Conservation Biology

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Hi Everyone

I attended a meeting which presented to the staff the concepts behind the new Life Sciences building. Much of this presentation was about building efficiency and flexibility of design. The issue that the new building is of an International design of glass and wavy roof at least conceptually and operationally has been inspired by buildings at the University of Queensland. The building is intentionally very modern, and for Middle East Airports and Conference Centres they look great, but personally I think clasical and individual designs are more suitable for Universities. When I visited Germany and the quaint gothic town of Marburg I was appalled that their University could build such a hideous edifice of glass. I am not saying that this building is hideous, it mostly certainly is not, but whether people will really take notice of another airport-like building along M10, I really doubt. The BCB department will occupy the first floor and the roof above the computer labs will be where the plants can be kept on the roof. We have already lost one major computer server through a roof leak - this does not sound very practical to me.

I raised the issue about the need for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as per the new regulations. I was assurred the university have passed the documents concerning the new EIA to our law faculty for guidance. Exactly what does this mean? Is UWC looking for a loophole to avoid having to undertake an IEM, I really do not know? For UWC to gain respect nationally and internationally, it needs to be a socially responsible institution, promoting democracy, and to have concerns for people and the environment while maintaining high educational standards. The quality of the university is the quality of its staff, the quality of the students it produces, its engagement with society, rather than having modern buildings of glass.

For the rest of this posting I will indicate exactly why this site is so sensitive. I got Dr Pat Holmes from the City of Cape Town to check this out.

1) The Cape Town Environs have the highest species extinction rates in the world due to loss of natural habitat.

2) The Cape Town Lowlands (including the Cape Flats) have high species richness, uniqueness and as you move across the landscape a high turnover of species. The world's total population of species can literally be contained with a few hectares.

3) The closest similar Cape Flats Sandplain Fynbos vegetation has been lost over the last few years (e.g. Century City) and this has increased the relative conservation value of this particular remnant.

4) The vegetation removed to make way for this building was classified by CCT Biodiversity Strategy as Cape Flats Sandplain Fynbos - of which there is very little left in good condition and only 1% is conserved, well under the 10% required under IUCN and Convention on Biodiversity to which South Africa is a signatory. There is to little tyo meet conservation targets and is defined as irreplaceable.

5) The Sandplain Fynbos vegetation types are the second most critically endangered vegetation type group within the world famous Cape Floral Region - an area that has biodiversity packing that is about the highest in the world.

6) Sandplain Fynbos vegetation types occurs on an acidic, low nutrient substrate, making it sensitive to any nutrient runoff and to any construction employing concrete (it will make it alkaline).

7) The Cape Flats vegetation on UWC Campus was identified as far back as 1987 as one of the top ten most important floral sites for conservation in a study undertaken by the Botanical Society.

8) The site represents a gradient from Coastal (Dune) Thicket to Sandplain Fynbos (referred to as an Ecotone) making it one of only two remnants of natural vegetation left in Cape Town.

9) The conservation plight of the Cape Lowlands has achieved huge global coverage (e.g. David Attenborough in his documentaries on the State of the Planet - used the Cape Lowland Fynbos to illustrate species extinction through loss of habitat.

10) Sandplain Fynbos vegetation is virtually impossible to re-establish as a functional ecosystem since it has a number of edaphic and other conditions (e.g. microrhiza) that makes it impossible to simply transplant adult plants. Harvesting of seed and storing of the top soil are the best methods for re-establishing this type of vegetation after a disturbance - but if the soil nutrient levels are elevated or the pH changed it will be more difficult to restore the ecosystem functionality.

11) The proposed site is very natural and remarkably free of alien grass species, which are usually one of the first signs of increased nutrient and human-disturbance in Sandplain Fynbos.

I have prepared a map showing in Red the sensitive areas, and in Green areas that have little or no ecological value, there is quite a bit of it. If a developer proceeds with developing a sensitive site as identified under the EIA regulations of NEMA the penalties are not particularly high, BUT the court could stop the development and instruct the site to be restored, and that would be expensive. Undertaking an EIA will incur delays in the construction of the building, but realistically, were the University to go the EIA route, there is every chance that the new Life Science Building will be given the green light if the footprint is kept fairly small (the latest plans put it at about 1ha) but a biodiversity offset may be required (probably a financial cost in the region of R1-5 million) to secure another area with similar biodiversity status. What is not in UWC’s favour is the amount of available land that is not ecologically sensitive and that it built the School of Government on another part of sensitive Cape Flats Sandplain Fynbos in the last five years.


  • Hi Richard

    Thanks for all the information. As a student of the BCB (Biodiversity and Conservation Biology) department at the University of the Western Cape, I am rather shocked. It is unacceptable that a part of rare and dwindling habitat, which should be the prize and the concern of the institution whose madate is one of conservation, be squashed. The University is the very institution which should be protecting this valuable piece of natural heritage and portraying the very responsible attitute being taught at the same institution. What sort of message are they portraying? It is OK to change the rules to suite the University? It is hypocrisy and cosmetic, seemingly for the benefit of a few, rather than the majority...

    This is classically depressing. What the University does not understand is that although the new building may portray an outward image of improvement and intellect, this will eventually be overshadowed by the realisation that this superficialism came at the great cost to a dwindling habitat crying out for conservation. The land-mark building alongside the road will become the monument of hypocrisy. All who drive past it will be constantly reminded of its true nature, and the University's reputation will be scarred indefinitely. Would you like to send your kids to a University like this? I certainly would not and will not...for what else can be expected from this lack of ethics?


    By Blogger davidvaughan, at September 07, 2006 12:38 PM  

  • Hi David and Richard

    I am afraid I have to agree with you, David. That building will certainly become a monument of hypocrisy!! "Cheap" make-up at an invaluable cost...


    By Blogger Karen Marais, at September 07, 2006 4:31 PM  

  • Hi Everyone

    Well the Architects have produced a plan that reduces the impact on the Sand Plain Fynbos hugely, by setting it back from Modderdam Road. It will be built in two phases the first phases further away and the second phase will remove the Prefabs opposite us. So it seems that somebody is listening, hopefully the University will adopt this. Actually what is nice is the Sand Plain Fynbos wraps around the building, so actually I am impressed. I have atlong last got to see the plans - actually it is much better that the Artist's impressions - now for the internal planning - I do not have GIS lab so I will have to fight for my space!

    By Blogger Rich Knight, at September 08, 2006 1:43 AM  

  • Unfortunately, UWC is not alone, Stellenbosch built on some Renosterveld and drained the area for some of its private student residences not so long ago. I have restricted my role to ensuring that the information on the biodiversity and environmental legislation has been provided to the University authorities. The Architects were actually far more accommodating than I expected, but they are answerable to the Rectorship of the University who have enlisted the services of the Law faculty as per an email I have received. As I understand it, the final decision resides with Council on this building and its location. The Dean of Science did stated that the University would ensure that all legal matters would be adherred to. The City of Cape Town via Dr Pat Holmes has confirmed many of the points I made in the posting, but has corrected me - that it is recognised as "Cape Flats Sand Plain Fynbos", but there is less than 1% conserved and in Pat's words "is one of the national veg types classified as "critically endangered" and all remaining vegetation is irreplaceable as insufficient remnants remain to meet national conservation targets".

    By Blogger Rich Knight, at September 09, 2006 2:43 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger elelwani, at February 15, 2007 9:56 AM  

  • It is a shock indeed; from the University (UWC) that understands conservation of indigenous species to allow the development in the area consist of rare species to take place. The development is obvious is going to destroy the diversity that the area have. What sorts of message do the university is presenting to the society? Society enrols to the university so that they can understand the way in which nature must be conserve. However, the same institution, which guide the society to conserve and care for the environment are destroying it again. It sounds somehow for the university to fail to take the advice from the department of biodiversity and conservation. The Department that understand the concept of conservation and how the species are threatened. It will show the society that the university are just preaching the term of conservation but it cannot be practised from the same university.

    By Blogger elelwani, at February 15, 2007 9:59 AM  

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