The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) was truly devastated to hear of the fires that have wreaked havoc on huge areas of the Garden Route, and particularly Knysna. The loss of life, property and habitat is tragic, and our thoughts are with all those affected, as well as those who are working to stabilise the situation.
The extreme nature of these fires and the extent of the damage was in no small way exacerbated by the extensive and uncontrolled spread of alien plant species such as pine and wattle trees. The threat posed by alien invasive plants in the area was identified many years ago. An article written by Richard Cowling, Brian van Wilgen, Tineke Kraaij, and Jonathan Britton, titled How no-man’s-land is now everyone’s problem, and published in the September 2009 edition of Veld&Flora, was almost prophetic in the concerns it raised regarding the potential for abnormally intense fires to ravage the area, due to the replacement of indigenous fynbos with alien plant species such as pine trees. The authors developed various scenarios for the Garden Route and, based on the existence of uncontrolled alien spread, and periods of lower rainfall, they predicted that “… fires would rage with abnormal intensity, seriously threatening homes, crops, plantations and people. The high-intensity fires would damage the soil, resulting in erosion and silting up of dams, further exacerbating water problems.”
The intense fires fuelled by alien vegetation also have a far more damaging impact on the soil than typical fynbos fires would have, resulting in extreme erosion. This eroded soil and other debris now threatens to end up in the area’s water sources, with a potentially devastating effect on water quality and the ecosystems in those rivers and estuaries. This brings home the importance of investment in ecosystem services, alien vegetation removal and catchment rehabilitation. The National Department of Environmental Affairs Natural Resource Management Programme, as well as provincial agencies, such as CapeNature, need to continue and ramp up the valuable work they do on this front to get a handle on the invasions that threaten, not just our water resources but lives and habitats too. Civil society needs to get behind these agencies and work together to make sure this scale of disaster does not happen again.
The EWT has previously been involved with developing the Knysna estuary management plan some ten years ago and had started discussions with the members of the Knysna Basin Project and the Estuary Management Forum in May this year around re-engaging to provide implementation support for aspects of the estuary management plan. In a few short weeks, everything has now changed and we are re-assessing how we can work with the Forum and the local communities to support both short-term protection of the estuary from siltation and runoff as well as long-term catchment management through restoration and re-indigenisation.
We are working with various partners to document the extent of the damage to the natural environment, particularly as a result of sediment and debris that may now end up in the estuary, and the potential impact on key habitats, such as the Eelgrass, and species, such as the Knysna Seahorse. Our aim is to have a team in the field in the coming week to start supporting local authorities to alleviate some of these impacts through debris clearing and silt trap ecosystem restoration work around the estuary.
The EWT is making an urgent plea for local government, the private sector, members of the public and communities to join hands and ensure that the restoration of the indigenous ground cover, removal of alien vegetation and improved management of the catchment in the Garden Route is urgently prioritised over the short and long term in order to secure the socio-economic development and sustainability of this region and to make sure that this never happens again.
Source to Sea Programme Manager
Tel: +27 87 021 0398
Communication and Brand Manager
Endangered Wildlife Trust
Tel: +27 87 021 0398