We’re killing off life, but there is hope



The cheetah is the world’s fastest land mammal. It evolved for semi-arid areas and used to roam South Africa. But most of its habitat has been fenced off, occupied by people or destroyed by our activities. The cheetah is now heading towards extinction. It joins thousands of other threatened species. Sipho Kings reports on the findings of a mega government report on the state of our plants and animals, and what’s being done to secure their (and our) future

The sixth mass extinction of life on Earth — a rare event in the world’s 4.5-billion years of existence — is upon us. The last extinction happened when an asteroid struck the planet. This time it’s largely down to human’s activities, which include the emission of greenhouse gases that are heating the planet.

In South Africa, the scale of the collapse has been captured in the National Biodiversity Assessment report released on Thursday. Put together over four years by 480 scientists — led by the South African National Biodiversity Institute — this is the official document of the status of the country’s plants and animals.

In those four years, researchers calculated how many living things exist, in what quantities and whether those numbers are growing or decreasing. If they decrease by too much, they are listed as endangered.

Biodiversity (the different forms of life) is something that South Africa has a lot of — because of how far the country stretches from north to south and east to west. It occurs in nine biomes: fynbos, savanna, succulent Karoo, Nama Karoo, Albany thicket, grassland, desert, forest, and Indian Ocean coastal belt.

The report estimates the number of animal species at 67 000, and plant species at 20 400. Much of the flora and fauna have evolved to live in South Africa and nowhere else.

Unique regions

l Succulent Karoo: The world’s only arid biodiversity hotspot, with the highest diversity of succulents in the world.

l Cape Floristic Region: A world heritage site and the only biodiversity hotspot found entirely in a single country. This tiny bit of the continent has 20% of Africa’s plant species.

l Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany: An area of the Eastern Cape where six biomes meet, with 8 100 plant species, of which 1 900 are found nowhere else in the world.

The researchers are at pains to point out that this biodiversity underpins jobs and the economy. Biodiversity tourism brings in about R31-billion a year. Livestock and game farming employs 245 000 people in places where jobs are in short supply. About 2 000 medical plant species bring in R18-billion a year to the economy.

Along with 418 000 jobs, there are other benefits provided by healthy biodiversity.

Insects help pollinate plants, which is why farmers are so stressed about the decline of bee populations around the world. Without these insects we have to introduce artificial ways of pollinating plants — such as the imprecise method of pollen dusting using blowers on a plane — which are expensive and potentially harmful to the natural environment.

Healthy shorelines provide food and support 29 000 small-scale fishers.

Wetlands and big water catchments (called strategic water source areas) make up just 10% of the country’s land area, but deliver half of all surface water. They ensure clean water for half of South Africa’s population and fuel the areas where two-thirds of the economy is created. But only 12% of these areas are protected. This is why mines can dig through them.

All these benefits are just a small part of what thriving biodiversity gives South Africa. But, the researchers detail how this is under threat from activities such as mining.

What’s broken

l South Africa has the second highest number of documented plant extinctions of any country in the world. Of the more than 20 000 plant species, about 3 000 are threatened with extinction. This is mainly down to human expansion into their biomes, which destroys the niches that indigenous plants have evolved to survive in.

l Of the nearly 3 000 animals assessed, 12% are categorised as threatened with extinction.

l A third of all freshwater fish species are threatened with extinction. Half of South Africa’s fish species are found nowhere else, and two-thirds of these are threatened with extinction.

All of these extinction threats are being exacerbated by people’s activities, many of which are causing global warming. South Africa is already more than 1°C hotter than it was a century ago, and the country is warming at double the world average. This means species that have evolved to thrive in specific niches are unable to adapt fast enough as these niches change. The hotter it gets, the more species die.

And these species — both of plants and animals — are critical to human life. The report says: “Restoring ecosystems and maintaining them in good ecological condition means they are better able to support natural adaptation and mitigation processes, offering increased protection to human communities and reducing the economic burden of natural disasters.”

The good news

But South Africa is also good at conservation. Really good. Nearly two-thirds of the plants that the researchers looked at are categorised as well protected. The same goes for mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians and butterflies.

To create a future in which flora and fauna thrive, the researchers also suggest practical steps that the government, companies and you can take.

l Better planning for where people live and industries are established. More practically, this planning is done in each municipality’s spatial development framework, and in response to the environmental impact assessments.

l Comply with laws and policies. The researchers say: “While there may be good policies and legislation in place, there is limited technical capacity to use existing policy tools, and limited capacity to enforce laws or regulations.

They add: “All South Africans can help reduce the pressures on our biodiversity.”

For example, they say that every person can eat sustainably produced food from local sources; buy fewer single-use items, particularly those made from plastic; reduce waste and recycle as much as possible; and become involved in “local initiatives that protect, restore and study nature”.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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