Conservation Biology

Monday, August 28, 2006


I recently attended the Fynbos Forum held at Goudini Spa near Rawsonville (09–11 August 2006). This is an annual conference where researchers, students, planners, managers, landowners and other stakeholders get together to present and discuss research results and management issues and also to formulate priorities for future research and conservation actions required to ensure the conservation and sustainability of the fynbos ecosystems.

I attended a wide variety of presentations, many of them with a fair amount of “doom and gloom” of what the future may hold for fynbos. Here is a summary of two topics I found interesting and that conveyed some message of hope for the future…


Fire was a topic covered by several presentations as well as by a workshop. Two presentations covered fire in the Outeniqua Nature Reserve. Firstly Anne Lise Schutte-Vlok presented a fire history analysis of the Outeniqua Nature Reserve. All possible records of fires in the reserve from 1930 until present produced a result of over 300 fires for the Outeniqua Nature Reserve and adjacent areas during this 76 year time span. All available data on where the fires occurred and the extent of each fire was recorded and electronically captured using ArcView GIS. All available post-fire data as well as permanent Protea monitoring plot data that had been collected for the reserve was used to evaluate the risk of too frequent fires, the affect of out of season fires, fire intensity and fire size. An analysis of the fire history was then done using all of the above information.

It was found that some areas of the reserve had had far too frequent fires and that post-fire recruitment of many reseeding Protea species in those areas was either non-existent or very poor. The reason for this is because many Protea species have a relative long juvenile period. Some may take as long as 8-10 years before they set seeds for the first time. Should a fire thus return to such an area before these plants have matured, entire populations could thus be wiped out. According to Anne Lise this has now happened and careful monitoring will now be required to see if recruitment from neighbouring sites may take place over time. Should this not happen, active restoration work might well be needed.

A second presentation by the current manager of the reserve (Paul Buchholz) highlighted the importance of an integrated approach to manage and maintain the diversity of the reserve. He also pointed out the difficulties of managing such a reserve that borders onto urban areas, plantations and other developed landscapes. Since fire is an essential part of the ecology of the fynbos biome a balance between competing fire management objectives needs to be found. Such a balance can however only be achieved (if at all!) “through a better understanding of the role of fire in the ecosystem, the legal requirements to protection of life and property and the resources available for protected area management”.

To develop an integrated fynbos fire management program, managers now need to use all resources available, including making use of a GIS to map areas that have recently burnt and those that need burning. Through such tools maps with all the different “ages” of the veld can be produced that can help managers integrate this knowledge into objective management plans. These fire management programs need to be updated regularly but also need to be flexible enough to integrate new knowledge as it becomes available.

It seems clear that the more human activities encroach on natural environments, the more active management of such natural environments will be needed to help sustain the biodiversity of those areas. More research to achieve a better understanding of how ecosystems function and how plant communities and species respond to certain stresses is essential for managers to integrate this knowledge into their overall management programs for reserves.

I found this presentation positive in the sense that such a scientific approach is taken on the management of this reserve!


Jan Vlok gave a very enlightening talk on how important information sharing has become if we want to make sure that future decisions regarding biodiversity at all levels are well informed and sound. He pointed out that a lot of research has been done about fynbos ecosystems over the past 20 years but very little of that knowledge has been passed down to the end-users, that is the farmers that ultimately manage huge tracts of lands including the fragments of natural vegetation on their farms, consultants that do impact assessments, government agencies that are responsible for approving developments…

One such “passing down of information” in the form of a book of guidelines has recently seen the light. The Ecosystem Guidelines for Environmental Assessment in the Western Cape was commissioned by the Fynbos Forum. This has been a comprehensive and collaborative effort to produce a user friendly guide that focuses on “planning for persistence”. Accumulated field experience and specialist knowledge has been turned into decisive guidelines for affective action for biodiversity conservation in the Western Cape.

Richard Cowling said in his foreword to these guidelines that: “Making the transition to sustainable lifestyles is going to be a hard slog. But we must start now – and this document is, indeed, a great start.”

I surely do hope that this document will be widely used by all those for whom it was intended and that it will make a positive difference in future planning decisions from farmers up to government agencies.

Viva fynbos, viva!

Karen Marais
BCB Hons NISL student
University of the Western Cape
Private Bag X17