South Africa’s ecosystem hangs in the balance, for better or worse

Cape Town – The delicate balance of South Africa’s ecosystem is reaching a tipping point following an increase in biodiversity crimes.

From the smuggling of endangered plant species, to illegal wildlife trade, biodiversity crimes are said to be posing a severe threat to much of South Africa’s unique natural heritage.

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According to CapeNature, over the period of five years, 233 biodiversity criminal dockets were registered and 434 J534s were issued, with cases involving succulent plants seeing an increase of 14 to 66 cases from 2020 to 2022 so far.

The culprits, according to the organisation, are individuals who do research without permits and the rise in syndication, with syndicates funding the travel of recruiters to South Africa to collect certain species of plants or animals.

CapeNature enforcement specialist Paul Gildenhuys said Covid-19 exacerbated the rise in syndication, with the use of local tour guides becoming more common.

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“Succulents and reptiles have been the target species in the Western Cape since the 2019/20 financial year. The illegal collection of large numbers of reptiles and succulents were offenses committed mostly by foreign nationals. They often traveled to South Africa and collected the species themselves; however, in recent years the use of guides to locate flora species/flora tours have increased, where locals were now involved in operations in terms of collecting species.

“Syndicates involved in abalone, elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn are now also involved in the succulent poaching. Recent patterns indicate that Chinese nationals have been identified as the main role-players in succulent poaching,” said Gildenhuys.

SA National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) spokesperson Nontsikelelo Mpulo said that these threats caused unprecedented loss of biodiversity in the world’s richest desert ecosystem as the Succulent Karoo biome shared between South Africa and Namibia was one of five semi-arid biodiversity hot spots in the world, rich in botanical diversity.

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“Many of the Succulent Karoo biome species are desired by specialist plant collectors as thousands of these succulent plant species occupy tiny global ranges and unfortunately, many of these in-demand plant species are not yet available in cultivation at a commercial scale. Social media sites provide the ideal platforms to market succulent plants, fueling a growth in illegal trade resulting in hundreds of species being susceptible to an increased risk of extinction.

“The majority of these species belong to the genus Conophytum, a large and diverse group of dwarf succulents commonly known as ‘buttons’. A total of 97% of the genus is listed in one of the three threatened categories, whilst 45% are listed in the highest category as critically endangered, meaning they are on the brink of extinction. It is very likely that some species have already been poached to extinction in the wild because the number of confiscated poached plants being housed at secure locations for court cases often exceeds the previously estimated total wild population size. Since 2019, 143 (91%) of the 157 previously listed Conophytums have experienced an increase in threat status, with the vast majority as a result of illegal poaching.

“Three species of the iconic aloe quiver trees have been listed as threatened, with the magnificent giant aloe quiver tree, Aloidendron pillansii, listed as critically endangered based on extensive observed die-back over the past decade and future climate models predicting a 90% decline of the population by the year 2080. The most severe drought-related declines are taking place in the Richtersveld/Sperrgebiet parts of the Succulent Karoo biome – a region renowned to be the world’s most biodiverse desert region. With close to 1 000 plant species endemic to this area, hundreds more species are experiencing similar levels of decline linked to the extended drought,” said Mpulo.

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Given the threat, project co-ordinator of Leslie Hill Succulent Karoo Trust with WWF South Africa, Katherine Forsythe, said that promoting partnerships across sectors could help find solutions because by losing unique species and biodiversity, there is a weakened ability of the environment to provide critical ecosystem services for people.

“The introduction of wildlife crime in an area also poses a great risk for the increase in other forms of crime and a breakdown in social cohesion in families and communities. Furthermore, the illegal wildlife trade also undermines the potential for sustainable development, tourism and biodiversity.”

Weekend Argus

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