Cape fires kill thousands of tortoises

Cape Town û At least 828 000 angulate tortoises were killed in January in bush fires that devastated 184 000ha of fynbos in the Western Cape, a study conducted by the Western Cape Nature Conservation Council (WCNCC) and the South Africa National Parks found.

It seems as if barely 10% of the tortoises in the area scorched by fire û which affected about 5 000 ha of the West Coast National Park û had survived the intense heat and flames leaping to 30m high in fires that raged uncontrolled for days.

The study was conducted in May this year in an, to date, unprecedented joint venture between the two conservation agencies and the University of the Western Cape with the help of local volunteers from Langebaan and Yzerfontein.

The tortoises were counted in randomly chosen blocks within and outside the park. The extent of the fire was determined by means of satellite photos.

Of the 1 459 angulate tortoises (Chersina angulata) found in the research area, 1 360 had been burnt to death, and only 99 survived. If this tendency is projected on the entire burnt area, then estimated deaths amount to 282 000.

WCNCC tortoise expert Dr Ernst Baard said that while these findings showed that there was a threat to tortoise populations, populations should restore themselves in time.

Angulate tortoises can adapt to a variety of habitats and are known for their success in reproducing. As the vegetation is restored, the animals will return.

"It should be emphasised that periodic fires, occurring at intervals of 30 to 40 years, are a natural and normal process, essential for the survival of plant diversity in the Western Cape," Baard said. "Western Cape plants and animals suffer if fires are prevented but also if they occur too regularly."

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