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Nearly half of South Africa’s Protea species on the brink of extinction

Nearly half of South Africa’s Protea flowering plant species face extinction, with some wild populations having dwindled to a single individual, such as the Kraaifonein spiderhead — a member of the Proteaceae family — and others like the Swartland sugarbush hanging on by a thread.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, which is the world’s indicator of the health of species biodiversity, has released its first comprehensive assessment of the southern Hemisphere’s protea plant family, finding 637 of the 1464 known species are vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.

The outlook for the plants is bleak, particularly in the country’s fynbos regions. The assessment, carried out by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) and  fynbos experts, revealed that 47% (165 of 353 species) of local species face extinction.

“Their publication on the international IUCN Red List for the first time reveals that our South African species are among the most threatened — more so than in Australia and South America,” Sanbi says.

“We have a couple of species seriously on the brink of extinction — some with only one individual left and one that we think we lost earlier this year,” says Domitilla Raimondo, lead of the species component of the National Biodiversity Assessment at Sanbi.

Loss of habitat to agriculture, severe recent increases in the spread of invasive alien species — especially in the fynbos region of the Cape — and changes to natural fire cycles are driving declines. 

Raimondo says the spread of invasive plants means the country is “losing the battle for our fynbos. Drought, in response to climate change, is causing invasive species to spread even more quickly and the proteas are really threatened by that,” she says.

“Extinction debt” is another. “That talks to the fact that we have converted a lot of lowland fynbos over the last 40 or 50 years for wine farming, wheat farming and other forms of agriculture,” Raimondo says.

She adds that the species people thought were still vibrant in their ability to remain viable have dwindled because neither pollinators nor fires can get to them.

“The bottom line is we need massive upscaling of effort to save these species.”

The assessment reveals that the country’s national flower, the King Protea, has been assessed as a species of least concern because it remains plentiful in the Cape mountains.

According to Sanbi, urban and industrial development of Cape Town has irreversibly modified more than 95% of the habitat of the critically endangered Kraaifontein spiderhead, causing the population to decline by 99% in one generation. A single mature plant from the original population remains.

The Swartland sugarbush is another species pushed to the brink, declining from four subpopulations totalling 1 090 plants in 1975 to three mature individuals from one subpopulation in early 2020. 

The small sugarbush depends on fire for seeds to germinate and its survival depends on correct fire return intervals and being burnt in the correct session. 

The last remaining habitat for the species was burnt in February 2020 in a controlled burn organised by the City of Cape Town’s biodiversity management branch staff.

Seeds were augmented from the Millennium Seed Bank collections at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, banked from the population over the past decade. 

“It is unknown if the plants will recruit and survive to maturity; if not another fynbos species will be listed as extinct in the wild,” Sanbi says.

Believed to be extinct by 1969, the elusive Mace Pagoda, which emerged after a wildfire in 1999, is now listed as critically endangered. 

“No more than 34 of these plants have ever been observed in the wild, despite it being closely monitored for 87 years. It is just one of many of the naturally rare treasures endemic to the Cape Floral Kingdom,” Sanbi says.

There are an additional 37 critically endangered species — but there is hope, Raimondo says. 

“We can grow these plants up, reintroduce them, we can restore habitat and we can conserve these last really important pieces.”

A recent focus on conserving critically endangered vegetation through conservation stewardship on private land has meant that the daggerleaf sugarbush protea, which has only two subpopulations remaining, is now listed as endangered instead of critically endangered, after it lost almost all its habitat to wheat farming. 

Its improved status is because 95% of its remaining population has been included in a new stewardship contract nature reserve where its habitat is being well managed.

Globally, the IUCN assessment reveals that  there are now 128 918 species on the Red List, of which 35 765 are threatened with extinction. 

Conservation efforts have led to the European bison, the largest land mammal in Europe, being moved from vulnerable to near threatened, along with the recovery of 25 other species, “demonstrating the power of conservation”, Buno Oberle, IUCN director general, said in a statement.

But the world’s freshwater dolphin species are now threatened with extinction, and one third of oak species are threatened with extinction.

But 31 species have become extinct: 15 freshwater fish species endemic to Lake Lanao and its outlets in the Philippines; three Central American frog species; three Macadamia species of protea and nine Asian oak species. And the lost shark may already be extinct.

“The species was last recorded in 1934. Its habitat in the South China Sea has been extensively fished for more than a century and remains one of the most overexploited marine regions in the world. As it is unlikely that the species could have persisted … the lost shark may already be extinct,” according to the IUCN Red List

Oberle says the growing list of extinct species is a stark reminder that conservation efforts must urgently expand. “To tackle global threats such as unsustainable fisheries, land clearing for agriculture and invasive species, conservation needs to happen around the world and be incorporated into all sectors of the economy.”

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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