The status and asessment of biodiversity in south africa introduction

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Gondwana Alive (GA) focuses its attention globally on areas with unique and threatened natural and cultural diversity. We strive to understand the status and threats to biodiversity in the areas in which we work, in order to provide strategic direction to our local efforts. South Africa is one of our focus areas - in particular the Western Cape Province and City of Cape Town. This paper is divided into two sections - Section A looks at the status of Biodiversity in the focus area, and Section B looks at Impact Assessment as a tool for balancing development and biodiversity conservation. A separate paper looks in more detail at Environmental Impact Assessment and a third paper looks at another major threat to biodiversity – Climate Change.

  1. Overview of Biodiversity in South Africa

South Africa is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world. The country is surrounded by three oceans and home to about 15% of known coastal marine species, 2% of the world’s plants and 7% of the reptiles, birds and mammals. The country includes several biomes, three of which have been declared global biodiversity hotspots. Alien invasive species are one of biggest threats to South Africa’s biodiversity especially to indigenous vegetation.

  1. Biodiversity in the Western Cape Province of South Africa

    1. Flora

The Western Cape is home to the Cape Floristic Region (CFR) or Fynbos as it is referred to locally. The CFR is the World’s smallest and richest plant kingdom and a recognized World Heritage Site. Approximately 9000 species of vascular plants are found in the CFR of which about 70% are endemic and of these1406 are Red Data Book species (endangered) – the highest known concentration of threatened and rare species in the world. About 25.9% of the CFR is currently transformed by agriculture, 1.6% by urbanization and 1.6% by alien plant invasion. Remaining natural vegetation is found in small fragments, mostly along river course, steep slopes and road reserves and on less productive land. Most of the species are resprouters and have wind-dispersed seed. Remaining fragments of natural vegetation (remnants) are crucial to the survival of indigenous vegetation. For example, many of the 1500 species of geophytes found in the CFR are found in remnants, although some species have become extremely rare.

The role of remnants in supporting animal life is less well documented. However, a study on the insect pollinators showed that while the overall species richness of bees, flies and butterflies did not vary significantly between small and large fragments of renosterveld shrublands, the abundance of a particular species of bee and monkey beetle was significantly affected by fragment size.

    1. Fauna

The study on the state of biodiversity in the Western Cape found the following:

Status of Mammals 2002

The Western Cape supports 50% of South Africa’s mammal species. Of the 160 species that occur here, six are endemic. Fifty species are regarded as threatened according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN). An estimated eleven species have become extinct in the Western Cape. Six species have yet to be re-established in formal conservation areas including the Lion, Spotted Hyena, African Wild dog, Black Rhinoceros, Hippopotamus and African Buffalo.

Status of Birds 2002

The Western Cape supports 50% of South African bird life. The South African Bird Atlas Project has listed 344 of the country’s total 686 species in the Western Cape. The majority were recorded in protected areas. Of these 53 species are listed in the Red Data Book for Birds. Eight species including the Wattled Crane, Lappet Faced Vulture and Cape Parrot, are already extinct in the region.

Status of Amphibians and Reptiles 2002

Two out of every five species of amphibians known to occur in Southern Africa are found in the Western Cape Province. At least 22 species (50%) are endemic to the region, occurring in habitats that are highly susceptible to change. Six species are listed as threatened, of which the micro frog and the Table Mountain Ghost Frog are regarded as critically endangered. South Africa hosts 350 reptile species, more than 5% of the world total. The Western Cape contains 41% of this total, and boasts the highest diversity of terrestrial tortoises in the world. Not only can one find here one of the world’s largest tortoises (the mountain tortoise) but also the smallest (southern speckled padloper) and one of the rarest (geometric) tortoises. Of the 92 lizard species seven are threatened and 17 endemic, while of the 41 snake species, three are threatened and two species are endemic to the Western Cape.

Status of Fish 2002

Of the 18 species of freshwater fish found in the Western Cape, an alarming 15 are listed as threatened. Of these, 50% are endemic and thus reliant on effective conservation of river systems and Aquatic habitats. Unfortunately the Western Cape has many invasive fish species, posing a major threat to indigenous fish and other aquatic life. A genetic variety of the Berg river redfin was exterminated from the Eerste River in the 1940s due to the introduction of rainbow trout. If the situation is allowed to deteriorate even further species such as the highly Twee River redfin may become extinct within the next 20 years.

  1. Biodiversity within the City of Cape Town in the Western Cape

The City of Cape Town falls within the CFR – a global biodiversity hotspot with a rich diversity of fauna and flora and a high proportion of unique and endangered species. The City of Cape Town is facing a huge challenge in terms of biodiversity conservation as the urban footprint coincides with many unique, rare and endangered vegetation types and habitats. Of the 21 vegetation types in South Africa that have been assigned the highest conservation status (Critically Endangered), 10 occur within the City of Cape Town. A further six threatened vegetation types occur in the City. The Cape Town lowland (Cape Flats) is an area that has been under-conserved and has experienced massive urban sprawl due to planning policies in the apartheid era. This area alone supports more than 1460 different plant species of which 203 species are threatened with extinction and five are globally extinct in the wild.

Cape Town is home to a total of 19 different and distinct vegetation types. This enormous variety is mainly because the City is uniquely located at the convergence point of a great many different soil types and micro-climates. These 19 vegetation types are mostly restricted to unusually small areas, and several are completely endemic to the City – occurring nowhere else in the world. The vegetation types include the following.

  • Atlantis Sand Fynbos

  • Boland Granite Fynbos

  • Cape Flats Dune Strandveld

  • Cape Flats Dune Fynbos

  • Cape Winelands Shale Fynbos

  • Hangklip Sand Fynbos

  • Kogelberg Sandstone Fynbos

  • Lourensford Alluvium Fynbos

  • Peninsula Granite Fynbos

  • Peninsula Sandstone Fynbos

  • Peninsula Shale Renosterveld

  • Swartland Alluvium

  • Swartland Alluvium Renosterveld

  • Swartland Granite Renosterveld

  • Swartland Shale Renosterveld

  • Swartland Silcrete Renosterveld

  • Southern Afrotemperate Forest

  • Cape Lowland Freshwater Wetland

Fire is one of the key threats to the City of Cape Town’s vegetation and biodiversity in general – particularly during the dry, windy summer season.


  1. Introduction

All around the world biodiversity is under threat. Climate change is altering the face of our Planet and with it our biodiversity and many of the ecosystems and associated services on which we depend. Other global threats to biodiversity are associated with human activities. Humans are an integral part of ecosystems so our activities can affect ecosystems. Human activities can be direct drivers of change in biodiversity through habitat loss and damage, or they can be indirect drivers of change through social, cultural and economic policies or practice. Changes in biodiversity can affect how ecosystems work and loss of ecosystem services may irreplaceable or only replaceable at great cost. As biodiversity decreases ecosystems tend to deteriorate.

Examples of direct and indirect drivers of change

Direct drivers of change

Indirect drivers of change

  • Agriculture, Mining, Commercial forestry, Housing infrastructure development invariably results in clearing of natural vegetation and destruction of habitat for wildlife. Vegetation clearing could also destabilize soils, change local water balances, encourage the spread of alien plants and/or result in the loss of pollinators that are important for local crop production.

  • Industrial development often results in water pollution that affects a range of organisms and ecosystems, and may change the quality or quantity of availability of drinking water.

  • Pumping of ground water can lead to a drop in the water table, which in turn leads to drying up of boreholes and wetlands.

  • Collapse of national or local economies and or the breakdown of infrastructure and related services, can force people to mine ecosystem goods and services (e.g. fish, forests, etc.) as a last resort to ensure their survival.

  • Changes in trade agreements between countries can lead to incentives to switch crops for increased production of certain goods. These changes in turn will lead to different pressures on biodiversity and ecosystem services.

  1. Impact Assessment as a tool for biodiversity conservation

International Conventions such as the Ramsar Convention on wetlands and the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD), recognize Impact Assessment (IA) as an important decision support tool to help plan and implement development with biodiversity in mind. IA provides an opportunity to ensure that biodiversity values are recognized and taken into account in decision making and/or planning process. Importantly IA adopts a participatory approach - involving people who might be affected by proposed development. The IA should be applied to individual projects through EIA processes, and to collective policies, plans and programmes through Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). Considerable progress has been made in the application of IA to further aims of the CBD and related conventions. IA’s are generally informed by Environmental Authorities, Local Authorities, Biodiversity Agencies, Agriculture and Water authorities and Key non-government organizations.

  1. Challenges that need to be addressed in relation to IA

  • Raising awareness of biodiversity, its values and importance.

  • Building capacity to commission, carry out and review assessments.

  • Obtaining and communicating reliable up to date information on biodiversity in an accessible form.

  • Providing guidance to communities, governments and businesses

  1. Guiding Principles for IA

The following guiding principles set out to achieve no net loss of biodiversity:

  • Avoid irreversible losses of biodiversity.

  • Seek alternative solutions that minimize biodiversity losses.

  • Use mitigation to restore biodiversity resources.

  • Compensate for unavoidable loss by providing substitutes of at least similar biodiversity values.

  • Seek opportunities for enhancement:

  • Use the ecosystem approach - objectives of ecosystem management are a matter of societal choices and should be set with a long term view. Ecosystem managers should consider the effect of their activities on adjacent and other ecosystems. Ecosystems should be managed within the limit of their functioning. The approach must be undertaken at appropriate spatial temporal scales and should seek an appropriate balance between integration of conservation and use of biodiversity. All forms of relevant information should be considered and all relevant sectors of society and scientific disciplines should be involved.

  • Positive planning - encourages an early analysis of the opportunities and constraints posed by the natural environment. Encourages the early identification of alternatives that could avoid or prevent significant impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services. Encourages early identification that could enhance and secure benefits for safeguarding biodiversity and ecosystem services.

  • Ensure sharing - ensure traditional rights and uses of biodiversity are recognized in IA and the benefits from commercial use of biodiversity are shared fairly. Consider the needs of future as well as current generations. Seek alternatives that do not trade in biodiversity.

  • Always consider alternatives - good planning should clearly identify and select those alternatives that offer and avoid undesirable impacts for the good of society. Decision making should strive towards this (i.e. evaluation of alternatives is essential part of assessment and decision making).

  • Apply the precautionary principle - this should be applied in any situation where important biodiversity may be threatened. Requires that development consent should be delayed while steps are taken to ensure that best available information can be obtained through consultation with local stake holders/experts.

  1. Operating Principles for IA

  1. Screening- to determine whether important biodiversity resources maybe affected. Should include potential impacts on protected areas and areas supporting species. Include activities posing a particular threat to biodiversity (in terms of their type magnitude, location, duration, timing reversibility). Include areas that provide important biodiversity services including extractive reserves, indigenous people’s territories, wetlands, fish breeding grounds, soils prone to erosion, relatively undisturbed or characteristic habitat storage areas, groundwater recharging areas, etc.

  1. Scoping - defining the issues and the methods that will be used. Use scoping as an opportunity to raise awareness of biodiversity concerns and discuss alternatives to avoid/ minimize negative impact biodiversity.

  1. Impact study and preparation of EIS - address biodiversity at all appropriate levels and allow for enough survey time to take seasonal features into account.

  1. Mitigation measures - include restoration and rehabilitation. Apply the positive planning approach where avoidance has priority and compensation. Look for opportunities to positively enhance biodiversity.

  1. Review decision making - peer review of environmental reports with regards to biodiversity should be undertaken by specialist, with appropriate expertise where biodiversity impacts are significant.

  1. Decision making - avoid putting conservation goals against development goals, try to balance conservation with sustainable use for economically viable and socially, sustainable solutions.

  1. Management, monitoring, evaluation and auditing - it is important to recognize that all prediction of changes in biodiversity in relation to perturbation is uncertain, especially over long time frames.

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