Volunteers in Cedar tree rescue mission

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Cedar tree seedlings are planted in the Cederberg shortly after the area was devastated by fire. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)
Cedar tree seedlings are planted in the Cederberg shortly after the area was devastated by fire. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)
Clanwilliam – Volunteers have worked to plant scores of cedar trees after a devastating fire destroyed large tracts of vegetation earlier this year.

A devastating fire in January destroyed large parts of the Cederberg's indigenous vegetation and volunteers and the local community are planting seedlings in almost inaccessible areas on the mountain to protect them.

"We've had phenomenal response from the Heuningvlei community; they have taken ownership of the cedar tree as they've been here for many years," Patrick Lane, CapeNature conservation manager at Cederberg Wilderness told News24.

He said that the cedar is a threatened species and the project - now in its 12th year - is supported by CapeNature and the Bushmans Kloof Resort.

"The threat to the cedar tree: It's probably climate change so it's a slow long process. Fire is a threat although it's a fire driven system, so fire necessary for the system, but the cedar tree is extremely sensitive to fire. Those cedars that are in an area where the fire can get to them do worse, so fire's speeding up the process, but essentially we think it's a climate change process," said Lane.

Importance

The cedar tree occurs only in this area, some 300km north of Cape Town and three fires in late January destroyed around 30% of the Cederberg Wilderness area.

The planting event helps to raise awareness of the critical importance of the cedar tree, categorised as endangered on the Red Data List. To date, the project has planted more than 800 young cedar trees in the Cederberg area.

"This event is an important event because we're keeping the cedar trees, but we're two things here: One, we're planting in sort of a natural habitat where we're trying to replicate what nature is doing and speed up the regeneration.

"It's also just working on the cultivation of the trees and getting that down to a fine art so we know exactly what we're doing if we need to put in plantations," said Lane.

He argued that while the natural vegetation needed fire, the timing of the fire was of critical importance.

"We're focussing on the system. Trees are just one feature within the system and we’re managing a system. This is why fire is an issue: It's a fire driven system, so we need the fire.

"Where fire becomes a problem is when it's too frequent or too infrequent. Your ideal in this area would probably be between 18 and 20 years to have a good fire."

Cultural event

Scores of volunteers from the local community, the resort, the Botanical Society, the Wildflower Society and the Cederberg Conservancy scrambled up jagged rocky outcrops to plant seedlings in areas where some trees survived the fire, and Lane directed participants to attempt to replicate the natural growth process.

"If you look at the natural cedars that are still surviving, they're all on rocky ledges; they're all hard to get places for the fire. This is what we're trying to replicate here is to go into these hard to get places for the fire and try and replicate that natural progression," he said.

The Bushmans Kloof Resort also sees the project as a cultural event and has made an effort to revive the traditional dance of the community in conjunction with the cedar tree programme.

"It's a conservation effort as well as a cultural effort," Lane said.

He conceded that the CapeNature mandate was difficult, particularly because of a need for more specialised skills, but insisted that protecting the environment was a worthwhile goal.

"You always need manpower: I think we need more specialists, possibly more botanists. But you take your challenges and you run with them."


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