Noxious Famine Weed ‘could be KZN’s biggest natural disaster’

2014-03-12 00:00

EZEMVELO KZN Wildlife yesterday warned of the devastating effect of an alien weed that is spreading like wildfire in Northern KwaZulu-Natal.

“Famine Weed could become the biggest natural disaster ever to befall communities and their lands in KZN. More people’s lives and livelihoods are threatened as a result of this weed than from any natural disaster ever experienced,” said Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW) ecologist Ian Rushworth in a statement yesterday.

He said rural communities are “frighteningly vulnerable” to the weed, Parthenium hysterophorus.

“It is already threatening people’s food resources — crops and livestock — as well as their health. Unless we act very soon, I’m afraid we are staring a health catastrophe in the face,” said Rushworth.

Famine Weed is an alien invasive originating from Central America. Describing it as “one of the planet’s most threatening weeds”, Rushworth said it had gained a “suffocating” foothold in northern KZN and was spreading wildly including vast areas of Swaziland, Mozambique, Pongola Game Reserve, Ndumo Game Reserve and northern KZN community lands. It is also abundant in the towns of Jozini, Mkhuze, Hluhluwe, Matubatuba and Ulundi.

The majority of households east of the Lubombo Mountains and north of the Mkhuze River have ‘Famine Weed’ growing around them; similarly, the majority of crop fields are infested.

“The toxins can cause severe complications and even death of livestock and other large mammals, and it reduces crop yields significantly.”

The allergens contained in the plant’s pollen and tissues can cause severe respiratory and skin conditions in humans.

Its pollen, for example, is the biggest single source of allergic reactions in people in Bangalore, India.

“Health professionals speculate that the impact of ‘Famine Weed’ may be worse in KZN than in other parts of the world as a result of the high HIV infection rate. They are warning people that the weed may increase the HIV and TB infection rates as malnourished people are less able to fight infections.”

Rushworth said as much as R50 million per year might be needed to fund a greatly enhanced alien plant control strategy to control its proliferation.

EKZNW is concerned that the weed’s infestation is becoming a real threat to natural vegetation within protected areas, and that there may be serious consequences for KZN’s rhinos.

The weed smothers grazing areas for white rhinos while reducing accessibility to food for black rhino: “We’ve already issued canisters of herbicide to field rangers to spray wherever they see it in our reserves. There are reports of buffalo in Zululand dying from eating Famine Weed, too.”

However, unlike community land, protected areas represent some of the very few areas where the impact of this species may be contained.

Trailists entering the Imfolozi Wilderness area may have to have their boots inspected and cleaned.

EKZNW said government stakeholders are starting to mobilise to address the threat.

A Parthenium management conference has been arranged by the Plant Protection Research Institute in March with guest speakers from Australia, Canada and Swaziland attending.

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