Taking off in a greener year: The good, the bad and the beacons of hope
Fires, drought, invasive plants and, of course, humankind, have taken their troll on SA’s plant and animal resources, but there are some beacons of light that give us hope
In the pink
Kucki the lesser flamingo made global news in 2016 when she flew 1,020km from SA to Madagascar, nonstop. In May 2018 she delighted fans by making the return journey, this time landing in Mozambique for refuelling. Kucki has not yet filed her 2019 flight plan but we have hopes of great things.
South African researchers on a ship sighted whales that are usually only seen stranded or dead on the beach, said department of environmental affairs marine biologist Mduduzi Seakamela.
During a 2018 offshore survey, they spotted the rarely seen Cuvier's beaked whale as well as a pod of 100 long-finned pilot whales hanging out with bottleneck dolphins off Cape Town.
Also, Seakamela said the "feeding super groups" of up to 200 humpback whales, which arrive in spring, were a phenomenon unique to SA.
SA's approval of 20 offshore marine protected areas in 2018 was backed by research from its ship-based programmes. An underwater canyon reaching 3,000m deep - and three times bigger than all the east coast canyons combined - was mapped off the west coast.
Courts to the rescue
Landmark judgments in the Pretoria and Cape high courts this year furthered the environmental protection of endangered creatures and habitats.
The Cape court ruled that the total catch of west coast rock lobster should be based on science, and the Pretoria court ruled against a nontransparent mining operation in the Mabola Protected Environment, said Andrea Weiss of the World Wide Fund for Nature SA (WWF-SA).
Previously unemployed people trained to work as environmental monitors alongside experienced rangers have had "very encouraging results" in reducing poaching, said Guy Preston, deputy director-general of environmental programmes at the department of environmental affairs. The number of rhino killed in parks has dropped in areas where the 1,632 monitors - many of them women - patrol. Also, more than 100,000ha of habitat for various threatened species are being protected under biodiversity stewardship agreements, with more community negotiations in progress.
Cheetahs and wild dogs moved
Fifty cheetahs and 73 wild dogs were relocated this year to protect genetic diversity and their populations, according to Belinda Glenn of the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT).
SA is the only country in Africa where the endangered grey crowned crane population has increased - by 40% in the past 15 years.
In September, the first captive-bred specimens of a rare frog species were introduced to the wild. Johannesburg Zoo bred the threatened Pickersgill's reed frogs, which were released at Mount Moreland Conservancy, north of Durban.
Capetonians avoided Day Zero by halving their water consumption - but there are serious water concerns in most provinces, including the Western Cape. SA would not have long-term water security unless invasive plants were cleared from catchment areas, said Preston.
For example, the loss of water to the Berg River Dam could increase from 1.4% in 2008 to 26% in 2053 without such clearing. Last year, about 40,000 environmental workers and volunteers helped with catchment clearing and rehabilitation in degraded wetlands.
Borer beetle threat
Many big trees in SA face catastrophe, with 20 species (of about 80 hosts) being particularly vulnerable to the tiny shot-hole borer beetle from Asia. Among those at risk are the indigenous coral tree, two yellowwood species and valued aliens such as maples, liquid amber and plane trees. So far the beetle has been found in six regions, including Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the southern Cape.
"People must not move dead trees or cut wood," urged Preston. "We are trying to find a biological control agent but it will not be a quick process."
About 20% of drivers altered their course on the road to deliberately kill snakes, an experiment by the Tshwane University of Technology found. It used toy rubber snakes in three sizes, the only encouraging news being that most drivers tried to avoid running over the bigger fake snakes.
Captive lion breeding has increased and the legal quota for the export of lion skeletons was raised from 800 to 1,500 in 2018. Sixty captive lions were poached from July 2016 to 2018, the EWT reports. The National Council of SPCAs has applied for an urgent interdict to stop the lion bone trade, which it says is linked to slaughterhouses, canned lion hunting and illegal wildlife trade.
Birds in distress
SA has only about 800 breeding pairs of martial eagles left. About a third of them nest on Eskom's pylons in the Karoo. The EWT and Eskom launched a project in June to protect them but still their numbers are declining.
Thousands of vultures (more than 3,500 since 2011) are dying across Southern Africa after feeding on poisoned carcasses linked to ivory poaching.
African penguin numbers are also plummeting, according to the "2018 Living Planet" report by WWF-SA.
Fire and flora
"Of all the threats to our environment, I would put invasive species at the top," said Preston. The Garden Route fires, devastating for many reasons, may result in continuing environmental damage because fire germinates the seeds of several invasive species and billions of their seedlings will grow in the burnt areas around George and Knysna, costing hundreds of millions of rands to try to bring under control.
"But the fires would have been dramatically worse if it weren't for the Working on Fire and Working for Water teams," said Preston. Key to the control of invasive species that are major environmental problems are programmes for early detection and effective biological control.
Unless global warming is mitigated, SA can expect more heat waves and flooding by 2050, warns a report, "The Future We Don't Want", by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. It is unfortunate, therefore, that large corporations succeeded in watering down SA's Carbon Tax Bill, said WWF-SA's Weiss. - Sources: the EWT, WWF-SA, department of environmental affairs