Words and Pictures: Andrea Abbott
Here in KZN, if you listen carefully, you might hear Nature sigh in relief as drenching spring rains break the strangling winter drought. Wherever you look, greenness, new growth, and joyous wildlife respond in concert to the ancient rhythm of regeneration. It’s a comforting tableau of normalcy. And yet, we no longer live in normal times but in an era of crisis; of climate change, zoonotic diseases, loss of biodiversity and collapsing ecosystems. Most people are surely aware of the dire straits we’re in but still, we hurtle towards the point of no return. As Sir David Attenborough warned recently, “Our natural world is under greater pressure now than at any time in human history, and the future of the entire planet – on which every single one of us depends – is in grave jeopardy.”
You’d think world leaders would respond with urgency to the catastrophe but some ̶ like those who sanction destructive activities in protected areas, or deny that climate change is real, or insist that fossil fuels are clean and green ̶ brush it aside as if it’s a hoax or as if they have all the time in the world to get things fixed.
But we don’t have time. If we want our world to survive, we ordinary folk need to roll up our sleeves and get to work. You might ask, though, what one person can achieve. Well, how about planting a forest, like the visionary Jadav Payeng did?
Or you could take a leaf out of the book of the passionately humane Sarah Scott who is on a mission to reforest the slopes of Kilimanjaro.
Forests, most of us know, are the lungs of the world while also serving the planet in many other ways. Says renowned biochemist and botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger, “The forest is the mantle of our planet. It is the health and well-being of our children and grandchildren. It is our sacred home. It is our salvation.”
Forests are just one part of the biodiversity picture. Far less celebrated but as important as forests, is the grassland biome. Rich in species, some of which are threatened and endemic, grasslands anchor soils and thus prevent erosion; they’re an excellent carbon sink too – most grassland biomass is below ground making soil carbon levels extremely high in grasslands; and they often contain wetlands that are strategic water sources.
Then there are the flowers – a succession of exquisiteness that begins in spring and, depending on the location, continues through to autumn with some even putting on a winter show.
In South Africa, the Grassland Biome is found chiefly on the high central plateau and the inland area of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape and is said to be second only to the Fynbos biome in terms of biodiversity. It’s worth noting too that only one in every six plant species in grasslands is grass.
Given the credentials of grasslands, it’s almost incomprehensible that they’re among the most threatened biomes on earth. In our country, 30% of grasslands have been irreversibly transformed and a mere 2% are formally protected.
Their accessibility and the misguided perception that they are merely open spaces with limited ecological value make them prime targets for human activities like coal mining, agriculture, commercial plantations, and urban sprawl. They also fall victim to overgrazing and woody encroachment.
So, like forests, grasslands need heroes: heroes like Robyn McGillivray who has restored a large expanse of critically endangered Midlands Mistbelt Grassland on the family farm in Karkloof in the KZN Midlands.
Robyn’s project began almost accidentally about ten years ago when, appalled by the number of snares on the site, she began clearing invasive alien plants to improve visibility so that poachers couldn’t move about unseen. At that stage she knew nothing about grasslands or indigenous flora but as the clearing progressed, she was astonished to see the number and variety of wild flowers that started emerging. Among them were orchids, gladiolus species, watsonias, pink and white gerbera, helichrysums of many types, wahlenbergias, pelargoniums, wild fuschias, ledebourias and scores more.
Conservationists who visited the site were similarly astounded at the wonderland it had become and their interest sparked the idea for regular walks on the restored land. One of many spinoffs from those walks, Robyn says, is that the regular presence of people deters poachers. “I can’t remember when last I saw a snare here.”
In another part of KZN, Everton in the Outer West of eThekwini, members of the conservancy rescued a degraded grassland that belonged to a government department. Unloved and unvalued, it was where thieves stashed stolen goods, a sawmill operator carved out a road to give trucks easy access to his property, and mattresses hidden in the overgrowth hinted that the site was the local red light district. With bramble, lantana, bugweed, and other invasive plants stifling the property, it was a tangled mess and the job of clearing the noxious weeds wasn’t easy. But gradually, as the work progressed, out of the proverbial ashes emerged a KZN Sandstone Sourveld grassland, also a critically endangered type.
In this case, it is the last fragment of a previously vast area of grassland that has been transformed over the decades into lawns and gardens planted with trees and exotic flora. Now rehabilitated, this little grassland jewel is a window to what the wider area once would have looked like.
Among the special flora that occur there are the dramatic Boophone disticha that flowers in response to fire, gorgeous orchids like various Eulophia and Disa species and the robust-looking Hypoxis colchicifolia that, favoured by practitioners of traditional medicine, is becoming harder to find in the wild.
Here too are chameleons, birds, butterflies and countless other invertebrates that favour a grassland habitat.
The ecological importance of the site is such that the municipality has acquired it from the provincial government and included it in the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System (D’Moss). Had it not been for a handful of ordinary heroes though, that last grassland would certainly have been deemed a wasteland and ultimately carved up for development.
What a difference a few citizens can make!
If you missed the Namaqualand flowers this year and are suffering from FOMO why not head to KZN and explore some of the grasslands that are open to the public? Flowering is especially rewarding after controlled burns – some species respond within a few of weeks, while others wait for the first rains to fall – so before you go, you might want to check if the sites underwent a burn in winter.
- The Drakensberg boasts superb alpine grasslands in nature reserves or private resorts like The Cavern. Sani Pass is also a treat for flower-loving hikers. The best flowering in this region tends to be in summer.
- The uMngeni Valley Nature Reserve in Howick contains large expanses of Midlands Mistbelt grassland. 1 Karkloof Road, Howick. Tel: 087 460 0600
- Springside Nature Reserve in Hillcrest includes a fine stretch of Sandstone Sourveld Grassland
- Krantskloof Nature Reserve in Kloof contains superb grasslands set against a dramatically scenic backdrop.
- Umtamvuna Nature Reserve on the lower South Coast is a botanical paradise where you can find more than 1 400 flowering species including many endemics. 039 313 2383
- Also in southern KZN is Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve whose coastal grasslands are a feast for of wild flora in a good season.
- North of Durban, iSimangaliso Wetland Park stretches from Mapelane in the south to Kosi Bay in the north, a huge area of Maputaland. This well-managed, immensely biodiverse World Heritage Site has more than 2 000 seed plants, of which 65 are orchid species.
Thank you to Peter Ucko for casting his keen editorial eye over this feature.