Rings of death

Some of the 200 mature trees in a grove in the middle of Tokai Park have been ring barked.

There is a grove of trees in the middle of Tokai Park. It’s a peaceful spot, where leaves rustle in the breeze and bees and birds buzz. If you listen carefully, you might hear trees dying.

“It’s a sad sight,” says Nicky Schmidt, an administrator of Parkscape’s Facebook page. This community-focused, non-profit organisation was formed in March 2016 following the rape and murder of Franziska Blöchliger in Tokai Park.

Pictures of ring-barked mature trees posted by Parkscape recently created much distress: “Despite being aware that this area was due for alien clearing, it is nevertheless deeply saddening to see the destruction recently undertaken of this grove of mature trees,” said a message on Parkscape’s Facebook page.

Francois Krige asked the Bulletin to investigate. He lives in Bardskeedersbos and has worked at Platbos Forest Reserve. He asked if this was conservation in action.Parkscape also raised concern about piles of slash (coarse and fine woody debris) piled around trees which they say pose a massive fire hazard.

Parkscape recently won two court cases against SANParks after it tried to fast-track felling of pines in the Dennedal compartment in the lower Tokai plantation (“Tokai pines to stay – for now,” Bulletin June 7).

Ring-barking, also called girdling or frilling, is the complete removal of a band of bark with phloem and cambium tissue, which prevents food being transported from leaves to the root, eventually killing the tree.

It is favoured over felling and herbicide for trees that can produce strong root sprouts, or suckers, to stop them coppicing, according to ecologist and chairman of the Friends of Tokai Park, Dr Tony Rebelo.

The exact location of the trees in Parkscape’s post was vague. The mountain backdrop was not clear and could have been anywhere on the slopes of Table Mountain National Park (TMNP).

On investigation, from a parking area on Orpen Road, following a dirt track in the direction of Constantiaberg, the Bulletin came across a fence with signs saying: “Area closed for rehabilitation”. Beyond this, we found the grove of about 200 trees, most of them mature, that had been ring barked and or poisoned.

This grove and the fence extend to the picnic site entered from Tokai Main Road.

Ecologist Dr Alanna Rebelo, also of Friends of Tokai Park, said the clearing of the trees was part of the Tokai Cecilia Management Framework 2005 to 2025.

“This method is used to kill and dry the trees and to keep the fuel load off the ground to minimise the summer fire hazard until the area is ready to burn in autumn, when the trees will be felled and the alien underbrush piles spread out for the restoration burn.”

Dr Rebelo said the framework was not something the Friends supported in general. She said the grove was in one of the last of the SANParks blocks (A10e hardwood block) to be restored to the most threatened and endangered species of all the veld types in southern Africa: Cape Flats Sandy Fynbos.

Only half the block was being removed for wetland and fynbos restoration.

The other half (block A10d) had been included in the Tokai picnic site.

Dr Rebelo said SANParks had spent a lot of money on benches, tables, and braai areas at the picnic site, but it was barely used.

She said the trees – assorted oaks, yellowwoods, gums, camphors, oleas and paper barks – had been planted in 1969 as an experiment in wood types and growth rates.

Dr Rebelo said conservation and restoration was a national and international priority that southern Africa had committed to.

“We are in 2018 and less than 3% of this sand fynbos which once covered all of the Cape Flats is restored. With the threat of climate change, it’s crucial that every restorable area is restored as soon as possible.”

SANParks spokesperson Janine Raftopoulos said they were restoring the ecological corridor and re-establishing the largest surviving pocket of Cape Flats Sand Fynbos left in South Africa.

She said ring-barking and cutting had happened several times since 2005.

Another Friend of Tokai Park, Dr Berta van Rooyen, who has done extensive research into the history of the area, said SANParks’s ring-barking of the trees was perfectly legal. The trees were under 60 years old, not endemic to the area and were growing in a wetland.

The channel (on the southern edge of the grove) is man-made and part of a huge wetland called Buffelsvlei, previously name Buffelskraal, used to collect reeds for building purposes since the early 1670s.

SANParks was asked what value the trees had and what would happen to them. It did not respond.