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May 15, 2012

The Cape Peninsula’s natural treasure

The Western Cape is blessed with immense beauty, which is not only showcased in our beautiful people but in our landscape and biodiversity.

One of our most treasured possessions, the Cape Floral Region (CFR), houses a wealth of diverse flora and fauna endemic and near-endemic to the Cape Peninsula.

Watsonia's in flower in one-year-old veld in Jonkershoek, in the south-western Cape. Photo courtesy ralph pina

A United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation World Heritage Site, the protected region covers approximately 553 000 hectares, encompassing eight areas, including the Swartberg mountains, the Cederberg Wilderness Area, Table Mountain (including Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden), the De Hoop Nature Reserve, the Boland mountains, the Boosmansbos wilderness, the Groot Winterhoek wilderness and Baviaanskloof.

“The CFR is the smallest but one of the richest plant kingdoms in the world. It has more than 9 000 species of plants and more than 70% of those plant species are endemic to the region,” says Ismail Ebrahim, the CFR programme manager for Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW).

In comparison, the United Kingdom is home to approximately 1 200 plant species, 67 of which are endemic.

Part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and funded by the Botanical Society of South Africa, the CREW programme monitors and conserves rare and threatened plants in South Africa, with the help of civil society groups.

“We have a well-established node in the CFR where we work with 14 volunteer groups that go out to areas to search for and monitor populations of threatened plants,” says Ebrahim.

It is through these projects and their discoveries that it has been found that the biodiversity in the CFR is not static.

“Botanists are still discovering new plant species every year. An average of around 10 new species from the Cape Floristic Region are named each year ,” says Dr John Manning, senior specialist scientist at the Compton Herbarium at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.

Also part of SANBI, the Compton Herbarium documents the plant diversity of the Greater Cape Floral Region.

However, just as researchers and volunteers find new species every year, there are species that have either become extinct or are at risk of doing so and, because in nature every species has its part to play, the loss of one species may have an impact on the entire ecosystem.

“The major factor driving extinction in Cape Town is urbanisation, and outside of Cape Town, agriculture,” says Dr Tony Rebelo, senior scientist at SANBI’s Threatened Species Research Unit.

A few of the plant species under threat of extinction include the Gladiolus aureus, of which there are less than 50 plants; Serruria furcellata, of which there is only one plant left in the wild; Erica verticillata, which is extinct in the wild but a restoration programme is under way to reintroduce the species back into the wild; and the Disa barbata, which is extinct in the peninsula, but has been found in one site and a plan is under way to reintroduce the species.

“The exceptionally rich flora of the peninsula and the enormous threatening forces, [such as] urbanisation, alien invasive species and habitat degradation, makes the Cape Peninsula and surrounds one of the most important conservation priorities in the country,” says Ebrahim.

In addition to the rich flora in the region, the CFR hosts the last remaining top predator, the leopard. However this species, too, is under threat.

Smaller than their northern equivalents, with females and males weighing a respective 20kg and 40kg, these leopards require large spaces of land to thrive.

Over the past 350 years, human development, such as farming and urban development, has led to the narrowing of the natural strips of land, and the smaller spaces have led to fewer numbers of leopards in the CFR.

In 2007, the Landmark Foundation began a leopard count in the CFR, which it aims to complete by the end of 2012. A non-governmental organisation facilitating the establishment and sustaining of conservation land uses in Southern Africa, it has so far established that there are only small patches of leopard populations in the CFR, which is worrying as this could lead to genetic inbreeding.

Female leopards usually require about 100km2 of space, over which they are extremely territorial, while males need double that size, or more. They do allow other males to enter their space provided they leave their females alone and refrain from excessive hunting.

“Leopards here only survive where the CFR is kept intact. When we lose patches of this unique habitat, we lose this protected animal along with it, and all the biodiversity in between,” says Jeannine McManus, a PhD researcher at the Landmark Foundation.

“Keeping these top predators in the system keeps it functioning optimally and adds even more importance to this floral kingdom.”

Marvel in the beauty of a few of the species that are endemic to the Cape Floral Region, below.

King protea (Protea cynaroides) 

Photo courtesy Barry Haynes

One of South Africa’s national symbols, the king protea brings a splash of colour and beauty to the Western Cape’s southern and south-western regions.

Coat-hanger heath (Erica plukenetii) 

Photo courtesy Nick Turland

The coat-hanger heath erica is a widespread species found on the slopes of mountains throughout the Cape Floral Region.

Orange-breasted sunbird (Nectarinia violacea) 

Photo courtesy Ian n. White

Specialising in nectar, the orange-breasted sunbird is found wherever erica and protea species are flowering.

Cape sugarbird (Promerops cafer) 

Photo courtesy Derek Keats

Another nectar-loving species, the Cape sugarbird opts for the odd spider or insect to provide its necessary protein requirements. 

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