World View is Worth Conserving

Paul de Jager, a keen botanist who spends many hours wandering in the grasslands and natural areas of the World’s View Conservancy, has set down some impressions on the ecological status and conservation significance of a portion of the Worlds View Conservancy, based on ten brief visits he has made to the area since 13 October 2013. His observations are based on the area eastward from the telecommunications tower, centred on the Crags, and extending down to the Old Howick Road. He reports as follows: My overall impression as an ecologist is that the area studied is of great conservation value, comprising a remarkably intact eco-system of a habitat type (primarily mist-belt grassland), which is now very rare, with an impressive diversity of both plant and animal life. The latter includes a wide range of insects, as well as vertebrates, ranging from small lizards to birds and larger mammals including antelope. WVC - extensive grassland This diversity is all the more remarkable for being supported by a remarkably small area of land not planted to forestry, crops, or destroyed by road or building construction. Please understand that many plants can only be accurately identified while in flower, and not all plants can be expected to flower every year – many will only flower after a fire, for instance – so only after visiting an area throughout a year and over several years, could one get a very thorough idea of what occurs there. So I have made a very limited sample so far. Nevertheless, I have been struck by the biodiversity of this area – on most visits I have seen something in flower, which I did not see before. It is very significant I believe, that while these notes are based on a very small sample of this biodiversity (and further limited to plants) I have already noted the plant species treated by the late Rob Scott-Shaw in his book: Rare and Threatened Plants of UKZN (1999). This is already a good result, in terms of motivation for conserving the fauna and flora of this area, and I am confident that greater familiarity with it will yield a far longer such list, possibly including some items classified as having a more highly threatened status than the ones detailed below, as well as an ever-lengthening comprehensive plant list. As it happens the Hilton Daisy, may also occur in the area I have looked at – I have seen plants of what may be this species, but can only confirm their identity after seeing them in flower (there is a large colony further down-slope in Queen Elizabeth Park, so this seems likely), only 0.3% of the grassland of Moist Midlands Mist belt is formally protected and only approximately 1% remains in a near-pristine state. The threats to this vegetation type are agriculture and forestry, and these threats are increasing. So, the habitat type surrounding the Crags is severely threatened. Species recorded by myself and their status according to Scott-Shaw is: Begonia geranioides – lower risk, near threatened OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Kniphofia buchananii – lower risk, least concern kniphofia-buchananii1 Sandersonia aurantiaca – low risk; conservation dependent sandersonia-aurantiaca1 Dierama pallidum – vulnerable dierama-pallidum1 Scott-Shaw further commented that the threats pertaining to Sandersonia are that moist grasslands of Eastern KwaZulu Natal have largely been lost to agriculture and forestry, and that very few protected areas occur in this habitat. Likewise, regarding Dierama pallidum: grassland has been transformed by forestry, agriculture and urban expansion, which have severely reduced the extent and quality of suitable habitat. So, there is a recurring theme here and plants are threatened to varying degrees, with extinction as the extreme possibility, because they were perhaps rare to start with, having high habitat specificity, and their habitat has been destroyed in many areas, leading to local extirpation (i.e. being wiped out). Moving on from an attempt to assess what we have here to consider the likely threats and possible management priorities. Besides the possibility of further hitherto undisturbed habitat being built on, there are the more immediate threats to the habitat. Evident to me are the invasion of wild areas by alien plant species including both unmanaged species and seedlings of the eucalyptus and Australian acacias, used in forestry plantations. WVC - Ketelfontein Station wall from early 1900's (1) Also poaching; be it the hunting of animals by subsistence -orientated or sport hunters or the collection of plant and plant roots by people wishing to supply to muthi trade. Exotic plants, unrelated to the forestry industry do seem to me to prove a significant current threat in this area. Wild Ginger is particularly prevalent in this section of forest adjacent to the former rail bed and lantana is also a problem here. If funding can be accessed, some effort to physically remove or chemically control such weeds would be a good thing. In order to make optimal long term use of such an investment in effort it is important to ensure that weeds are killed outright and not merely cut down only to re-sprout and require a further investment in effort in the future. This is not always easy in the case of wild ginger the complete removal of the plants rhizome and its subsequent destruction by physical means (burning/cooling/ crushing/mincing etc.), may be the only way and with many woody species, cut stumps need to be timeously treated with a paint on herbicide or eco-plugs of herbicide inserted immediately after cutting. Whilst Lilium Formosanum is a highly visible invasive weed, which I know some people are making an effort to control, I would not prioritise its control, but rather advocate the dedication of scarce resources towards efforts to deal with species such as those already mentioned, as it does not seem to me to pose the same threat of modifying the structure of the habitat in the same way, being of insufficiently large stature to do so. The existence of densely planted and fecund stands of exotic trees (in the shape of forestry plantations) immediately adjacent to the wild area must always pose an ongoing threat in the form of a massive and endlessly renewed seed source, which spontaneously generates large seedlings easily able to colonise wild areas, changing vegetation structure and ground water dynamics. Would that our forestry industry could become one based on sterile (i.e. non seed bearing trees) These legal aliens will have to be dealt with continuously. I believe that such efforts are being made – the felling of the tall seedling gums, which, until recently, featured so prominently on the skyline above the Crags, is evidence of this. However, I believe it is important to note that many of these gums were in fact, multi-stemmed coppice growths emerging from stumps which had evidently been cut down some years before and not killed outright. I saw no evidence of efforts to kill the stumps this time either, and I saw stumps some days after they had been cut. As far as I know the herbicide needs to be applied immediately after cutting, so it seems likely that this work will be to be duplicated again when the stumps have sprouted, which is a waste of resources which could always be better deployed to deal with other problems. There also seem to be some conflict between forestation activities and optimal practices regarding catchment conservation (i.e. the avoidance of drainage lines and water-courses when planting timber crops) and possibly also encroachment on the hitherto undisturbed wild areas. WVC grassland (2) (fabled Hilton Daisy in there somewhere) A clearer demarcation of wild areas as strictly no-go areas in terms of plantations would be very useful in this regard. Also, for both the control of existing invasive plants (including forestry crops) and advice and legal assistance regarding appropriate practices in terms of catchment protection, a useful person to get in touch with is Jacky Zuma. He is now based at Cedara and is The Project Manager: Invasive Alien Species Programme and he works for the Department of Agriculture, Environmental Affairs and Rural Development of KZN. His contact details are as follows: cell: 0798953636; landline: 033 355 9345; fax: 033 355 9334; email: phillip.zuma@kzndae.gov.za; website: http://agriculture.kzntl.gov.za. As I understand it, Jacky has it within his power to assist landowners and users with advice, and to some extent with chemicals and manpower in the control of aliens, as well as having access to the legal machinery to compel compliance with current legal standards. He has, I believe, a good deal of hands-on experience, with the background in the practical fieldwork aspect of this work and has catchments rehabilitation and conservation as one of his priorities. Regarding poaching, as far as the flora are concerned, the most significant threat to this area would be the harvesting of plants and plant parts for the muthi trade. The area studied is extremely rich in geophytes (plants with bulbs or similar underground storage organs and growth suds) as well as woody species of likely interest to the muthi trade. I observed several instances of heavy bush harvesting from Rauvolfia caffra (quinine trees) though these did not appear to be of very recent date. Image On the other hand the area supports a very large population of Boophone disticha, which tends to be regarded as an indicator of habitat health in terms of muthi-collecting impact. Furthermore, the presence in the area, though not in large numbers of Eucomis autumnalis subsp. clavata is also a positive sign. Scott-Shaw notes that this species is a sought after medicinal plant, which has been critically over-exploited over most of its range, becoming very rare and extirpated in many areas, particularly in the Midlands and coastal areas. Given that the WVC is located in an increasingly urban area the existence of a large number of potential muthi collectors and consumers nearby, mean that this threat must be taken seriously and policing efforts maintained. WVC - Erythrina Rotundifolia and Cussonia sp Returning to the subject of long-term threats to the maintenance of diversity of the fauna and flora of this area. It is, however sobering this may be, worth remembering that effective conservation of biological diversity only makes sense on a geological timescale; i.e. millions of years, so in terms of the very brief period which anyone of our lives represents, this effectively translates into forever! The converse of the fact that extinction is permanent, is the fact that in order for their constituent species to be able to continue to adjust and evolve, eco-systems need to be maintained as intact as possible for ever and a day. The greater the area of a given habitat type that can be preserved relatively intact – with a diversity of types of life-forms alive and functioning – the greater the chance of that habitat type and its constituent species, being able to contribute to the range of species which will be able to endure in the future, over millions of years. Bearing this in mind, the future of mist-belt grassland and the species which comprise it, is not looking bright, because there is so little left. So the grassland areas within the WVC are really important; though they are small in area they are rich in species including rare and endangered ones. Any natural area located adjacent to or within a city is particularly threatened as cities sprawl and Pietermaritzburg is sprawling fast, with Hilton becoming something of a commuter suburb. Over time, land values are likely to rise and it is not inconceivable that sometime in the future, land that is now land for forestry plantations will come to be seen as potential “real-estate” and it, and adjacent land, might become grist to that industries mill, under the guise, so euphorically referred to as “development”. One should perhaps guard against any temptation to be over-optimistic about the power of human laws to protect organisms and habitat. The current plight of the Rhinos springs to mind and of more pertinent, the fact that only a few years ago, part of Queen Elizabeth Park, not just a nature reserve but also located close to the Head Office of the Provinces conservation organ, was de-proclaimed and converted into real estate, thus ending its possible contribution to maintenance of the biodiversity. However, having uttered these threats it would still seem to me a good thing if parts of the WVC could acquire some sort of official or legal status as a wild life preserve. A glorious pipe dream! “What if the WVC is able to raise funds from inter-alia, the wealthy citizens of Hilton and purchase, or by whatever means, acquire, title to the land which I have been studying, and establish “The Crags” Nature Reserve.” Less ambitiously, it would seem to be that a clarification and demarcation, i.e.; survey with clearly visible markers of the areas within the WVC dedicated to nature conservation and therefore off limits to forestry activities would be very useful. It needs to be drawn to the attention of those that control this land that it has significance in terms of conservation of biodiversity, given that the bottom line is always relevant in debates about land-use, the question arises as to whether it can be made to pay for its upkeep or even yield revenues. Amenity areas can be argued as fulfilling a necessary function within a city, even if they do not yield income, whilst a well-maintained and productive catchment can be argued for in terms of actual Rand value of water production and flood amelioration. Natural areas stand head and shoulders above forestry plantations and developed environments in terms of both water quality and yield and flood amelioration. Durban’s D. Moss network of nature reserves is something worth investigating and perhaps emulating partially. Worlds View viewpoint looking back In conclusion, I would not claim to have answers to all the issues and questions I have raised but I do emphatically believe that the area I have looked at, especially the Crags, is well worth working to conserve. I am impressed with what has evidently been done already to keep it looking as good as it does. I congratulate you and your colleagues for your work in achieving this. Any work you do for the WVC is worth doing! I will continue to pursue my interest in the flora of this area and hopefully look at other areas within the WVC as my limited time and energy budget will allow and hope that my efforts will be of further use to the Conservancy. learn more about World’s View at:

 

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2 thoughts on “World View is Worth Conserving

  1. David Clulow

    Such a commentary has me enthralled and hopeful. Having had the pleasure of passing down the Old Howick Road since 1968, having noted the cliffs and natural vegetation, albeit at a distance, I have continued to watch its attractive grasses, wildflowers, trees and indigenous grandeur with apprehension. It is my belief that human intervention does not always improve the situation; but in this case sooner or later, self-interest is likely to spy out the possibilities of houses clinging to the cliff faces and the developers will destroy as they have done so often. A reserve is a wonderful idea. Who has the enthusiasm and time of days ahead to fight for the proclamation of just such a protected area. The limits will have to be paced out and the money for defiing its limits fixed. As so well illustrated, now is the time to act because tomorrow may be too late.

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