Our floral heritage needs protection

Protea scolymocephala.

Humans have lived at the Cape for a long time. Recent research suggests that humans nearly went extinct about 100 000 years ago, but a small population of about 9 000 survived on the south coast of South Africa, living on the resources of the Cape. All modern humans are descended from this little band: the African Eve.

The Cape has also been crucial for the survival of our plants and animals. The Cape Floral Kingdom is the smallest and richest plant kingdom in the world. The Cape Peninsula, in particular, is exceptionally species-rich, with about 2 500 species. It is a biodiversity hot spot with many endemic species that cannot be conserved anywhere else on earth.

The Cape Peninsula has therefore been proclaimed a World Heritage Site. The areas most affected by change are the lowlands such as the Cape Flats, especially the sand fynbos – once the most widespread veld type in the city. A few gems remain: Rondebosch Common with its wonderful spring bulb and annual displays; the Racecourses of Kenilworth, Milnerton and Durbanville still containing pockets of what once occurred over the Cape Flats. Together these conserve only 0.5 percent of the original area of Cape Flats Sand Fynbos. In the north, the Blaauwberg Nature Reserve conserves heavily alien-invaded sand fynbos, but enough survives to allow the area to be restored.

Imagine the surprise of conservation planners when a little fire in 1998 at the Tokai plantation resulted in the emergence, phoenix-style, of several threatened plant species thought to be extinct in the area since the 1950s. Fynbos seedbanks had survived under the pines, and Tokai became one of the top biodiversity conservation priorities in Cape Town. Since 2005, as compartments were harvested, re-storation has been under way using fire to stimulate seed germination. Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden is assisting with restoration of some of the lost species.

By chance the Tokai area has another legacy unparalleled on the African continent. Around 1910, a leading spider authority, William Purcell retired to his family farm, Bergvliet, for convalescence. In the three years before his death, he recorded and collected all the plants on the farm – some 600 indigenous species, mainly from Cape Flats Sand Fynbos. That is a staggering quarter of all the species on the Cape Peninsula. Prominent among these are the suurings (Oxalis), heaths, ragworts (Sene-cio), tulips (Moraea), stone-crops (Crassula), Afrikaaners (Gladiolus), everlastings (Helichrysum) and geraniums (Pelargonium) – all of which have more than 10 species recorded.

Our Mother City has 13 plant species extinct, and 320 threatened with extinction. There are only six countries that have more threatened plants than Cape Town. The Mother City is the extinction capital of the world. Over one third of these species, live in the Cape Flats Sand Fynbos. It is more than plants: seven species of amphibians are threatened with extinction, including the leopard toad, microfrog (at Kenilworth), and rain frog. Reserves such as Tokai Park are their last refuge on earth.

The wheel has turned. Humans are no longer critically endangered. But the bulbs and other species that sustained us through our darkest hours are now under threat. Our generation has to make the decisions that will save these species or consign them to the dustbin of extinction.

Future generations will un-doubtable hold us responsible for our decision. Once they are gone, it is forever. It is now our turn to help save our Mother Flora.