist soil in rock fissures. Having excavated more than two dozen plants, and examined their root systems in detail, he says “essentially it appears as if they forage for water, using their roots as scouts and sending in the troops (fine roots) when they find a pocket of moisture. And the differences in moisture can be slight, a few percent at most.”

An additional anomaly is that, although it is very hard to tell at first glance, each plant only has two leaves, gradually torn to tatters by the desert winds and sun. These two gigantic leaves never stop growing during the tree’s lifetime. It also is under threat, sad to say, as we will describe briefly a bit later.

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Adult male Welwitschia in flower.

We traveled through nearly half of Namibia, from Walvis Bay in the center of the country, south to the Orange River on the South African border. And it is a breath-taking drive, because of the geology of this truly ancient desert, and the fact that the area has low population density, and still reasonably healthy ecosystems (except for the livestock fences galore) and large amounts of wildlife.

This state of affairs partly traces back to an inspired Nature Conservation Ordinance promulgated by the government back in 1975, which gave landowners property rights over the game animals on their land, within certain enlightened limits. Before that date, all wild animals, and all profits derived from them, went back to the state. Transferring ownership and the associated profits – from game viewing, trophy-hunting, and meat – to the landowners changed their perspective of wild animals. No longer competitors and predators of their livestock, to be kept out or exterminated, wild mammals became a source of revenue to be ‘cultivated’ and protected. As a result, the populations of large mammal species have seen impressive increases in the country. However, in some cases, this commercial incentive has led to some serious mismanagement. Indeed, some landowners have taken the view there is no such thing as too much game, and some private game farms maintain populations at unsustainably high densities in relatively small areas. Ironically, this can lead to some of the worst cases of overgrazing in the country!

Overall, the good health and integrity of the country’s ecosystems is a fantastic asset, of tremendous value for the nation. And – on paper, at least – the situation is admirable, with nearly 20% of the country in protected areas; since 2011, the entire coastline is protected inside three national parks, something no other country in the world can boast.

Still, the Namib desert and its fauna and flora face various threats, with dams affecting the hydrology of several ephemeral rivers, and a powerful and growing mining sector. In particular, the Welwitschia plains, where the largest southern population occurs, sit on top of a large uranium deposit. Efforts have been made to preserve the Welwitschia populations, and so far only two mines have been operating. But a third is currently being developed, which will be one of the world’s largest, and several other mining licenses may well be awarded if the price of uranium goes up again.

However the relationship of mining to restoration, and the role of the mining sector, are complex here as everywhere. As Dr Gabi Schneider, of the Namibian Uranium Institute told us, uranium mining is very localised, and the mine ‘footprints’ therefore are limited. Mining companies in Namibia have contributed in no small way to advancing the technology and science of arid land rehabilitation in the Namib, and also to research. Among other things they co-fund the Namib Ecological Restoration and Monitoring Unit program at Gobabeb. Uranium activities are governed by a Strategic Environmental Management Plan as well.

Furthermore, feral horses from abandoned tourism initiatives also roam the desert and eat Welwitschia leaves much more aggressively than native browsers do. Theo Wassenaar is working on this, and negotiating with local communities; it is a slow process but the Ministry of Environment and Tourism is also now engaging rural communities on this issue.

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Horse-browsed Welwitschia in Welwitschia wash, near Gobabeb. Photo: Meg Schmitt, Gobabeb Research and Training Centre.

Further south, near the South African border, under the coastal dunes and off-shore, is one of the largest diamond deposits in the world, which have been mined for over a century. While some laudable efforts are being made to restore mine sites on this harsh, windy coast, it is a very difficult task, in one of the driest regions of the world.

During our travels, we met some of the restoration and conservation pioneers in the country, who are taking these vital actions to the next level, and working on more intimately linking wildlife conservation, the policies of both mining and tourism sectors and, in general, environmental education and capacity building. In the next blog post, we will talk more of the prospects and constraint for these initiatives.

The Huarango and Algarrobo forests of coastal Peru: rays of hope

James and Thibaud Aronson report from coastal Peru, where they travelled in December, with Oliver Whaley, of RBG Kew.

Yesterday, at our local market here in France, we saw Peruvian avocados. We’d seen them there before, and we don’t buy them. But we’d never really given them more than a passing thought. Now, having come back from coastal Peru, where they are grown, we have a very different outlook.

Passing through much of Peru’s southern coast is perhaps more interesting to geologists than ecologists. The tenuous ecological balance, and its rather checkered history since humans arrived, needs time to reveal its secrets. But the earth’s surface here is simply naked and laid out as for a desert geomorphology text book. An extension of the famous Atacama desert of northern Chile, it is one of the driest places on Earth, with an average annual rainfall of 0.3 mm, or barely more than one tenth of an inch.

Here more than in nearly any other desert, life is almost entirely confined to areas with some amount of moisture. As a result, the few river valleys that come down from the Andes form spectacular green ribbons among the dunes. They carry some water down from the rainstorms high in the mountains but the critical driver here is El Niño. It brings down tremendous amounts of water and sediment once every 6 to 15 years, thereby rejuvenating the whole system, and generating extremely fertile alluvial soils.

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The last remaining stretch of Prosopis limensis riparian forest near Copara, Ica region, southern Peru.

500 years ago, the river valleys were occupied by dense woodlands or veritable forests of Prosopis limensis (local name – Huarango), which is often misidentified as Prosopis pallida, teeming with wildlife in the canopy and understories. Today, most of the Prosopis are gone, the excellent charcoal produced from their wood having been used up to fuel the stream engines of the now defunct coastal railway and, more recently, for fast food chicken restaurants ‘pollo a la brasa’ and millions of barbecue fires in cities and roadside restaurants. Instead, one now sees vast monocultures of asparagus, avocadoes, and table grapes, producing cash crops for the North American and European export markets.

This story of deforestation is in fact almost complete, with nearly 99% of the original vegetation having been removed.

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There once were countless Prosopis trees such as this one, which has probably lived for a thousand years on this sand dune, near Copara.

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Most of them fell to the charcoal burners’ axes, and even though it is now forbidden to harvest firewood from live trees, illegal cutting continues, as seen here, 20 meters from the tree pictured above.

Depressing? Yes, but as engaged ecologists, we were also encouraged that change is happening; there is cause for hope. There are program in community-based restoration led by Ecoan underway in the high Andes, near Cuzco and environs, and science and conservation efforts underway at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s station at Oxapampa.

We were lucky to spend 10 days with Oliver Whaley, from RBG Kew, who has been instrumental in many of the first initiatives attempting to reverse some of the damage done on this arid coast and to find a new path that explicitly includes restoration. Particularly noteworthy is a partnership he’s brokered with the large agroindustry supply chain, including a giant supermarket chain where almost half of the UK buys its vegetables, and which is the destination of a high percentage of the region’s produce.

The agro-industries overcome the lack of reliable rainwater by installing intensive irrigation systems, which although highly efficient, are driving unsustainable expansion even as they produce spectacular crop harvests.

However, the coast also experiences strong winds coming from the coast year-round, which require that rows of trees be planted as windbreaks to shield the valuable crops. Furthermore security hedging today is almost entirely composed of introduced water-guzzling African or Asian exotics. Under Whaley’s in-farm reforestation  program, some producers have begun planting native Prosopis, Parkinsonia, and Acacia trees yielding a mixed forest instead, which provides habitat for wildlife and also improves the neighboring soils through their capacity to fix atmospheric nitrogen in symbiosis with rhizobacteria. They require far less water than introduced trees, and will never become weeds. Agroindustry management has also donated land for restoration corridors, a vitally important undertaking at the landscape scale that has not yet been well-explored in coastal Peru or other drylands.

The Kew Peru team planted 7,000 trees and shrubs of 15 native species derived from the degraded tiny relicts. The results have been nothing short of astounding, with over 70 new native plant species, 45 bird species, various lizards, desert fox and wild guinea pigs recolonizing areas that were nothing but barren soil 9 years ago. (The full results of this work will be published in the spring). Whaley takes a practical and patient view – whereby to nurture back woodland and a cultural re engagement with what nature provides takes time and needs to show results.

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A patch of restored land on the edge of an asparagus field, showing the difference 10 years make. Santiago de Ica, southern Peru.

Whaley and the local NGO, Conservamos por Naturaleza that he helped found and works closely with, is also committed to education and communication, working in Ica, Nasca, and elsewhere, to change people’s perception of the key desert plants such as Prosopis and Capparis, and their ecosystems, and of native biodiversity in general. Cultural reengagement, he argues, is about changing perception from symbols of a rural, backwards environment to be left behind in the wake of progress, to highly useful and valuable trees and woodlands that are part of the local heritage. These ecosystems clearly are worthy of pride, not only for their inherent value, but also because they offer the prospects of  sustainable, profitable agriculture that is also conservation-friendly.

The Huarango Festival in Ica, which focuses on the numerous products that can be extracted from the tree, such as algarrobina, a sweet spread, a sweet drink, high quality honey, ink, and more has been a large success, and is now in its eleventh year. Whaley also works with schools, working to restore small patches of native vegetation inside the school compounds and promoting ecological consciousness through small nurseries and gardening projects.

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Seedlings in a native species nursery funded by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, at the Faculty of Agronomy at the University of Ica.

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Middle school students in their school’s nursery, in a town near Ica, where they grow native species and food crops and have a great time doing it.

The other unique feature of the southern coast is an inland archipelago of sorts, made up of coastal fog oases, or lomas, in Spanish. Fed by the moisture provided by coastal fogs, they rise from the surrounding desert and harbor herbaceous vegetation and in some cases various kinds of trees, all of which show high rates of endemism. Most of the lomas are sadly threatened by mining and other uses today, but Whaley has already succeeded in helping protect the new national reserve of Lomas San Fernando. This and other efforts , such as drone surveys and modelling, are conducted with help from Kew GIS staff, and Whaley’s team in Peru that includes Alfonso Orellana, Consuelo Borda, Ana Juarez and other dedicated workers. They are currently doing the baseline research in two other lomas reserves to help strengthen the case for protected area status.

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The amazing vegetation supported almost entirely by coastal fogs in the Lomas de Atiquipa, home to an endemic very endangered Myrtaceae:  Myrcianthes ferreyrae.

 

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A female Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), in the Lomas de San Fernando reserve, the only place in Peru where this raptor roosts near sea level.

Whaley and his co-workers are also engaged in restoration efforts the tropical northern coast of Peru, where the circumstances are rather different. The north coast receives significantly more rainfall than the south, i.e., about 100 mm per year (!), that is 4 inches. This permits the vegetation to climb out of the river valleys, and in fact, the local Algarrobo (Prosopis pallida and in the extreme North only P. juliflora along with hybrids between the two), and Capparis species, among others, still form true woodlands. Traditionally, the trees were preserved by the local people as their leaves and in particular their pods are remarkably nutritive, and provide prime forage for free-ranging cattle, the peoples’ primary source of income.

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The remarkable woodlands dominated by Prosopis pallida (Algarrobo), in the Pomac Forest Sanctuary, Lambayeque Region, northern Peru.

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The Algarrobo trees have been preserved in large part because they provide excellent forage for the local people’s cattle.

However, a still poorly understood plague, apparently resulting from the combination of a small fly and a fungus, are decimating the woodlands; in some areas over 80% of the Algarrobo have apparently died. Just like in the South, El Niño is paramount in keeping the system healthy and, in particular, no Prosopis seedlings have been seen germinating in the last 50 years, except during El Niño years. What’s more, the next El Niño event is overdue: the last one came in 1997/1998, and now the system appears exhausted. Clearly the system is waiting for the next El Niño, and the long wait appears to have increased the Algarrobo’s vulnerability to the plague.

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Severe Prosopis pallida dieback, near Talara, Piura region.

However, El Niño is coming this year, and according to the climate experts, it’s going to be a big one. As a result, Whaley and his team are scrambling to prepare as many Prosopis seeds as possible, to be sown during or right after the heavy rains. As the trees slowly dying from the plague usually fail to set seed, Whaley and his collaborators fear that much of the soil seed bank is exhausted and this could truly be the last chance for this species in its wild state.

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A seed-ball with 4 native species, including Algarrobo, being prepared at a community nursery, near Salas, Lambayeque region.

Now there is an additional layer to the issue, which asks of would-be restorationists exactly what it is that they are trying to do. There hasn’t been nearly as much deforestation in Peru’s North coast as in the South, so there are still reasonably large tracts of native vegetation left intact. Further, apart from Algarrobo, none of the other five dominant native tree species, including two species of Capparis,  appear to be affected in any way by the plague.  Domestic cattle will also eat the leaves of these other trees and shrubs, though they aren’t quite as good as the Prosopis.

Therefore, some might say that this is just a natural transition occurring within an ecosystem, and it would be foolish, or even a case of trying to play God, to attempt to save the Prosopis at all costs. However, Whaley thinks differently, and we agree with him. The Algarrobo, like the Huarango, is a remarkable tree, fantastically well adapted to its environment, capable of living 1000 years of more, and clearly the keystone species of the riparian and related ecosystems where it occurs.

It forms remarkable canopies, and in areas where it is absent, we did not see the other tree species present produce anything like it, rather forming a much more open low savanna. Further, it has been a pillar of the various civilizations that have existed in the area for the last 4000 years. Therefore, Whaley is not yet ready to just let it go…

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A thousand-year old Prosopis pallida in the Pomac Forest Sanctuary, possibly the oldest of its kind still alive in northern Peru…

 

Conservation and restoration in arid Australia – an uphill battle.

In their third report from arid Australia, James and Thibaud Aronson discuss some of the serious issues facing conservationists and restorationists.

Concerning the non-native animals in Australia, the general consensus today is that eradication is impossible: the only option that remains is control, in the form of fences or culling, or both. Yet, conflicts of opinion on the ethics of culling abound, even for the armies of feral cats that reportedly kill 75 million native animals every single night. Even fences have their pros and cons, in particular the interruption of the migration of thousands of emus.

Western Australia's State Barrier Fence, 1170 km long, meant to control dingoes, dogs, foxes and other feral animals, with more or less effectiveness….

Western Australia’s State Barrier Fence, 1170 km long, meant to control dingoes, dogs, foxes and other feral animals, with varying degrees of success.

Both feral cats and foxes are most lethal in areas with relatively little vegetation cover, that is, the massive dry interior of the continent. This is compounded by the monster fires that have plagued Australia since European settlement. A single such fire can burn down hundreds of thousands of hectares, leaving small mammals and other animals with nowhere to hide.

Even this rather small fire, which spared the trees, has almost entirely eliminated all low vegetation, thereby exposing small animals to predation by cats and foxes. West MacDonnell National Park, Northern Territory.

Even this rather small fire, which spared the trees (their dead appearance is deceptive; these trees will resprout), has almost entirely eliminated all low vegetation, leaving small animals vulnerable to cats and foxes. West MacDonnell National Park, Northern Territory.

What’s more, as mentioned in our previous blogpost, most land managers continue to burn on an annual basis without sufficient attention to the impact on animals and indeed many plants. Things are changing though.

In the seasonally dry, tropical Kimberley region, in the northwest, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, or AWC, is testing new methods, focusing on patchy prescribed burning in the early dry season, and controlling cattle grazing. They are having good results with this approach in preserving more plant cover for small native animals and thereby reducing the lethal impact of feral cats. The AWC has also shown that their fire management techniques are not only beneficial for native animals, but also for pasture quality, and would therefore benefit pastoralists, whom Australians call graziers. Since most landowners in the area are graziers, let’s hope they will follow suit and try new fire management regimes. It is in this region, by the way, that occurs the endemic baobab of Australia, known here as Boab. To our surprise there are thousands of them, in a wide range of habitats. Some are estimated to be well over 1000 years old. Survival of this tree, at least, is clearly not threatened by fire or foxes, even if other problems – such as climate change – do exist. Let’s hope they go on thriving for another 1000 years.

A typical landscape of the Kimberley, dominated by the majestic boabs (Adansonia gregorii). King Leopold Ranges Conservation Park.

A typical landscape of the Kimberley, dominated by the majestic boabs (Adansonia gregorii). King Leopold Ranges Conservation Park.

Another reason invoked for the proliferation of cats and foxes in Australia is the virtual absence of top predators to control them. This phenomenon, called meso-predator release, is also found in North America, where coyotes have greatly expanded following the extirpation of wolves throughout large portions of the continent. Therefore, some have suggested that allowing dingoes to maintain higher population numbers would have a significant effect on controlling cats and foxes. However, dingoes are still considered pests by pastoralists, and large amounts of money go into controlling them.

And that’s not the last of it. In the last 200 years, people have also introduced many exotic plant species, some of which have become terrible weeds, such as buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) (see our previous blog post), but also Tamarix, Kutch (aka Bermuda grass, Cynodon dactylon), Karroo thorn (Acacia horrida) and others. By 2009, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) estimated that introduced invasive plants were costing the country 4 billion Australian dollars a year in weed control and lost agricultural production, and causing “serious damage to the environment”. With climate change, it seems possible that numerous “lurking” or “sleeper” weeds such as the White weeping broom, Retama raetam, may increase their ranges and their negative impacts.

Buffel grass presents a particularly severe problem – and like the cats, and dingoes, it is controversial. It was one of dozens of African grasses intentionally introduced by Australian agricultural researchers to “improve” pasture for cattle. Indeed cattle do like it, but the problem is that the grass spreads with amazing tenacity and crowds out native grasses, and all other groundstory plants where it invades, and, it carries fire like few other plants. Control is possible, but it is tedious and expensive and is never 100% effective at a large-scale. Furthermore, the ranchers prefer it to the native grasses, and their ideas on when and how to burn are very different from those concerned with conservation. Indeed, only few of the people we met envision stopping prescribed fire altogether.

For example, Peter Latz,  a native of the Red Centre,  plant ecologist, and author we met in Alice Springs, has been conducting manual removal of buffel and Kutch on his own land. But his main focus has been on excluding fire altogether, and achieving thereby pretty impressive results.

 

Peter Latz in his garden, next to the hemi-parasitic quandong tree (Santalum acuminatum). Alice Springs.

Peter Latz in his garden, next to the hemi-parasitic quandong tree (Santalum acuminatum). Alice Springs.

For more on Peter Latz’s views and lifetime of experience in central Australia, see The Flaming Desert: Arid Australia – a Fire Shaped Landscape.

In our next blog post, we’ll talk about some of the other people and groups in arid and SW Australia undertaking serious steps towards restoration, while fully aware of the obstacles and the complexity of the challenge.

Australia’s amazing and vulnerable deserts – not as pristine as they look.

In this second report from arid Australia, James and Thibaud Aronson discuss the debated roles of fire, cattle and invasive mammals on the native fauna and flora.

To quote Gary Dinham, director of the Alice Springs Desert Park, “although the average annual rainfall in Alice Springs is just 270 mm, [9 in.], it’s erratic. For example, in 2009 the year’s total rainfall at Desert Park was 64 mm. In 2010, it was 990!”

Imagine, then, a vast region where almost no rain falls for several years, and then one year, a meter falls in two weeks, causing devastating floods. Despite the aridity, and the unpredictability, there are wooded areas in vast parts of inland Australia with annual rainfall comparable to that of Syria or Sudan! In fact,  there is such a remarkable diversity of trees and shrubs, and indeed such extensive savanna or woodland tree cover, that it makes perfect sense to speak of desert canopies occurring there. However, that stunning first impression does not reveal how much the ecosystems and landscapes have been disturbed, especially in the past two centuries. How? Through severely altered fire regimes, overgrazing by domestic and feral herbivores, open-pit mining, and outrageous numbers of intentional and accidental introductions of exotic species of all sorts that really shouldn’t be there.

Open Eucalypt woodland with spinifex grass (Triodia spp.) dominated undergrowth. Karijini National Park, Western Australia.

Open Eucalypt woodland with spinifex grass (Triodia spp.) dominated undergrowth. Karijini National Park, Western Australia.

Because of its inordinately high biomass, the Australian center burns – or gets burned – every year or every other year…. The 70 species of spinifex grasses present throughout the arid and semiarid areas are in fact some of the most flammable plants on the planet. But that’s just part of the story.

500 meters away from where the previous photo was taken, this spot had burned six months earlier. The Eucalypts display here  the unusual feature of branches resprouting high in a tree with a completely burnt trunk. What makes this possible in some trees – including the Mediterranean cork oak - is epicormic buds. Annuals are taking advantage of the nutrients released in the soil, and the spinifex will come back too, only that will take a little longer.

500 meters away from where the previous photo was taken, this spot had burned six months earlier. The Eucalypts display here the unusual feature of branches resprouting high in a tree with a completely burnt trunk. What makes this possible in some few trees – including the Mediterranean cork oak – is epicormic buds. Taking advantage of the pulse of nutrients released in the soil, annuals have germinated in profusion, and spinifex will come back too, a little slower.

Because European settlers stubbornly tried to import inappropriate farming and pastoral techniques into Australia’s arid center, with its poor soils and unpredictable rainfall, they overstocked and let their cattle roam essentially freely over vast areas. Under these conditions, certain grasses and shrubs are favored, and vegetation is much more fire-prone. this has led to a large increase in the frequency of monster fires, capable of burning vast areas within days or weeks.

Even today, most landowners with cattle in the outback burn their land every single year. Why? So as to reduce fuel load, as a matter of fact, in efforts – often unsuccessful, as we’ve just said – to reduce the risk of wildfires that might burn down their houses and other infrastructure. But they also are aiming to increase the amount of palatable grasses, including the introduced Buffel grass.

Buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) by a river, showing the worst of its invasive capability, where it forms a blanket which crowns out all other understorey species under the canopy of red river gums (Euc. camaldulensis).

Buffel grass (Pennisetum cenchroides, more commonly known by its old name Cenchrus ciliaris) by a river, showing the worst of its invasive capability, crowding out all native understory species under the canopy of red river gums (Euc. camaldulensis). Hardey River, near Paraburdoo, Western Australia.

There is little doubt that this approach could be improved on, but the truly problematic point is whether or not the desert needs to burn. That debate ultimately is rooted in divergent interpretations of the past 100,000 years of Australia’s history.

It is generally agreed that humans arrived on the island continent approximately 50,000 years ago. What is unclear is what lasting impact the first immigrants had, and on what scale. The suggested date for their arrival roughly coincides with the extinction of all animal species weighing more than 100 kg, similar to what happened later in the Americas and even later in Madagascar. Therefore, some argue that humans must have driven the megafauna to extinction. Others say that Australia had been getting progressively hotter and drier for 20 to 50 thousand years prior to the arrival of humans, and that large animals could not cope with the new climate. If that’s true, at most the earliest Australians hunted out only tiny remnant populations of these large animals (including giant kangaroos, rhinoceros-sized wombats, a lizard twice the size of a Komodo dragon, giant turtles, marsupial lions, and some of the largest birds that ever lived on Earth).

Beaten only by the ostrich, the emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) is the second largest living bird, standing as tall as an average person. Among the now extinct Australian megafauna was the flightless mihurung or thunder bird (Dromornis stirtoni), that was nearly twice the size of an emu and weighed half a ton!

Beaten only by the ostrich, the emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) is the second largest living bird, standing as tall as an average person. However, it is small compared to the now extinct mihurung or thunder bird (Dromornis stirtoni), that was nearly twice its size and weighed half a ton!

Through the use of ‘fire-stick farming’ (the practice of setting fires in patches to stimulate new tender shoots on grasses and other plants, and thereby attract game), the Aborigines – according to some scholars – gradually transformed most of Australia’s landscapes from fire-sensitive thickets, woodlands, and forests, to spinifex grasslands and Eucalypt woodlands highly tolerant of this kind of fire regime.

Others counter that the earliest humans in Australia in fact stayed at low population densities until the arrival of Europeans and that their nomadic societies could not possibly have transformed landscapes at any meaningful scale. To date, no clear consensus has yet emerged.

What is beyond question is the enormous impact that Europeans have had since 1788, when the first English settlers drove in their tent pegs and set up corrals for their sheep and cattle.  The introduced livestock were the first animals with cloven hooves ever to walk on Australian soil. As a direct result, the biocrust, that is the beneficial communities of lichens, mosses, and bacteria which form on undisturbed soils in many arid lands, and indeed the top profiles of the soils themselves were quickly eliminated.

European settlers also cleared vast areas of land for grazing and crop lands, and introduced rabbits, cats, foxes, rats, mice, donkeys, camels, and other exotic animals  which have had horrific impact on small marsupials, birds, and reptiles of the island, not to mention the complex ecological networks and community dynamics in which those animals occurred. Sad to say, Australia has the worst record of any country for recent animal extinctions.

Cattle at a waterhole. Cockatoo Creek, Willare, Western Australia.

Unsupervised cattle at a waterhole. Cockatoo Creek, Willare, Western Australia.

Cleared and overgrazed land on a cattle station in Western Australia. The ribbon of woodland in the background provides a reference for what the whole area once looked like.

Cleared and overgrazed land on a cattle station in Western Australia. The ribbon of woodland in the background provides a reference for what the whole area once looked like.

Of the 60 mammal species that have gone extinct worldwide, in the last 200 years, 30 were Australian – and most inhabited the arid and semi-arid zone. Besides, a further 6 formerly widespread mammals are on the brink of extinction today, surviving only on handkerchief-sized, fenced off reserves or offshore islands inaccessible to feral cats and foxes.

While that is a terribly bleak legacy, promising steps are now being taken to limit the damage going forward, and ensure that the history of massive human-caused extinctions is not repeated. In our third and fourth blog posts from Australia we will discuss the obstacles to restoration, and then some of the encouraging endeavors underway.