Indigenous Fynbos in battle to survive climate change
When climate change kills off the Western Cape’s indigenous fynbos species, what will fill its place? asks Jasper Slingsby, a biodiversity scientist at the South African Environmental Observation Network.
"To borrow from the physicists, ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ — all indications are that the winners from climate change in the Cape are invasive species like the pines, eucalypts and wattles," he says.
"These invasive alien species seriously alter landscape-level processes, using more water than the indigenous vegetation and greatly upping the game in terms of scale and impact of fires," Slingsby says.
"And it’s not like we have a lot of water to spare."
Slingsby and colleagues’ recent academic paper in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found some of the first empirical evidence that climate change was already hurting one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.
The Cape Floristic Region is the smallest of the globe’s six floral biomes, with a very high biodiversity.
Fynbos needs fires to germinate, but afterwards, it needs rain to sustain the development of seedlings.
The researchers have found weather patterns are changing: while fires are still raging through these ecosystems, they are followed by prolonged droughts or extremely hot weather — damaging species’ chance of recruitment, particularly for those that sprout after fires.
There is no "silver bullet" to deal with climate change, but this sort of research does show some ways to mitigate its effects, Slingsby says.
"In this case, we have shown an important interaction between fire and climate change that may affect flammable ecosystems worldwide.
"The more we begin to understand these kinds of interactions and their impacts, the better we can anticipate what is to come [and] the more prepared we can be," he says.
"What our research does provide is some indication of which kinds of species seem to be more sensitive, helping guide management efforts like assisted dispersal" or conservation outside natural habitats, "but these are expensive options".
The "wildcard" of climate change is unpredictability", says Cape Nature botanist Rupert Koopman. "The reason the Cape is so diverse, is long-term climatic stability. That predictability is something you don’t see anymore. For what it means, at a community level, what will fynbos communities look like in 50 years? We don’t know.
"If you think of it from a plant’s perspective: you’re a seedling, there’s been a fire, you’re coming up after the first rains and instead of the rain you’re expecting in May, you don’t get rain until June. Then you only get 20mm and then nothing again for a couple of weeks. It’s not conducive to recruitment."
Koopman says this means conservation specialists earmark corridors of biodiversity and put a disproportionate effort into protecting and maintaining these areas. "But if you’re a little succulent in a rock crevice that only gets wet when it rains, you’re in s**t."
For the "rare and special things", conservationists often have to make a call.
Domitilla Raimondo is one of the specialists involved in making those calls. She heads the South African National Biodiversity Institute’s (Sanbi’s) threatened species programme.
Sanbi, an institute of the Department of Environmental Affairs, "has a strict mandate around monitoring biodiversity, to report to the country and to report on conventions that the country has signed", she says.
SA is a signatory to the international Convention on Biological Diversity, of which the main objectives are "the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources".
First, we ask: what is known about each species, how big is the population, how threatened is it, and then we apply international-developed criteria determining which category of threat a species falls intoDomitilla Raimondo
This guides local policy, including the National Plant Conservation Strategy, published in 2015. One of its targets is including scientific research in policy-making.
"The way Sanbi operates, we don’t do the work internally," Raimondo says.
"We work through a managed network of universities and NGOs that work on biodiversity…. We encourage different areas of research around plant conservation that we’re concerned about," she says.
Raimondo, SA’s representative on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list committee, helps determine which species are endangered and threatened. The red list is an inventory of flora and fauna conservation status.
"It is a detailed process. First, we ask: what is known about each species, how big is the population, how threatened is it, and then we apply international-developed criteria determining which category of threat a species falls into," she says.
The status a species has on the IUCN red list triggers a number of policy responses such as where the government plans new infrastructure developments. Research is an dispensable part of this process.
"Climate change, that’s where the research is crucial: bush encroachment, changes in vegetation types, carbon levels in the atmosphere. But what we do about that is hard.
"We need work happening at a policy level, around emissions, renewable energy, but we also need to align it with the research that is being conducted by the really good scientists in the country," Raimondo says.
She is not an "academic", but "someone who does practical work for [the] government".
"We work with officials from the Department of Environmental Affairs and from the environmental agencies of the nine provinces, and we understand the capacity constraints due to limited resources in government. We do our best to conserve species with the few, but passionate staff working in [the] provincial government."
But SA needs more conservation scientists working in the provinces, she says.
"The value of having people in the provinces is that they are in touch with the land-use processes and threats. Nationally, we rely heavily on people in the provinces to let us know what’s going on at local level."
Unfortunately, these people are spread unevenly around the country. The Western Cape, for example, when it was the Cape Province, had a legacy of scientists in conservation before the advent of democracy.
"In the new provinces, much less capacity to implement scientific research and monitoring exists. The provinces are passionate and interested, but don’t have the positions and legacy, so it is difficult to convince [the] government to fund posts," Raimondo says.
Monitoring work done at provincial level is vital, she says. It creates the data sets that inform decision-making and ensures conservation. The National Plant Conservation Strategy, for example, has "achievable outcomes that will actually make a difference.
"We’re using these points to guide and that really helps," Raimondo says.
Koopman, one the scientists working in provincial conservation, agrees.
"This is the thing with working within structures. It is nice to have something to guide you, measure yourself against," Koopman says. "Conservation for conservation’s sake, what’s the point?"