Andreas Späth

Can we save SA's biodiversity?

2013-09-16 11:59

Andreas Wilson-Späth

South Africans are rightfully proud of their biodiversity heritage. We share this land with an amazing variety of fauna and flora, but are we doing enough to preserve it?

Two recent bits of research are relevant to this issue, but first, a few high- and low-lights of the local biodiversity scene:

- We take up only 2% of the earth’s land surface, but are home to 10% of its plant species and 7% of all its mammals, birds and reptiles.

- Some 65% of our plants, 70% of our invertebrates and 56% of our amphibians occur nowhere else on the planet.

- Excluding the value of water resources, the non-marine ecosystem services provided by our natural environment (crop pollination; provision of food, shelter, fuel, recreational and cultural space, medicinal plants and clean air; protection against soil erosion and the impacts of climate change; etc.) contribute an estimated R73 billion to South Africa’s economy every year.

- 20% of our mammals, 13% of our plants and 10% of our birds and frogs are threatened by extinction.

- About 50% of our wetlands have been destroyed and 82% of our main river ecosystems are under threat.

- In the Cape Floristic Kingdom, the smallest and most stressed of the world’s six floral kingdoms, 1850 plant species (more than 20%) are threatened with extinction.

A paper published in Science at the beginning of this month shows that a whopping 67% of the world’s plant species occur on only 17% of its land surface. Good news, you’d think, especially when you consider that a total of about 13% of the planet’s land surface is already being protected in some way or other.

The problem is that much of the area currently under protection is not in the places that really need to be conserved. Many of those happen to lie in developing countries, like Ecuador, Panama, Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti, the Philippines, New Caledonia, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Malaysia, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. And in South Africa - particularly in the southern and western parts of the country.

The fact that the stated developmental priorities of these countries are frequently not compatible with conservation ideals was made clear by Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa recently. Six years ago, he asked the international community to raise $3.6 billion for his country in return for a promise not to drill for oil in the exceptionally biodiverse Yasuni National Park in the Amazon rainforest. When only a measly $13m arrived (with a further $103m pledged) he decided that oil production would go ahead. (It’s worth remembering, of course that before the 1990s, American oil giant Texaco spend a few decades polluting vast stretches of Ecuador’s Amazon region).

Makes me wonder if in South Africa, too, economic priorities will eventually trump environmental ones as we contemplate fracking a region that’s largely covered by four biomes found nowhere else: fynbos, Nama Karoo, succulent Karoo and Albany thicket.

Modelling described in a different paper from earlier this year predicts that if we don’t  take drastic action to counter climate change, the geographic range of 57% of the world’s most common and widespread plant species and 34% of its animals will shrink by 50% or more by 2080.

If we manage to achieve a global peak in greenhouse gas emissions by 2016, on the other hand, losses could be reduced by a massive 60%.

One of the highlights of the study is that the potential biodiversity losses that can be avoided by curbing emissions are particularly high in Southern Africa.

Let’s distil the central messages of these two recent scientific studies into simple and practical action points then. If we’re concerned about biodiversity in South Africa, we should do whatever we can (i.e. much more than we’re currently doing) to:

- effectively protect key areas of high species diversity and endemism, and

- massively reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to counter the threat of global climate change.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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