Tokai Park debate

An arum lily frog explores a whorl heath in Tokai Park.

A heated discussion about the future of Tokai Park took place at the Alphen Centre on Wednesday July 20.

Botanists and dozens of residents who packed the hall were looking for solutions to the safety versus conservation debate that has erupted since the murder of Franziska Blochliger (“Franziska remembered,” Bulletin March 10). Franziska was raped and killed in Tokai Forest and her body was found among densely growing fynbos.

On the one side of the debate there is Parkscape, a public organisation that wants to preserve Tokai Park’s recreational use and ensure public interest isn’t ignored. On the other there are botanists and representatives from SANParks and CapeNature who say Tokai is one of the few places left where Cape Flats Sand Fynbos rehabilitation can take place.

Giving a PowerPoint presentation at the centre, Parkscape’s Nicky Schmidt said: “The founding nature of the park – one focused on the public’s interest – has been lost. The park’s primary objective is not people but biodiversity and revenue.”

Parkscape also wanted answers from SANParks on whether the Tokai Cecilia Management Framework would still be adhered to after the early exit of Mountains to Oceans (MTO) Forestry.

According to the framework, MTO was given the rights to harvest the park’s 600 hectares of pine plantations over 20 years. Parkscape said the 2015 fires had made that plan uneconomical for MTO so they would now complete the felling ahead of their new exit date in 2018 – seven years earlier than originally planned.

As part of the framework, deforested “transition areas” are rehabilitated with indigenous fynbos, some of which is critically endangered. After the fynbos has sufficiently reseeded, which can take up to a decade, it is replaced with “non-invasive exotic shade trees”. The concern now is what will happen in the “transition areas”.

At the meeting, Gavin Bell, the southern area manager for SANParks, said the framework would remain in place.

In an email to the Bulletin SANParks’ Merle Collins explained: “The decision to phase out commercial plantations on the peninsula was not made by SANParks but by the government in 1999,” said Ms Collins.

The trees are not being removed as part of an alien clearing programme; they are being harvested on a commercial basis.

“Tokai (and Cecilia) are commercial plantations established to provide timber. Furthermore, the trees are not being harvested by SANParks but by a private company, MTO Forestry, which was awarded the public tender by the then Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) in 2004 for the trees.

“As part of the tender process, MTO Forestry purchased the trees from government and has a 20-year lease with DWAF, in terms of which they harvest the plantation trees. This is a contractually binding, irreversible legal commitment. The clear felling of the plantation compartments is continuing in terms of the MTO and Department of Forestry lease for Tokai and Cecilia plantations and once the trees in a compartment are harvested by MTO Forestry, that land is then transferred to SANParks management as part of Table Mountain National Park (TMNP).”

The questions about how to curb the height of the fynbos, keeping the areas where it is growing safer for the public and controlled burns, were not as easily answered.

In the presentation, Ms Schmidt showed slides of what had been found among the fynbos – broken beer bottles, cigarette butts and drug baggies. Ms Schmidt said Parkscape had repeatedly tried to get hold of SANParks to discuss the public’s concerns but had not had any response.

Rupert Koopman, a botanist at Cape Nature, with specific emphasis on fynbos ecology and plant species in the Western Cape, said: “Actually we are all green people.”

He said that only about five percent of Cape Flats Sand Fynbos, which was once a dominant plant species in the Western Cape, was still surviving. At the time when the Tokai Cecilia Framework was created the fynbos’s levels were at 20 percent. Now it was five percent. He said the fynbos’s height would level out once the nutrient density of the soil levels dropped.

“Healthy sand fynbos does not grow to three metres tall,” he said.

In response to comments that Tokai is also a residential area, Mr Koopman said: “The fact is, we allowed the urban edge to go into the fynbos.”

Mr Bell said fire was the only legal way to keep fynbos density under control because the National Environmental Management Act (Nema) protected fynbos from pruning.

Anthony Hitchcock, the threatened-species manager at Kirstenbosch, said it could take up to 60 years before the nutrient load levelled out.

“The veld at Tokai will have a relatively high nutrient load after 30 to 60 years without fire and because it was a commercial pine plantation. Future fires will ablate the nitrogen, and the other nutrients usually get leached by the rains. So the current fynbos is higher in nutrients following the pines, but with time, as the nutrient levels equilibrate within a fynbos system, the vegetation structure will become more typical. This will take two to three fire cycles, so 20 to 30 years.

“Crucial though is that the upslope river system and water table does not become polluted with fertiliser and septic tank run-off, so the natural connection up to the mountain is crucial.”

In the meantime, while the fynbos rehabilitates, Parkscape would like:

Blob Visible patrolling and security in the area.

Blob Better education of the public about safety.

Blob The involvement of neighbourhood watches working with Table Mountain Watch, SANParks, City law enforcement and police.

Blob Greater visibility in the area – which can be achieved with tall stemmed trees, lower-growing fynbos, grasslands and much wider paths .

Ms Schmidt said improved fire breaks were needed and it was unacceptable to bring fynbos, with it concomitant fire risk right to the urban edge. “Aside from the danger to property, there are associated health risks from smoke inhalation,” she said.

She added: “SANParks in the new management plan indicate that the Tokai Cecilia Management Framework needs to be reviewed, and therefore the above needs to be discussed in the consultation and public participation processes, and then included in a revised management framework for the area. This consultation and public participation process should take place as soon as possible and before the remaining section of the plantation is felled.”

The only dissenting botanic voice in the fray was Prof Eugene Moll.

“It’s time the penny dropped,” he said. “People have a space on this planet as well. The Cape Flats used to be covered in fynbos but we are not going to get it back. You can’t turn the clock back.”

Mr Hitchcock disagreed and countered: “It all amounts to our moral, value system. What right do we have to knowingly cause extinction of species, whether they be animals such as rhinos or plants? If we do not place any value on nature and its ecosystems then what values do we have?”

Side bar:

The Constantiaberg Bulletin asked Dr Pat Holmes of the South African National Biodiversity Institute why the rehabilitation taking place at Tokai is so important:

She replied: “There are already 49 species of plants locally extinct, with 13 plant species globally extinct in the City of Cape Town area – the greatest number for any City in the world.

“Already since 1997 the significance of Tokai has rocketed. The national target for Cape Flats Sand Fynbos is 30 percent. The amount left has declined from 20 percent in the 1980s to 14 percent in 2000 to 13 percent in 2016. But the veld in good or fair condition (including Tokai) is less than five percent. Tokai Park – below or east of the picnic site accounts for 20 percent of remaining fair condition veld and is one of only two ‘ecologically viable reserves’ (reserves that in theory are sustainable in the long term without excessive management owing to larger size and connectivity).

“We don’t know how many species will self-restore from the seedbanks until the entire area is cleared and burned. Already we have almost 340 indigenous species recorded. Tokai is unique in that we have a complete inventory of plants collected by William Purcell from the adjacent Bergvliet farm between 1917 and 1919. He recorded over 700 species of plants: so we are almost half way there which is mind boggling as Tokai is a smaller area. Our best scenarios for restoration envisaged about 250 species over the entire area.

“Most of the restoration is passive – the plants came from the seed bank. We have only actively introduced about 25 species: these include species extinct in the wild such as the Whorl Heath (Erica verticillata), species that are critically endangered such as the Rondevlei Spiderhead that was saved from the last plant on earth, some resprouters which have very small seed banks such as the Wynberg Spiderhead, and some species with aerial seed banks (stored in fireproof cones) that don’t have soil-stored seeds.

“Our problem though is that some of these species are surviving as just a handful of plants. We need to allow them to establish minimum viable populations, which is typically 2 000 to 10 000 plants – otherwise they will be vulnerable to extinction for demographic reasons (small populations are susceptible to diseases, disasters and impacts such as picking).

“If we lose Lower Tokai, this will mean losing one fifth of the area of Cape Flats Sand Fynbos under conservation and many species that are confined to this veld type. And it is not just plants: birds, beetles and goggos and other animals such as chameleons are also returning. A species of Monkey Beetle only ever seen once before in the 1940s has appeared on the Witskollie Sugarbushes at Tokai. Slowly the birds and rodents and insects are returning. The entire ecosystem is re-establishing.

“Humans have destroyed and damaged over 95 percent of Cape Flats Sand Fynbos, more than half of this in the last 50 years: in our lifetime. Tokai has gone from being an insignificant plantation to the hope and salvation of hundreds of fynbos species that used to occur over much of the Cape Flats from Zandvlei to Somerset West, to Kraaifontein and Philadelphia. Tokai is the last stand for many.”