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Ensuring the river sustains it

Biodiversity and natural resource management award Winner-up: Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Riverine Rabbit Programme

‘The rabbit as an icon, an indicator species, has the potential to save and change the Karoo,” said Christy Bragg, manager of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s ­riverine rabbit programme. “It is the most critically endangered animal in South Africa, close to extinction, and while we are trying to save it we are also developing an ecosystem for other plants and animals that will have socioeconomic benefits for communities.”

Bragg’s programme started a riparian habitat rehabilitation project in 2003 that is restoring natural ecosystems along seasonal river courses and providing employment to local residents. The project also provides in-service skills and field training at the Indigenous Karoo Plant Nursery in Loxton.

“Landowners farming in marginal areas also benefit through the shared development of sustainable resource management strategies and the restoration of the production potential of formerly degraded riparian areas,” said Bragg.

“We work with the farmers, conservancies and the national stewardship programme to help them to generate income through ecotourism initiatives and sustainable land-use practices.”

Stewardship agreements cover about 34 0000ha of Karoo farmland and the landowners partner with the riverine rabbit programme to share knowledge about and implement sustainable land management strategies.

Degraded systems

So far, research has shown that degraded systems that have retrogressed beyond a certain threshold cannot recover by applying passive technologies such as rest from use. Natural succession processes no longer work and active intervention in the form of rehabilitation becomes a necessity.

The long-term improvements in ecosystem function will be verified only when rabbits begin to use the restored veld again and through the monitoring techniques that measure improved veld cover and water infiltration.

On a positive note, the project has resulted in vegetation re-establishing itself in formerly barren, compacted areas. Fragmented riparian areas are being rehabilitated and riverine rabbit habitat is being increased.

“Although the project is still too young in terms of arid-area rehabilitation for long-term results, initial indications are positive with good initial vegetation cover establishing on two of the four pilot sites following good rains early in 2012,” said Bragg.

Given the national importance of water catchments and riparian areas in combating the impacts of climate change, the need to rehabilitate these critical areas can only increase, the Greening judges said.

They praised the programme’s achievements in addressing and highlighting the plight of this critically endangered species and in linking the campaign to socioeconomic benefits and habitat rehabilitation.

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