Fynbos foliage a threat

Nicky Schmidt, Stonehurst Mountain Estate

Numerous questions need to be asked in the wake of Franziska Blöchliger’s brutal murder (“Franziska remembered”, Bulletin, March 10), the most critical being why SANParks has failed to patrol or police Tokai Park despite increasing incidents, and why it has refused access to private security companies to do so.

A ranger was overheard saying at the vigil held for Franziska that rangers never patrol in the fynbos as it is too dense and too full of snakes. It was easier, he said, when there were trees. The only time SANParks’ personnel are seen in the park are those rare occasions when they have harassed members of the public for Wild Cards. This, as SANParks’ management well knows, runs counter to the original spirit of the Heads of Agreement entered into years ago between the City and park authorities.

It also begs the question, what exactly are the public paying for? A lack of safety and the threat of risk as has been repeatedly seen in various parts of TMNP?

The other question that must be raised, yet again, as it was nine years ago, is the wisdom – or rather lack thereof – of bringing fynbos so close to the urban edge. In January 2008 a letter was sent to the press in which it was warned that, “Aside from the lack of shade, lack of visibility in a fynbos environment is a key concern; the shrubby foliage is likely to exacerbate still further incidents of crime in the park.” This ignored warning has now tragically resulted in the senseless murder of a 16-year-old girl.

Not only does the fynbos provide ideal hiding places for miscreants due to the density of the often head-high bushes, but it also brings with it the risk of fire and snakes.

Fynbos burns extremely hot and fast, as the increased number of fires across greater Cape Town and the Boland have shown. Bringing this fire risk right to the urban edge is nothing short of irresponsible.

Numerous dogs have been bitten by snakes (mostly puff adders), which are regularly released into the fynbos section of Lower Tokai, and a few weeks ago, a dog died from just such a bite. It won’t be too long before the next victim is a child.

With the clear felling of Lower Tokai well ahead of the 2024 schedule and the plan to continue Dr Tony Rebello’s botanical experiments, the community will be put at even greater risk.

The loss of shaded recreation aside, the clear-felling of the remaining pines (which appear to not be as diseased as SANParks would have the public believe) brings the threat of crime, fire and snakes right to the urban edge. Both City and SANParks were warned of this in 2007, yet the warnings were ignored. Let this not happen again.

By all means, remove the pines, but do not bring the fynbos to the urban edge purely to indulge a botanical quest. Rather create a park planted with indigenous trees and grasses, in which in-digenous spring bulbs and flowers can bloom and which can continue to be enjoyed by re-creational users, while keeping a 30m safety clearance between the fynbos and the river – which is enjoyed by not only dogs and horses but also the children from Westlake Village.

SANParks and Dr Rebello need to heed this warning before another life is taken.

* Paddy Gordon, Table Mountain National Park manager, responds:

The Table Mountain Rangers and Visitor Safety Rangers patrol all areas of the park that have a safety risk. Due to the open access nature of the park, the chal-lenge will always be vast. Also, crime is displaced as soon as the rangers focus their attention onto an area of crime risk. TMNP will not prevent private security companies from pa-trolling parts of the national park. In fact, we welcome all forms of co-operation that will boost the security presence. The only time we would prevent access to a security company is if they wish to drive on park management tracks where there are children and dogs at risk.

With regards to what a ranger was overheard saying, this is a ri-diculous accusation, as the national park is covered in fynbos, even more so after years of alien clearing that has stimulated the return of fynbos in many areas of the park. The park has an extensive footpath network that allows rangers, and park users, access to almost all parts of the park and its wonderful fynbos ve-getation.

On the next point, the writer is actually referring to the Activity Permit, as the Wild Card represents a huge saving to the holder to gain free access to many national parks across the country. The Heads of Agreement is the main agreement between SANParks and the City that describes conditions of managing the City land that is incorporated in the national park. One clause specifies that SANParks may not introduce new pay points without con-sulting the City. In line with this, all areas of the park (City land) that were free access before, remain free access still. Walkers, runners, and hikers continue to enjoy free access as many times as they wish. The Protected Area legis-lation, however, dis-tinguishes and prohibits the bringing of dogs, bicycles, horses, and such additional activities into a national park without environmental provisions. In order to allow this, a permit system was designed to regulate, mitigate impact and communicate optimal codes of conduct for users. Such park user numbers run into tens of thousands, and without management, the sustainability of their activity cannot be ensured.

The Table Mountain Visitor Safety Pro-gramme alone costs SANParks about R12 million a year. This excludes other rangers and employment pro-grammes that invest in safe footpaths, gateways and tourism facilities. Upgrades of outdated infrastructure used by Cape Town citizens and visitors to Cape Town are being upgraded to the cost of tens of millions of rand. The park is an implemen-tation agent of the government job creation programmes and about R35 million a year is allocated in the Table Mountain National Park. All park staff are exceptionally saddened and shocked at the untimely death of Franziska Blöchliger, but one cannot link this horror incident to fynbos.

Once again, the park covered in fynbos, receives four million visits a year. Tourists and recreational users frequent all parts of the national park. Restoring the vegetation type to its most natural state is a prime objective of a national park.

If it is not returned to fynbos, it might be excluded from the park and be subject to other land uses – including housing.

The statement that fynbos not only provides ideal hiding placesbut i also brings with it the risk of fire and snakes, is ignorant of the fact that hundreds of millions of rand were spent on alien clearing along the peninsula since it was proclaimed a national park. The peninsula mountain chain was covered in invasive plants such as the very bushy wattles and hakea that were indeed more than head high.

Anyone that had anything to do with the extensive fires during March last year, will testify to the fact that fires in fynbos were much easier to bring under control, than fires in alien vegetation. Once the fire descended into the Tokai pine plantation, it was unstoppable. Much more intense, much more fuel, and much more destructive.

The release of snakes in Tokai is an urban legend related to the ex forester, who released one or two snakes in Tokai many years ago. As long as there are rodents and frogs in the mountain, there will be puff adders (and Cape cobras). Puff adders are an integral part of the national park’s ecosystem – the same ecosystem that keeps the mountain in a healthy state allowing 4 million visitors to enjoy it. I trust that writer is not requesting that SANParks remove parts of the ecosystem.

SANParks have tried to explain in the past that the pines in both Tokai and Cecelia belong to a commercial timber company called MTO (Mountains to Oceans). The harvesting plan to 2024 was completely jeopardised by the March 2015 fire. The fire either killed most of the trees, or made them susceptible to disease after the winter rains. The request to harvest and salvage the timber came from MTO due to their experience of the effect of fire on pine timber. Dr Rebello has no role in the pine harvesting plan, but is a leading conservation scientist who advises park management on restoration programmes.

On the last point, the park’s interventions at lower Tokai were designed to take all of these concerns into account. A trail was developed that was intended to be shaded, user-friendly and safe, while still allowing for the restoration of fynbos and indigenous trees. The safety of users is a high priority to SANParks.