Renewed plans to prospect for more gas and oil off the Southern Cape coast have sparked countless questions surrounding the short and long-term implications for the region.
In search of new gas reserves to meet the country’s dwindling feedstock, PetroSA is investigating the development of a new offshore gas and associated condensate field to enhance its operations in Mossel Bay. The idea is to develop up to 19 smaller fields around the existing producing fields – about 85km offshore – which can be tied in commercially into the existing infrastructure.
Feasibility studies are currently underway to determine potential impacts, including social, economic and environmental effects.
PetroSA acting chief executive Kholly Zono says the proposed tie-in of new fields is not a long-term solution but will at least provide sufficient gas beyond 2020, which is the estimated time by which the local plant is expected to run out of gas based on the current business model. The tie-in aims to win some time to discover and secure feedstock.
“The longer term future of the Mossel Bay GTL refinery is likely to depend on the processing of both imported liquid feedstock and gas. The enhanced condensate processing study is at feasibility stage while the gas exploration project is finishing feasibility,” says Kholly.
In the first phase of the project, PetroSA proposes to develop the area known as the E-BK field with one gas production well, and the gas is to be exported along a new pipeline to a tie-in point at the existing South Coast Gas pipeline.
In future phases, additional wells may be drilled targeting hydrocarbon accumulations within the E-BK area. If these wells are deemed commercial, they will also be completed and tied back to the existing infrastructure.
The process starts with the use of non-invasive technology to analyse the geology of the area to determine the existence of possible gas or oil in a particular area. “Then we explore one small hole, just to test and analyse the data. If suitable, only then can drilling start – and even then there is no guarantee that the gas discovered will be a viable source.”
Should the data check out, the dividends are expected to start paying off in terms of production by 2020 or 2021. The project scoping report suggests the potential yield could be between 25 and 60 billion standard cubic feet (BcF) of gas, with additional surrounding in-place gas potential of between 200 and 900 BcF. This in turn is expected to translate into initial production rates of about 6000 to 10 000 barrels of condensate per day, and 40 to 70 million standard cubic feet (MMscf/d) of gas is anticipated during the first phase of the development.
Head of oil and gas South Africa at Standard Bank, Khwezi Tiya, says the perceptions of the possible amount of gas in South Africa differ vastly. “In terms of shale gas the United States Energy Information Agency, for example, estimates about 128 TcF while the Petroleum Agency of South Africa (PASA) estimates 40 TcF. These estimates can only be confirmed through exploration and it should be highlighted that this does not imply that the gas can be recovered in an environmentally and commercially sustainable manner, as detailed studies would be needed to determine that. In terms of offshore gas potential, there are no estimations as yet,” says Khwezi.
Over and above the feedstock security that a project of this nature could have for PetroSA, there are several other possible spinoffs, including job sustainability and potentially job creation.
Kholly says even in the exploration period there will be economic activity. “Unfortunately 60% to 70% of the skills needed in this phase are highly technical and will require people from outside the region, but once in production the local workforce will benefit.”
However, major spinoffs are expected in terms of indirect job creation as setting up the drilling infrastructure would mean bringing in the necessary equipment, catering, and other logistics to enable the crew to be self-sufficient at sea.
While it is too early to estimate the ultimate economic benefit, as these may be linked to how much gas exists, the import of gas into the economy is expected to benefit a wide range of support industries, which will ultimately create jobs and have a positive impact on the GDP.
While the rewards may be great, the financial risk is significant with the drilling of just one well totalling a whopping R1 billion, and PetroSA is pursuing several financial partnerships to lighten the load.
The proposed exploration area falls within the Bredasdorp Basin, Agulhas Bank, where marine life is prolific. It is important for fisheries and fish stock, and forms part of the migratory routes of species such as whales and sea turtles.
Among others, the area supports pelagic (not near the bottom or the shore) fish that supply west coast fisheries with anchovy, pilchard and horse mackerel as well as large migratory species like dorado, sailfish, a number of marlin species and several species of tuna.
The area is also rich in demersal species (bottom feeders), including Cape hake, kingklip, panga, kob, gurnard, monkfish, John Dory and angelfish.
Three globally threatened turtle species occur in the south coast region, and blue whale, fin whale and sei whale migrate through the area along the continental shelf edge. The Cape fur seal occurs along the south coast and is the only seal species with breeding colonies in the area, including one at Seal Island in Mossel Bay.
The scoping report, done by Cape Town-based SRK Consulting, recommends specialist studies to identify and assess potential impacts and to find ways to avoid or minimise effects. Potential negative impacts centre around the discharge of concentrated seawater and waste management, and its potential negative impact on marine life. The effects of underwater noise are also of concern, particularly on marine mammals.
The scoping report also recommends a socio-economic (fishing industry) study to assess the physical presence of the drilling unit, various support and supply vessels as well as sub-sea infrastructure installed on the floor of the ocean. The implementation of a 500m safety or exclusion zone around the sub-sea infrastructure will exclude any other users of the sea from these areas. Increased support and supply vessel movements in the general area, and between the production area and the coast, may interfere with the movements of other vessels.
Kholly says PetroSA views the potential environmental impacts in a serious light and will ensure best practices are implemented, and a thorough Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study is conducted. “There are many measures in place to ensure that a development like this does not harm the environment.
“The company’s existing operations are a prime example of how development and environmental protection can go hand in hand: marine life is flourishing around PetroSA’s FA Platform, which is 72km offshore.
He also sets the record straight regarding the incorrect perception that the proposed new exploration will include large floating structures – such as the Orca platform, which has been anchored in the Mossel Bay bay since June 2015 – that may impact negatively on the visual aesthetics of the bay and ultimately affect tourism, property and related industries. “The fields are 85km out at sea and not visible from the town. The Orca platform currently visible in the bay is a temporary oil production facility.”
South Africa has the richest diversity of tortoises in the world, with the Cape – including the Garden Route – considered the epicentre of tortoise land. With a little consideration and a whole lot of awareness, Southern Cape locals are in the unique position to contribute to the survival of these ancient reptiles.
WORDS Francini van Staden
While tortoises may have been around for millennia, increased landscape pressures are resulting in fewer and fewer tortoises reaching old age. And, while considered a secluded species, relatively common sightings of tortoises in the Southern Cape may give a false impression that they are not under threat.
South Africa is home to 31% of the world’s terrestrial tortoise species, of which three types call the Garden Route home.
The Angulate Tortoise (Chersina angulate) is the most common in the region, while the Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) and Common Padloper (Homopus areolatus) are also widely found across the Garden Route.
Sedgefield Island Conservancy member Peter Dawson says the Sedgefield island is ‘a little tortoise hotspot’, especially for angulates, but all three species are often spotted around golf courses, parks and even urban areas where they benefit from calcium-rich grasses sustaining strong carapace growth.
In the Klein Karoo, Leopard and Angulate tortoises blend well among the small shrubs and dry landscape, and fossil finds indicate tortoise populations were present in pre-historic times.
Tortoises were once so abundant in local regions such as the Groenvlei sand flats outside Sedgefield, they fulfilled key ecological roles such as grazing. “Man is tortoises’ greatest enemy because we transform and encroach on the natural habitats that protect and sustain them,” says Peter.
Race for survival
Depending on species and geographic region, tortoise egg incubation periods vary between ten and twelve months. Throughout this period, the eggs remain unprotected in a subsurface nest. Hatching with the help of a single egg-tooth at the front of the beak, a hatchling’s journey to the soil surface is filled with vulnerabilities and only the fittest survive.
Tortoises have the unique ability of being ever-growing; yet herpetologists around the world often say terrestrial tortoises are among the most endangered fauna, explaining why large tortoises are a rare sight. Securing conservation priority for a single species, such as the tortoise, remains a global challenge. “The best way to protect tortoises is to conserve their natural habitats,” says Peter.
Fortunately for the tortoise, its homeland overlaps with the Cape Fold Mountains, including the coastline south-west of the mountains, which have been identified as one of the Global 200 conservation priority eco-regions. “Locally, the Sedgefield Island Conservancy entered into an eight-year agreement with the Knysna Municipality whereupon we’ve established four envirogardens on vacant erven on the Sedgefield island. We nurture and protect these spaces to remain representative of local Sedgefield and salt marsh fauna and flora, which provide an ideal habitat for tortoises.”
A rescue team, inspired by the conservancy, actively relocates tortoises from sites under development. The Sedgefield Island Conservancy works closely with local conservation custodians SANParks and CapeNature. “Where development is planned locally, we arrange permission to enter the property prior to construction and clear the tortoises from the site. They are then safely relocated to the protected envirogardens. It can be quite a search to find them and we often call in volunteers from the community to assist in the search. The tortoises seem to be perfectly happy when relocated.”
Tortoises in the Garden Route are most at threat from the high and fast rate of fragmentation and transformation of highly threatened vegetation types such as Renosterveld. But even their natural habitat is not entirely hazard-free. Wildfires are a key threat, especially to young tortoises. And then there are road mortalities. According to the conservancy, road kills are more common in areas where road verges contain clumps of natural bush acting as little tortoise corridors. “The risk of being run over by cars is at its highest during the Christmas and Easter holiday periods, not only because of the increase in traffic but also because tortoises are more active during warmer months. Our rescue team works closely with the Knysna Veterinarian Clinic, which treats tortoise injuries.”
The Sedgefield Island Conservancy appeals to road users to look out for tortoises crossing the roads and to pick them up gently, keep them horizontal to retain the moisture in their shells, and move them out of harm’s way. To minimise disturbance, it is important to place the tortoise in the direction it faced when attempting to cross the road. “It is not uncommon to see a traffic jam in Sedgefield caused by a tortoise crossing the road,” says Peter.
Several South African tortoise species, including the local species in the Garden Route, are listed by the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as endangered species, necessitating trade control to ensure species survival. “Tortoises are protected species. Capturing requires a permit from conservation authorities. Yet, I’m very sure some of our tortoises are taken out of the region as pets, without the required conservation permits,” says Peter. Most captive tortoises have not been born into captivity, and remain wild at heart. Some species are hardly able to survive in captivity. The Garden Route species flourish on a combination of grasses, succulents, sappy leaves and even small insects. Human interference, and a lettuce diet, can cause great harm.
Although there is uncertainty as to what may happen to the Sedgefield island envirogardens in future, the hope remains that the authorities will agree to an extended conservation agreement. “It is not only the Sedgefield Island Conservancy that is aware of tortoises – the entire community as a whole is looking after the interest of tortoises. It’s the emblem of Sedgefield; it’s part of the Sedgefield ethos.
“While total population numbers are stable, our tortoises are definitely prone to everyday vulnerabilities such as dogs, cars and even lawnmowers. The conservancies across the Garden Route work together to conserve as many areas as possible, to protect tortoises among other local fauna,” says Peter.
And just as lending a little help for a tortoise crossing the road can go a long way, so can our awareness, ultimately allowing them to return to safe havens.
Not everyone agrees about the practicality and relevance of sustainability. Three Garden Route businesses share their views on the concept, as well as their own bold steps to create an economy that works for people and planet.
WORDS Francini van Staden PHOTOGRAPHS SUPPLIED
Gondwana Game Reserve, Herbertsdale
On 11 000 hectares of fynbos, Gondwana Game Reserve is home to several wildlife species, free roaming Big Five and endangered species such as the Cape Mountain Zebra. The reserve intrinsically relies on natural resources and wildlife for business, but equally on the wellbeing of an extended community.
“Under the vision of Gondwana Game Reserve owners Mark and Wendy Rutherfoord, we’re trying to move away from the old school business view that you only care about what you own. We see our responsibility as extending well beyond our fence line,” says Gondwana Game Reserve sustainability and conservation manager Jono Berry.
“There are four foundation pillars for our keynote Gondwana Conservation Foundation – endangered wildlife, endangered vegetation, community and education,” says Jono. New era corporate social responsibility is an accepted, even obligatory, front for sustainability in business, but Gondwana Game Reserve has adopted a different view. “We consider sustainability to be practical, applicable and relevant. Besides day-to-day business, we’ve adopted sustainability as a significant guiding principle for planning and driving business.”
Incorporating sustainability, and its ambiguity in business planning, is no easy task. “What we do know, sustainability that is not genuine becomes a sink draining resources. If the local community is not benefiting from Gondwana as a business, we are draining them and we won’t last. When it comes to rhino poaching, for instance, there will be no information coming from the community – they would have nothing to lose if we lose rhino, or if the business fails.
“We faced difficult decisions in the past. While it would have been easy to follow conventional business choices, such as a lion cub-patting programme, Gondwana’s business framework is based on sound ethics; we will refuse good business opportunities if ethics are lacking. It’s constant line-walking. When business goes well, shifting focus to turnover is a real threat, hence why we consciously evaluate every business decision to determine whether it may result in unacceptable ecological, ethical or social costs, even if it means making less money. It does not make Gondwana altruistic; generating revenue remains important, but not at all costs,” says Jono.
Gondwana actively stimulates conservation interest, tourism and fair business through educational programmes. “We tell scholars how we are connected within this landscape, and show them that careers and income can be generated from conservation and tourism.”
As part of an ongoing relationship with the local community, the long-term goal is for learners who show promise to be identified for possible further investment via scholarships for tertiary education or internships within the company.
“We have to take responsibility in doing the right thing. What’s more, we need to be seen doing the right thing. And if we believe we are doing the right thing for the landscape, community and business, then we expand it.”
T&B Log Homes, Knysna
“Environmental protection is at the core of our business and sustainability is definitely applicable in practical terms,” says T&B Log Homes director Dave Simpson.
The large-scale use of natural timber resources may seem to bear high environmental costs, but T&B Log Homes developed a clear sustainability management strategy. Responding to a changing environment, T&B Log Homes’ business has evolved significantly over its 35 years of existence. “All our timber is procured from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) sources,” referring to commercial plantations that are sustainably managed. “We consider each project as unique. A careful analysis of potential environmental impacts is part of the design and planning phase, while on-site assembly, as opposed to construction, ensures only the building footprint is transformed. This is especially applicable to environmentally sensitive sites,” says Dave. Strengthening sustainability across the product’s lifecycle, T&B Log Homes recovers maximum material from raw products through its methodology of factory construction. “This allows us to retain waste in the factory for repurposing into smaller components of packaging products such as crates and pallets – and ultimately ensures maximum usage of harvested products delivered to us,” says Dave. T&B Log Homes also follows through with responsible disposal of unusable materials and the use of biodegradable and reusable packaging closing the waste cycle loop.
Times of change, such as the current general economic downturn, are also regarded as an opportunity to reconsider business practice and sustainability. “By building on hunter-gatherer principles, there is the potential for timber resource micro-industry development. For example, recovering bark chips for landscaping purposes, processing shavings and sawdust, and exporting for pellet-heating systems, recycling of used timber into furniture, school desks, or the recovery of waste materials for processing into laminated timber elements.
“Although timber itself is inherently green, we need to add sustainability value through continual product improvement and trans-industry collaboration. We now offer authentic environmentally centred turnkey services such as solar solutions, waste and water management systems, which are applied from private residences in the Garden Route to remote Maldivian Island hotels and East African resorts.”
Dave says the local timber industry is “alive, but not well. Many Garden Route sawmills have whittled away and, with only a few large players left, opportunities for smaller product developers are seriously hampered and restrains our policy of making use of local suppliers”. With stronger export markets, local sawmills increasingly opt for exporting. Forward-planning for the local industry is critical. “Although timber production and processing are more mechanised today, they still require a large workforce, which we have in South Africa. However, skills development and new generation interest lack sorely, while skills training support from government and the private sector are almost non-existent.
“The biggest advantage of timber is that it is a renewable resource. Coupled with its versatility, there are endless opportunities for business and business growth. The Garden Route has a strong historical heritage in the timber industry dating back over 100 years. We feel the environmental footprint along the Garden Route has already been established. Parameters have been set and if well-managed and nurtured, the timber industry could remain a sustainable industry, indefinitely,” says Dave.
Redberry Farm, George
“At Redberry Farm, sustainability starts with our soils and plants. From a good soil structure and healthy plant sprouts the well-being of the farm, its produce and people,” says Redberry Farm owner Mark Miller.
“Soon after Redberry Farm started in 2001, we realised what crucial roles soil and soil structure play. All other efforts in vain, it was correcting the soil structure that was the key leverage for a sustainable agricultural business foundation and for increasing yields without unacceptable environmental impacts. Over the years, we have drastically changed our way of cultivation.”
Although not entirely organic, Redberry’s strawberry crop production, and soon to be added hydroponic raspberries, is strongly guided by organic principles. “We only use soft chemicals on strawberries with short withholding periods to spray plants and we have substituted synthetic chemicals with natural and organic substitutes. Alternative pest management includes monitoring pest bait boxes and we are exploring the possibilities of incorporating bat boxes to naturally manage moths. We put a lot of effort into creating a favourable environment for growing a strong and healthy plant, with naturally higher stress resilience. “Not only is the completeness of a healthy strawberry flower and foliage a promise of good business, but it is also hugely satisfying to me as a farmer.”
Needing to diversify business, Redberry decided to open the farm to the public. “Although it appealed to the public soon after we introduced the concept, our greatest focus at the time was still to fully understand the strawberry as a crop. Today, having families visit the farm forms an integral part of the business.”
This business decision now ties strongly to educating people about agriculture, fresh produce and the health benefits of dietary choices. “A lot of people arrive here not knowing that strawberries come from a flower. Through school and group visits, we educate people on the health benefits of strawberries, how strawberries fit into a larger ecological cycle, and how we safely deter monkeys, porcupine and guinea fowl. It’s interesting to see particularly children recognising the wider challenges associated with crop production,” says Mark. Taken in its open-ended meaning, sustainability extends to relationships. “Families embrace the opportunity we offer to spend time in the outdoors, around physical activities. We are focusing on finding new ways to further integrate family visits into our core business,” says Mark.
Operations at Redberry Farm strongly relies on a core labour force of 70 people, and in peak season a full picking team of 150 people and up to 40 staff members serving through public amenities. “Having the same core team for the past eight years has created stability for both the labour force and the farm.
“Transforming a rudimentary staff details system into a sophisticated technological system has allowed for more accurate accounting of labour working hours. Now, there is a sense of ownership and responsibility, and our labour can now control how much income they generate. In turn, we are able to distribute profits fairly across the board to our labour force. We’ve seen positive social and economic results because of these business decisions. The quality of life of our labour force has improved notably.
“Sustainability is entirely possible and it links well beyond the core business. We also have to give credit to the farmers of yesteryear – they thought well about the land. The historic water management system we still use here is evidence of this. We benefit from a well-developed network of water canals that distribute water from the mountain catchment source to the local water-sharing irrigation system.”
Whether simplistic or more complicated, it’s a system of not wasting any resource or opportunity, for wide-reaching benefits. At Redberry Farm, even a few cows benefit. At the very end of the strawberry crop chain, where there is no consumption or value added use remaining for left-over strawberries, the farm’s few cows get to eat their share; their strawberry pink stained faces evident of approval.
George Airport is Africa’s first and the world’s second airport to be powered by solar energy, with the ultimate aim of being a wholly sustainable enterprise and obtaining accreditation from the Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA).
WORDS Francini van Staden PHOTOGRAPHS Melanie Maré
There is a sense of urgency in final boarding calls. For ‘destination green’ and sustainability, it’s no different. Electricity price hikes and supply insecurity, carbon tax, water scarcity and environmental legislation are all causing increasing tension at the boarding gate.
While increased consumer demand is favourable for business, resource limitations are challenging and have yet to be provided for. The Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA) has taken a leading role in green business, leaving business as usual – with its unsustainable core – behind. The launch in February of the solar plant may have placed George Airport on the world’s green map but airport general manager Brenda Vorster says this is only the first leg of the journey to ‘destination green’.
George Airport is ACSA’s pilot project for clean and renewable energy generation. Over 3000 embedded fixed photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are generating 42% of the airport’s electricity needs. At current peak capacity, the 750kW solar energy plant generates more electricity than what the airport uses, and storing this energy is a critical element currently being researched for future improvement.
The solar plant has already been so successful in its short operational period that ACSA is looking at expanding and using improved technologies, such as thin film alternative technology. This technology generates electricity in response to daylight, irrespective of sunlight hours, which is ideal for an all-year rainfall area such as George. ACSA chief engineer Cornelius du Plessis says they are investigating a battery component to store energy in order to benefit fully. Expanding the solar plant and storing energy could reduce the airport’s dependence on municipal electricity supply even further, and feeding excess energy back to the George Municipality grid could also be possible.
It’s debatable whether there is anything that is entirely green or sustainable in our energy-driven and intricately connected world. For solar energy, the most notable environmental risks include greenhouse gas emissions from solar panel manufacturing and the need for rare and expensive materials in some technology alternatives. Yet, solar energy is more acceptable because of its low carbon emission levels and pollution compared to other energy generation methods.
ACSA’s underlying and larger environmental philosophy supports its decision for renewable and self-sustaining energy. By switching to solar, the airport’s coal-powered energy consumption has been reduced, which indirectly reduces the airport’s water footprint. By switching to renewable solar energy, “the plant is reliably expected to save 1.2 million litres of water per annum”, Transport Minister Dipuo Peters said at the official launch of the plant. Although a first for South Africa and Africa, ACSA has more ambitious sustainability and green strategies to address a wide range of the aviation industry’s environmental impacts, both on and off the ground.
Airport environmental management
Several green plans are sprouting at the George Airport, some of which could easily be overlooked by the average traveller passing through. “Green is a philosophy, both personally and for the airport,” says Brenda. “We’ve adopted a cradle-to-grave waste management approach. The George Airport takes responsibility for the correct handling and green management of waste until it is separated, recycled or disposed of according to environmental principles.” All waste, from that generated on the aircraft to general operations, is taken to a designated on-site waste management location, where staff manually separate it into waste streams. “A service provider is responsible for waste removal according to our identified waste stream management principles. There is some community benefit from recyclable waste and the airport restaurants have shown an interest in becoming involved in waste management as well,” says Brenda.
Fauna and flora
Landscaping at the airport is indigenous, creating a micro-ecology that responds to the local climate and environment. However, the airport has not escaped one of the Garden Route’s grappling environmental challenges – invasive alien species. “Control and maintenance is regularly required, for which we rely on our alien clearing programme and team,” says Brenda. “About 47 hectares still require regular alien vegetation maintenance. It is also critical for airport operational safety that these alien trees do not exceed a certain height.”
Two permanent wildlife officers monitor and manage fauna and bird activities at the airport day and night, according to ACSA’s adopted wildlife management programme. Snakes, rodents and porcupines are caught and released off-site. “We also have several bird species at the airport, including lapwing, guinea fowl, hadida and black-headed heron, with lapwing being the more frequent visitor. We are currently obtaining laser lights that the officers can use to discourage birds from the runway at night – without catching or harming the birds,” says Brenda.
Re-purposing derelict aircraft
“No, it’s not merely a derelict aircraft,” says Brenda, referring to what many locals believe is a grounded aircraft on the outskirts of the airport, now corroding away. “Our fire fighters require very specific training in how to mechanically cut an aircraft in case of an emergency, or how to avoid aircraft fuel or other potentially hazardous materials from igniting,” says Brenda. “How to safely release passengers and crew from an aircraft in an emergency is entirely different from vehicles, hence the old aircraft serves a much needed purpose of safety training.”
Bigger purpose, bigger picture
According to ACSA chairperson Skhumbuzo Macozoma, reaching the company’s introspective environmental goals balances on a number of key drivers: energy and water consumption; waste recycling; noise impact management; and a conscious environmental approach to materials used. Brenda says it is not merely about improved financial performance. “We are part of a community that is environmentally conscious. For an operation of scale such as the George Airport to switch to renewable and clean energy as part of its broader environmental vision, boosting green initiatives is on a much greater scale and timeframe. Yes, cost savings are an added bonus, but it is definitely not the foremost driver. Our driver is responsibility. How each of us individually, but also collectively, needs to take accountability for our resource consumption.”
ACSA’s next step will be to roll out an extensive green procurement programme, expanding its green operations to airport stakeholders. It will implement processes to ensure all its suppliers have developed and adopted green management and resource saving alternatives. “We have no expectations for this deep rooted journey to be completed overnight. It will take time but we are very sure that green is the way to go,” says Brenda.
George Airport is one of South Africa’s smaller yet busier airports. “In March alone, we had more than 35 000 people departing from the airport. With this number of people moving through the airport, we have a valuable opportunity to inform consumers of our green journey,” says Brenda. One outcome of ACSA’s sustainability and green focus is to seek accreditation from the GBCSA.
With the successful operation of its solar energy plant and by introspectively considering its environmental footprint, George Airport is leading a journey that will take ACSA well beyond the green grass of home as it rolls out its green programme to other airports in future.
While tenacious Cape dune mole-rats dig their way into the frustrations of every farmer, gardener, horse rider and road fixer in the region, researchers are adamant Africa’s largest subterranean mammal improves soil fertility and can be sustainably managed with a little patience and without poison.
WORDS Francini van Staden
“It is neither a mole nor a rat,” says zoology professor Nigel Bennett of the University of Pretoria, a leading expert on the species. “While they behave like moles and resemble rats, their closest relative is in fact the porcupine.”
Endemic to the coastal environments of the Garden Route, the Cape dune mole-rat (Bathyergus suillus) is the largest truly subterranean mammal with the longest and deepest burrow systems in Africa. Their holes and tunnels are potentially dangerous to all who tread there, while their penchant for plant roots and bulbs has frustrated many a keen farmer and gardener. It has even led to special guidelines for road engineers to incorporate below-the-ground barriers to reduce the risk of road collapse on national highways.
Considered problem animals by many, others are charmed by Cape dune mole-rats’ laid-back mojo, cute pet-like features and tenacity. “They can easily grow as big as a rabbit and, because they are claw diggers and therefore not limited by worn teeth, a burrow system is often over 40 metres – even 80 metres – depending on the size of the animal,” says Nigel. A burrow system will incorporate a place for food storage, nesting and even separate toilet rooms. Mothers have distinct burrows for raising young – and when the young become aggressive in the confined space, they are sent off to go make burrows of their own.
The animals feed on plant roots and carbohydrate storages of geophyte plants such as bulbs, and require extensive burrow distances to harvest enough food. While large mounds may be a nuisance to humans, coming up to the surface is an energy intensive, high-risk, calculated decision in exchange for food reward, social interaction and protection from underground predators.
Cape dune mole-rats’ prolificacy is enhanced by easy living conditions in moist, sandy soil on the coast – unlike their Kalahari cousins whose burrowing is constricted to the rare occasions when it rains, forcing them to share space and storing more food. While up to 30 mole-rats may be living together in the desert, the Garden Route cruisers often have entire systems to themselves as all-year rainfall ensures soft soil and fresh vegetation to harvest throughout the year.
Mole-rats were here long before humans, and it is our occupation of land and resources that is inadvertently causing them to become a ‘problem’.
Archaeological excavations in the Garden Route uncovered several collections of mole-rat bones in littoral zone caves, alluding to a historic link between humans and mole-rats. Archaeologist Christopher Hensilwood found the inhabitants of the Blombos cave in the Late Stone Age caught and cooked mole-rats, presumably an important protein source supplementary to fish. Mole-rat fur also seems to have been desirable.
In the days of railway transport, mole-rat catchers were tasked with controlling the problem of soil collapsing beneath the George and Knysna railway.
Nowadays, a shift in predation is part of the reason why mole-rats are increasingly found in urban areas. Urban expansion has reduced snake, mongoose and jackal predators, creating a more favourable environment for mole-rats to thrive, but man, dogs and snakes are also their greatest modern-day threats.
Among the most dangerous and costly impacts are linked to the mole-rat’s strength and capability to burrow underneath built infrastructure such as roads.
Municipalities and road-building agencies are regularly faced with recurring potholes where mole-rat burrows and cavities cause road surface collapse.
South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL) district manager for the Western Cape, Kobus van der Walt, says while the required ongoing road maintenance has obvious financial implications, the unexpected dips and holes on a national road also hold serious safety risks for road users.
Hardened road surfaces prevent direct water seepage, creating ideal food pantry space for mole-rats. “Ground penetration radar detection technology has measured mole-rat food chambers as big as a square metre below national roads.”
For SANRAL, mole-rat barriers, such as those implemented between Wilderness and Sedgefield, are alleviating the problem. “We’ve found that bitumen treated barriers up to a depth of 1.2m keep most mole-rats out of road sub-surfaces. But some – I call them the MacGyvers – dig up to two metres deep.”
Road reinforcing through design and construction is also ongoing. “We can hardly control where they dig or burrow, and it is not their fault – humans have disturbed their habitat and now we are dealing with the subsequent challenges,” says Kobus.
SANRAL opposes any harmful elimination, referring to the implementation of mole-proof fencing at Cape Town International Airport to prevent mole-rats from undermining runway surfaces, as another success story. “Our best solution is to continue implementing mole-proof barriers and reinforcing road construction layers to buffer the road from deep mole-rat burrows,” says Kobus.
Nigel says the mole-rats’ roaming lifestyle hold valuable ecological roles humans do not necessarily consider. “Mole-rats improve soil fertility by mixing vegetation, soil and excretion. Through soil moving, they aerate soil and improve its drainage properties.
“Mole-rats are not digging to ruin lawns; they have purpose within our ecosystems of which society bears equal benefit. People widely want to kill mole-rats, I feel we should look after them.”
Unless an underground food source is removed or inaccessible, mole-rats are unlikely to be permanently removed from a particular area. If killed, others will eventually come in their place.
Dispelling the myths that offensive smells, including phosgene gas, will chase them away, Nigel says mole-rats will simply close off the offending tunnels and move to a different area of their burrows for a while. Foreign objects such as bottles will be pushed out the door. Anything edible, like garlic and onion, will be eaten. With burrow systems covering extensive distances, drowning mole-rats is impossible.
Successful preventative solutions such as gardening without bulbs and vegetables, or making bulbs and vegetables inaccessible with underground mesh barricades, are rather recommended.
“Mole-rats are adaptive. If caught and safely relocated to vacant land, they will easily adapt to new surrounds. But they are somewhat tricky to capture,” admits Nigel.
It’s been nearly five years since the Southern Cape emerged from the longest drought in recorded history. While rain patterns have normalised and much has been done to avoid a future water supply crisis, precautionary measures remain a long-term reality.
WORDS Louise F Venter PHOTOGRAPHS Desmond Scholtz
On a rainy afternoon in September I find myself on the N2 heading towards George with my five-year old son in the back of the car singing a song begging the “rain to go away so that I can go outside and play”. Even though I’m sympathetic to his plea after having spent two days cooped up with him in the house I am quite happy the Garden Route has been blessed with exceptionally good rain for the past few months.
Being lush green and surrounded by water, one is easily deceived into believing this region has water in abundance, but in fact it is often a case of ‘water, water everywhere and not a drop to spare’.
When South last reported on the region’s water supply situation (Winter 2010), the Eden district had just emerged from a severe drought, which escalated into a full-blown emergency when all seven municipalities experienced serious water shortages.
With joint efforts by all the municipalities, emergency government funding, careful planning, quick action and an increased public awareness, the Garden Route survived the crisis, but it was a huge wake-up call.
Eden District Municipality disaster management head Gerhard Otto, who captained the ship through the drought crisis, says the present situation is significantly more positive but locals must remain vigilant about water consumption.
“For now the entire district is looking very good in terms of water supply and we do not foresee problems any time soon. However, there is a perception that because the Garden Route normally receives good rainfall, and we are surrounded by water, we have endless supply, but it does not work that way. It is not about how much rain the region receives, but rather about the capacity of local infrastructure to store, process and supply water,” says Gerhard.
At the time of going to print, most of the district’s dams were full or almost full, stream flow in rivers and mountain run-offs were good, the area was blessed with above-normal rainfall and groundwater resources were well replenished. Potable water supply was sufficient and water restrictions in most of the municipalities had been lifted.
“We have learned valuable lessons from the 2008-10 drought period and we are more conservation-oriented and more prepared,” says Gerhard.
Since 2009, local municipalities have adapted their water management plans to include early warnings to pre-empt problems before they become crises. For instance, when a dam level reaches a certain percentage, water restrictions will be implemented much earlier than before.
Stream flow in rivers, water run-offs and salt levels in estuaries are also monitored more consistently since 2009 as a decrease in river flow or an abnormal rise in estuarine salinity (indicating that less water is coming into the estuaries) will immediately trigger alarm bells.
Water reuse is gaining momentum and George Municipality is taking the lead with its advanced ultra-filtration plant through which waste water can be treated for indirect use. The municipality also upgraded its water laboratory to monitor water quality. Mossel Bay is following suit by purifying waste water through reverse osmosis.
Maintenance and upgrades to water supply infrastructure are also receiving more attention. In Knysna much needed maintenance has been done to the Akkerkloof Dam pipeline and large-scale upgrades to the Sedgefield Water Treatment Works are underway. While not operational unless required, coastal municipalities also maintain desalination plants in case of emergencies and high demand periods.
The Eden District Municipality is putting in place several interventions to address problems of sufficient water supply still being experienced in the Kannaland area, specifically the Klein-Karoo.
Vernon Gibbs-Halls of Biodiversity and Coastal Management (environmental management) at Eden District Municipality says climate change scenarios are at play at a far more rapid rate and the unpredictable nature of extreme events makes it hard to determine where exactly we stand concerning water security. He agrees the region is making strides to overcome water shortages.
“There are more residents who capture rain water and employ other water saving devices and technologies in personal gardens or for agricultural irrigation. There is a growing momentum to eradicate water sucking alien plants throughout the Garden Route and many projects underway are enjoying deserved success.”
However, Vernon points out the ‘knee-jerk reactions’ to droughts and water supply shortages – like desalination plants, building additional dams and depending too much on groundwater from aquifers – are ironically often to the detriment of the environment.
There are also other challenges. The Garden Route has largely intact wetlands, which prevent erosion and flooding, and naturally purify water. However, many wetlands are being degraded through illegal channelling, the removal of reeds, peat and other water flora by transgressors who abstract water, mostly for agricultural purposes.
Chantel Petersen, a researcher for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), who is part of a team studying water quality in the Garden Route catchment area since 2012, says their studies, although still ongoing and inconclusive, have found despite some deterioration in water quality, the catchment is still able to purify itself and the rivers are still in a good condition in terms of vegetation and quality of water.
Although the study does not specifically focus on it, she thinks this may be attributed to dams acting as filters, perhaps an increase in responsible agricultural practices, and more awareness and vigilance of what people are putting into water and how it is affecting water quality.
“You can’t just keep adding and adding. Eventually there comes a tipping point and perhaps we just haven’t reached that point yet,” she says.
With more people settling in the Garden Route and associated development, more strain is being put on the region’s vulnerable water resources.
Vernon says economic growth can only be possible if natural resources can sufficiently sustain area growth and development, and development should therefore be approached responsibly.
“More attention needs to be devoted to investing in our natural capital by protecting ecological infrastructure and we need to take an eco-systems based approach to climate change adaptation. This includes land restoration where land has been degraded, wetland rehabilitation, integrated fire management, alien eradication and maintaining healthy estuaries.”
Future development may also pose challenges to local municipalities’ water supply infrastructure, especially in towns like Plettenberg Bay (Bitou Municipality) and Knysna, which have limited water storage abilities and rely mostly on rivers for their water supply.
Gerhard says the future lies in cross-boundary collaborations between neighbouring municipal areas by implementing shared bulk water systems and water transfer schemes.
A recent study investigating the possibility of regional integration of bulk water supplies for Bitou and Knysna shows bulk infrastructure for these two municipalities is strategically necessary on the long term, but not feasible in the short term.
The reason for this, according to Eden District bulk infrastructure coordinator Faan van der Merwe, is the towns’ respective water supply infrastructures would first need to be upgraded to meet certain standards before work could start on the connection line.
“Perhaps this project will be feasible in about 20 years, but at present it is just not viable as it has enormous financial implications,” says Faan.
The Department of Water Affairs (DWA) has been approached for possible funding to help with the upgrades, but a final decision has not yet been made.
The coherent Breede-Gouritz Catchment Management Agency has undertaken to look at the reserve determinations of local catchments and establish exactly what amounts of water are required for all living organisms to survive. “Of utmost importance, though, is to control abstraction for consumption,” says Vernon. “The Garden Route’s rivers need validation and we need verification studies on water licences, user groups, quotas and monitoring of water usage.”
It would seem better water management and control, an increase in public awareness and education, a reduction in water usage, more focus on water quality and more collaboration between government, NGOs, the public and business sectors are vital if we are to weather the challenges ahead.
The Garden Route may not be paradise in terms of water supply and the story is far from complete, but for now I feel privileged to just enjoy the rain splashing onto the huge ferns in the forest outside my window.
Click here for pdf version of this story as it appeared in South Summer 2015-16.
An innovative project to replant one of the world’s most efficient carbon dioxide busters in the poverty stricken Klein Karoo is set to tackle environmental and socio-economic setbacks in an extraordinary way.
WORDS Tisha Steyn PHOTOGRAPHS Hans van der Veen
The usually quiet slopes of the hills outside Van Wyksdorp in the Klein Karoo are alive with movement as 60 men and women move about with bundles of spekboom cuttings in their arms. The bare grey stems are individually laid in previously prepared holes before being covered with earth, leaving 30cm of glossy, fat leaves above the surface.
“Something new is happening in Van Wyksdorp,” says team assistant supervisor Rimon Wanie. “The whole community benefits. For the first time in a long time there is work for us, and we are learning new skills too.”
The community is participating in the Jobs for Carbon project, an initiative aimed at rehabilitating spekboomveld to the Klein Karoo while uplifting communities through job creation and support programmes.
Often referred to as a ‘miracle plant’, spekboom (Portulacaria afra) is a succulent with the ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a much higher rate than other plants in semi-arid areas. It stores the carbon in the biomass under the tree. In recent years this unique ability alerted environmentalists to the spekboom’s potential for carbon sequestration and the related potential income for impoverished communities where the plant is indigenous.
“Spekboom and associated thicket once dominated large parts of the Klein Karoo, but years of overgrazing by goats and ostriches left the bare earth exposed, undernourished and vulnerable to erosion. Only the most tenacious trees and pioneer plants remained,” says Wendy Crane, project developer and a founding member of the Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve (GCBR), which launched the initiative.
Incorporating the coastal region from the Breede River to the Great Brak River and the entire Klein Karoo, the GCBR aims to ensure the sustainable utilisation of the region’s unique biodiversity through projects that create new socio-economic opportunities for people living within the biosphere reserve.
Wendy’s experience working with development agencies addressing poverty and inequality in Third World countries brings valuable knowledge to the GCBR. “The principle behind the GCBR is to demonstrate that protecting our natural resources and promoting human progress and development, are not mutually exclusive. While Jobs for Carbon is currently providing employment to more than 10% of the town’s tiny population, there is a longer term goal of raising awareness of the benefits of healthy ecosystems, the value of spekboom for ecosystem restoration and the potential economic opportunities associated with restoration. Should this project be successful, we would love to extend it to other suitable sites in the Klein Karoo,” Wendy says.
Dr Steve du Toit, Western Cape head of conservation for the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa), which administers the project as a partner of the GCBR, is the project manager. “Jobs for Carbon is an excellent example of organisations working together. The partnership between the GCBR and Wessa was instrumental in securing R7.6 million in funding from the European Union and R2.7 million from the national Department of Environmental Affairs to restore the first 300 hectares of spekboomveld. The 32-month project started early in 2014 with the identification and recruitment of suitable project participants – unemployed people interested in working in the environmental sector – and the response was overwhelming.” The workers underwent training in first aid and health and safety, botanical and environmental awareness, and spekboom harvesting and planting.
Van Wyksdorp farmer and project activity coordinator André Britz says the region was once a flourishing agricultural community. “Dairy farming, wheat and vegetables, mohair and even harvesting wild flowers provided a secure income.”
But a series of disasters – including the Laingsburg floods in 1981, followed by severe drought and then torrential rains – devastated already overgrazed land and irreparably stacked the losses. Post-1994 political changes brought about a dramatic change in the agricultural landscape as organised structures collapsed. “Farms went bankrupt and were mostly sold to lifestyle farmers who often live elsewhere. Workers were laid off and settled in town, living off state grants, waiting for a better tomorrow that never arrived,” says André.
The impoverished community jumped at the promise of employment by Jobs for Carbon, training in skills hitherto beyond their reach and the chance to earn a living, at least until August next year.
Assistant supervisor Selona Jacobs says the project has benefits beyond putting food on the table. “Many parents for the first time get the opportunity to improve their homes. It also opened a new door for me, and this experience is something to build on.” Learning about budgets will help her to spend her income from Jobs for Carbon more effectively, and the first aid knowledge can be applied at home. “Mostly I learned to respect myself and others.”
Supervisor Jacques van Staden says this new income allows him to care for his family. “After ten to 20 years I will be able to tell my children, ‘Daddy was involved with this project.’”
Local farmer Liz Englington made 70ha of her farm available for the project. “I understand the amazing properties of spekboom. When I bought the land 19 years ago, the hills were bare. I hope the rehabilitation of land I have set aside will bring back wild animals. I see the spekboom project as an unbelievable gift that will allow my land to be rehabilitated and to once more become fertile and verdant.”
Jan Vlok of Regalis Environmental Services (RES) in Oudtshoorn was appointed to undertake the mapping of potential spekboom sites within the domain. He found that more than 60 percent of about 8 600ha of spekboomveld in the Van Wyksdorp area was severely depleted, with no or very little spekboom remaining. This provided a good restoration opportunity within a 30km radius of the town.
Once these areas were identified, the Rhodes University Restoration Research Group (RRRG) did a detailed assessment of the standing carbon stocks of the remaining spekboomveld. These will serve as base measurements to be compared to future restored veld samples, which will ultimately be used to determine carbon credits.
Mike Powell of the RRRG says: “The research protocols are followed rigorously to ensure the project gets approved when international carbon auditors conduct their assessments.”
Jobs for Carbon has already paid off. “For the next three years Cambridge University will be buying the equivalent of carbon sequestrated by about 12ha of restored spekboom to offset the carbon footprint of delegates travelling to its international conference,” says Wendy. “The revenue we generate from this arrangement will be reinvested in further land restoration in the Klein Karoo.” Wendy Crane Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve (GCBR)
028 735 2174 [email protected]
Dr Steve du Toit Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa
044 873 5077 [email protected]
When Pierre Villain and Peter Bloy came upon a 17ha hillside property outside Great Brak River, they saw an ideal opportunity for a cluster of eco-friendly housing among pristine fynbos and indigenous forest.
WORDS Athane Scholtz PHOTOGRAPHS Desmond Scholtz
Looking for a change after the tropical surroundings in KwaZulu-Natal and a break from work, geologist Peter Bloy convinced his partner, retired French property developer Pierre Villain, it was time for a road trip. The pair packed their bags and headed south along the coast – and never looked back.
“By the time we got to Plettenberg Bay, we knew we wanted to make the Garden Route our new home. In addition to the utter beauty and restfulness, the feeling of being surrounded by nature was overwhelming,” says Peter.
Starting with some serious downtime – six months of doing as little as possible – in Nature’s Valley, Pierre and Peter set out to look for a place that would meet the practicalities of Peter’s working life when he returned to work.
“As a geologist specialising in mining software and technology, I spend much of my time on mines around the globe, and while the Plettenberg Bay area was really healing to our souls, I needed to be close to an airport with regular flights.”
After renting properties in and around Great Brak River, they discovered an open erf in Voorbrug, which they bought in 2004. “I grew up in the wide open spaces of KwaZulu-Natal, so the open feel of this place was appealing. It is only 15 minutes’ drive from the airport along the R102 and five minutes to Great Brak village, yet we are surrounded by nature, with wild animals such as grysbok, bushbuck and porcupine, and prolific bird life.”
Pierre adds: “The property was ideally situated but we found it too big for just us, and wanted to share it with a few others, but in a non-invasive manner and with environmentally sustainable principles in mind.”
From the start there were some non-negotiable factors to take into account, including ensured privacy through the use of existing and planted vegetation, and stands cleverly positioned far from each other with minimal building footprints. Natural animal migration corridors could not be blocked with fencing and all the homes had to have rainwater harvesting and operate fully on solar power. “The idea was that like-minded people would buy, design and build their own homes but with the understanding that the buildings should blend into the environment. The eventual seven homeowners will form an association to manage property-related matters.”
They set about sub-dividing and rezoning the property from one residential stand to seven predetermined 1-3ha smallholdings with specific footprints. The surrounding areas were rezoned to nature reserve (open space three) status. Their second mission was to return the wattle-infested erf to pristine fynbos and Afromontane forest, an on-going task that they now have in hand. “The initial clearing was a nightmare, but maintenance is easy as long as you ensure new saplings are pulled out after it rains, while they are still very small. We are also part of the Great Brak Heights Ratepayers’ Association and are working hard towards reducing alien invaders on all properties in the area, in cooperation with the Western Cape Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning and the Mossel Bay Fire Department,” says Pierre.
Choosing the spot for their own house proved more difficult than they expected. The property stretches over hills and into an indigenous forested valley. Some of the sites are defined by typical mountain fynbos and have views of the bay towards Mossel Bay and beyond. Others are wrapped in forest, which lends an entirely different atmosphere. Peter and Pierre eventually decided on the sunnier site with the view.
Building on the far-out hillside was more complicated than they originally anticipated. “The first hurdle was electricity supply from town. The logistics would have amounted to exorbitant costs and we just didn’t consider it essential in a world of alternative and renewable energy. We made the decision that all seven properties would have to be solar and the eco-cluster concept grew from there.”
By default they found themselves pioneers of the 100% solar concept in the region and had to learn by trial and error. “We discovered the angle of our house – which was positioned to maximise the view and lies along the natural escarpment – was not at the correct angle to the sun, so the solar panels could not go on the roof of the house as would normally be the case. We had to build an additional structure for the panels, which provided an ideal shaded spot for a small aviary where I now breed indigenous birds.
“We were ably and patiently assisted by Rheebok-based Danie Pieterse from Groen Energie (Green Energy) and we are so impressed with the fact that our entire house is fitted with LED lights yet pulls less than 200 Watt of energy,” says Pierre.
While George-based architect Brian Stokes of Brink Stokes Mkhize designed the house, Pierre took charge of the interior design. Several interior and exterior walls were constructed with locally sourced stone and walls were painted with a mixture that includes soil from the property. A water reservoir was built underneath the house and deck.
Various types of wood, sourced locally and from overseas, were used throughout on floors, walls and the outside deck.
A major interior feature is a timber staircase, made from poplar sourced in Oudsthoorn. The elegant piece was designed and built by respected woodsman Div de Villiers. “While Pierre insists the curved shape of the staircase was inspired by an arum lily, we tease him that it looks more like the spine of a dinosaur,” Peter says with a smile.
The finishing touches were provided by Pierre and Peter’s diverse art collection, which includes several sculptures, pop and abstract art. “We don’t really favour a particular style and buy what we like rather than what is trendy, although subconsciously there is a strong nature theme throughout,” says Peter.
Gardening is limited to the immediate surroundings of the house and focuses on water-wise, mostly indigenous species, including large specimens of aloe and yellowwood trees for long-term forested privacy. “We consider the surrounding rehabilitated fynbos as our primary garden – it is what is meant to be here.”
If gum trees are water guzzling, biodiversity-killing alien plants, why are there still thousands standing across the Garden Route? South investigates the misconceptions about and benefits of Eucalyptus trees, as well as the reasoning behind recent legislative changes that no longer require their outright eradication, but still speaks for responsible management by landowners.
WORDS Francini van Staden PHOTOGRAPHS Desmond Scholtz
It holds true that as an alien tree species, Eucalyptus has the potential to compete with indigenous plants. At least
85 different gum species have been introduced in South Africa since the 1800s for commercial forestry and horticultural purposes. There is no longer Eucalyptus afforestation in the Garden Route but the use of these trees as fire belts – harnessing eucalypts’ allelopathic ability to reduce the fuel load at ground level surrounding pine plantations – resulted in thousands of wild trees, and many geometric belts of eucalypts throughout the region. The most prominent species in the Southern Cape remains E. grandus or Flooded Gum, E. diversicolor or Karri Gum and E. globulus or Blue Gum.
“People commonly think other plants cannot grow underneath Eucalyptus trees because they consume all available water, depriving surrounding vegetation of water,” says Professor Josua Louw, director of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU)’s School of Natural Resource Management. The bare patches often seen below eucalypts arenot the results of water guzzling, but rather eucalypts’ allelopathic ability. “Eucalypts release allelochemicals that prevent or slow down the growth of other plants underneath its mature canopies. They are a particularly serious threat in riparian zones where there are high levels of water availability, but they equally occur in drier zones where they consume less water. Their water consumption rates are furthermore influenced by weather, species, competition and age.”
Scheduling for tolerating and eradicating
Although an introduced alien tree species, not all eucalypts are considered invasive. “In the Garden Route National Park, SANParks consider the Red River Gum (E. camaldulensis) and the Karri Gum as invasive species because of rate of spread,” says SANParks vegetation ecologist Tineke Kraaij. Ecologists are most concerned about those species that invade environments, threatening natural resources such as water, biodiversity, agricultural and soil potential. “Gums, being large trees, consume more water than indigenous fynbos vegetation. Rehabilitation of areas that were planted with gums also proves to be very challenging due to the gums’ ability to coppice vigorously and their allelopathic effects inhibiting natural recovery of the indigenous vegetation.”
The full extent of impacts are not yet fully understood, especially since alien species can have positive economic impacts, as guided by the Alien and Invasive Species Regulations released in October 2014, under the auspices of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (2004).
This new categorisation lists various Eucalyptus species as Category 2 and 3 species, meaning they can be tolerated under certain circumstances. “These changes in legislative scheduling of eucalypts were made because of its commercial forestry status. Its economic value is further validated, including its functions as windbreaks and a source of nectar for bees. Their carbon sequestration potential could also feature more prominently in the future,” says Josua. There are, however, circumstances where Eucalyptus are categorised as Category 1b – the ‘must-eradicate’ category. Riparian and conservation worthy zones are such priority circumstances, where it is critical to remove and avoid any regeneration to stop unwanted spreading. “The Flooded Gum in particular spreads fast in catchment areas,” says Josua. It also creates a potential erosion problem. “Unlike indigenous riparian vegetation, Eucalyptus cannot bend over; the trees become entirely uprooted during floods, causing severe erosion and river flow disruptions.”
Apart from this amended legislation, the Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act (1983) and the National Water Act (1994) also obligate landowners, whether state or private, to take responsibility. But controlling invasive alien species is a mammoth task. “It is therefore necessary to prioritise the aggressive invaders and habitat types that are most susceptible to the impacts of invasive species,” says Tineke.
Assistance for landowners
The Southern Cape Landowners Initiative (SCLI), an invasive alien clearing focus group, aims to assist landowners with this responsibility. “Our key focus is the Garden Route’s riparian and biodiversity zones, where we aim to lessen the negative ecological impacts of invasive alien species,” says SCLI chairman Cobus Meiring. “We assist landowners where they need information or input for clearing and managing alien species. Although we can assist in referring contractors, landowners remain responsible for the cost of alien clearing, which varies between R4000 and R10 000 per hectare.”
From timber waste to eco-desk
With legislative focus on invasive and alien plant clearing, several alien tree-clearing programmes were initiated over the past decades. This gave rise to value-added industries, such as the Farleigh Eco-Furniture project outside Knysna, which started in 2011. “We harvest Eucalyptus timber that would otherwise have gone to waste for the purpose of manufacturing school desks. The project clears about 500 wild and mature eucalypts per month, from which a hundred school desks are made daily,” says Farleigh mill manager Herman Jungbauer-Rudman. Although aesthetically pleasing, processing Eucalyptus hardwood timber can be problematic. “End splitting, brittle heart, gum canals, cell collapse and dimensional stability are some of its timber challenges, but is still favoured for its high surface wearing quality together with pleasing textures of interlocking grain and curly grain,” explains Richard Müller, wood technology programme coordinator of the NMMU School of Natural Resource Management.
The Farleigh Eco-Furniture project uses timber from historic fire belts surrounding pine plantations throughout the Garden Route. “The plantation fire belts alone will offer another eight years’ worth of timber and there is more available – we haven’t even started considering Eucalyptus that private landowners would want removed,” says Herman. Farleigh Eco-Furniture is an industry pioneer, and following from its success are four more eco-furniture factories starting up throughout the country.
Eucalyptus is a species of potential value, but also of potential harm. Where mature individual trees contribute positively to the landscape or environment, consideration should be given to responsible management rather than removal. Taking a precautionary approach will allow people to tap into the trees’ benefits while still contributing to curbing their negative ecological impacts. The industry and scientists agree: the solution is realising that both economic value and ecological integrity should be played out for sustainable management.
To fell or not to fell?
In the following environments, Eucalyptus trees do not need to be felled:
in arid Karoo environments where they offer benefits such as shade and bee foraging resources;
in cultivated landscapes and outside a 50m radius from indigenous vegetation;
within 50m of existing farmsteads;
in urban environments with a tree trunk diameter of more than 400mm measured at a height of 1000mm;
All commercial forestry plantations are exempted from felling; and
Old or large trees may be protected under the South African Heritage Resources Act (Act 25 of 1999); property owners will need to apply for a permit authorising the removal of such an individual tree.
Where Eucalyptus trees must be felled:
All riparian zones, national parks, conservation areas, or ecosystems categorised as conservation worthy ecosystems in terms of biodiversity management plans.
Professor Josua Louw
NMMU School of Natural Resource Management
044 801 5019
Urban development in the Garden Route is forcing baboons to forage for food in local homes as their habitat dwindles, but residents and authorities are banding together to find a holistic solution to increased clashes between primate and man.
WORDS Francini van Staden
Locals call it baboon season – the time from May to October when forest food sources are limited and baboons move into residential areas in search of sustenance.
Knysna Baboon Action Group (KBAG) and Knysna Baboon Management Forum chairman Richard Thorpe says environmental consciousness goes out the window when foraging baboons trash your home. “In addition to excrement, ruined food and serious damage to property, the fear of cornering a baboon by accident is always in the back of your mind. The thought of those vicious fangs in the neck of a beloved pet, or worse a child, is unbearable.”
KBAG was formed to find a solution to significantly increasing problems with baboons venturing into local suburbs. “Long-time residents will tell you that baboon raids have never been this prevalent and that the animals are getting cheekier and seem smarter,” says Richard.
Primatologist Dr Paula Pebsworth, who studied baboons in the Western Cape, says the animals were forced to adapt repeatedly to their ever-changing environment. As their natural habitat dwindled due to urban and agricultural development, the primates learned to eat unnatural food resources, one example being alien vegetation. Now that alien vegetation is being eradicated, the animals have found a constant and appealing source of food in residential areas and rural communities.
Paula says baboons are opportunistic, not malicious. “Like humans, if they see a convenient source of food, they will take it. With easy access to calorie-dense human food, the animals no longer have to forage in the forest for eight hours a day, often times with a rather meagre pay-off. But shorter foraging periods in residential and farming areas leave the baboons with time on their hands, increasing the likelihood that they will damage property and place them in harm’s way of people and domestic dogs.
CapeNature conservation services manager Barend le Roux says the problem extends to almost all forest-edged properties in the Garden Route, particularly Knysna, George and Nature’s Valley.
“Interestingly, human-baboon conflict is less pronounced in informal settlement areas. This is most likely due to reduced access to food and dogs that are not confined to properties that will chase the baboons. With such hindrances, the raids will probably be less worthwhile and of a higher risk for baboons.”
Managing baboon mischief
Environmentalists, researchers and conservation agencies say human-baboon conflict can be largely avoided if the matter is addressed holistically. This requires a mind shift, affecting urban planning, waste removal, crop planting and pets. “While we may think that baboons are invading our space, we have in fact created additional habitat rich in rewards that they are now utilising – with the result that we have to work on a plan to coexist amicably,” says Barend.
Although frustrated residents often demand a problem baboon be killed, law protects the animals. CapeNature considers the issuing of permits for the euthanising of repeat offenders as a last resort. Management options that are recommended include catching, tagging and release within the home range, using paintball guns to deter baboons and baboon monitors.
In Nature’s Valley residents worked with CapeNature to develop a baboon management plan that includes awareness campaigns, waste management by all households, raid reports and data collection on baboon behaviour. While the plan is easy to manage out of season when only 60 permanent residents live in the village, more than 4 000 holidaymakers during major holidays have highlighted the need for awareness campaigns during that time.
In Knysna the problem is even more complex. “Not only is the town larger, wildlife corridors were not considered when developments were approved and as a result the baboons have been forced into a gap between several new housing estates, cutting them off from their natural habitat. In future, if we intend to continue development, wildlife corridors should be incorporated into the urban planning process,” says Richard.
CapeNature, SANParks, KBAG, the Knysna Municipality and other roleplayers have banded together to form the Knysna Baboon Management Forum to find a sustainable solution to the baboon problem. Richard says the greatest defence against baboons is denying them access to human food. To this end, the municipality will soon be providing households in baboon-prone areas with wheelie bins and, if required, a bylaw will be pursued that all households in the affected areas use lockable waste bins. “It sounds obvious but it is remarkably difficult to get people to do the simplest things. If all the residents in a street lock their waste away and just one leaves theirs accessible, the baboons will return and affect the entire neighbourhood,” says Richard.
After realising baboons are more active on municipal waste collection days, the municipality now services problem areas first, denying the baboons the opportunity to rummage before the rubbish is collected.
Some residents of Pezula Private Estate in Knysna were so intimidated by wild baboons they considered selling up. “It was a major crisis as frequent break-ins became unbearable to homeowners,” says Pezula operational manager Leonard McLean. Since implementing a baboon management plan, the estate has been free of baboon incidences for two years. “Nine staff members patrol the estate daily and respond immediately if baboons move too close to homes. They persistently move the baboons off onto the cliffs, down to the sea or back into the natural forest areas.
“The baboons have learnt to see our wildlife monitors as alpha males in charge of moving the troop and monitors are careful to shift them off naturally, without splitting them up. The baboons are adapting and are learning that it is more convenient to stay in their natural area – they are very responsive to our management and it has changed our homeowners’ perceptions as well.”
Pezula also taught homeowners to be more baboon-conscious and to safeguard their homes. “For instance, we have learnt that baboons cannot grasp the concept of a turning handle, so now we encourage the use of certain latches to prevent baboons from accessing homes,” says Leonard.
Educating holidaymakers is also essential to any baboon management plan’s long-term success as the influx of seasonal visitors worsens the raiding problem. Visitors may be unaware of the need to close up homes and clamp down waste, or the baboons are considered fascinating and are fed to attract them.
“We need to recognise that baboon incidences are an unintended consequence of human behaviour that will continue as long as humans and baboons compete for habitat. No single management measure can be expected to resolve the matter, but a holistic approach in which all the affected people make a conscious effort to minimise the causes has a much better chance to ultimately succeed,” says Paula.
Debunking the myths
Myth: Eliminate the alpha male to resolve human/baboon conflict
Truth: The alpha male controls the size of the troop. Remove him and the troop will expand as control is lost.
Myth: Returning a “trouble-making” rogue male to his natal troop will keep him out of houses
Truth: Males leave their natal troop to prevent inbreeding. If he is allowed to find a new troop he will move on. Without this protection, he will continue to search for easy food.
Myth: Kill a baboon and hang it on a stake to repel the troop
Truth: If food is still available, a dead baboon will not stop the troop from foraging.
Myth: Baboons are more afraid of men than women
Truth: Baboons react to an individual’s behaviour. They recognise fear and could try to take advantage of this. Baboons can snatch food from young children as they view them as a lesser threat.
Myth: When encountering dogs, baboons will attack
Baboons are only known to attack dogs if threatened or attacked by the dog first. Baboons can seriously injure dogs.