Saving South Africa's Floral Heritage

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
for National Geographic News
February 8, 2005

Climate change, sprawl, and alien-species invasion are threatening South Africa's fynbos, the main vegetation type of the smallest, yet richest, of the world's six floral kingdoms.

Now conservationists are using data gathered by hundreds of volunteers in a long-term effort to save the fynbos, which includes South Africa's spectacular flowering proteas.

Proteas are the poster species for fynbos (pronounced fane-boss). They are indigenous evergreen shrubs with large showy flower heads prized by florists and plant collectors all over the world. The king protea is South Africa's national flower (see photograph at lower right).

Saving the fynbos and its proteas also has profound economic implications. South Africa produces half the world's cut-flower proteas, and the industry employs 25,000 people, a significant job pool in a country suffering severe unemployment. The fynbos covers the mountains in and around Cape Town, and its spectacular floral display in different seasons is itself a tourist attraction.

South African protea species are cultivated commercially in Australia, France, Spain, and the United States. But nurseries don't grow the most endangered species, which are not commercially viable. To save these proteas from extinction—and to protect their more famous cut-flower species in the wild—all fynbos plants must be protected. That's because the endangered and nonendangered fynboss varieties grow in the same areas.

A long-term research initiative using volunteers to collect data on the fynbos's flowering proteas is providing researchers with crucial information that would be hard to find otherwise.

Nearly a thousand volunteers from all walks of life participated in the first phase of the Protea Atlas Project (PAP). Once trained in identification techniques, the volunteers collected information on pollination, growth, flowering patterns, fire survival, the effects of harvesting, and the impact of invasive species.

The project, which began in 1991, is being hailed as a model for scientific data gathering. At the same time it is lauded for promoting community involvement and engendering a conservation ethic.

"Climate-change research requires accurate information on the distribution of species, and the data provided by the Protea Atlas Project was central to our study," said Guy Midgley, head of the Climate Change Research Group for South Africa's National Biodiversity Institute (NBI). "Without it we could not have got anywhere. It is a fabulous model, with enormous potential for scientific research throughout the world."

Findings from the NBI study were used in a 2004 report from Conservation International's Centre for Applied Biodiversity Science. The report suggested that more than a million plant species could become extinct by 2050—including many protea species found only in South Africa.

Flowers of the Fynbos

Botanists divide the continents into six plant kingdoms. The Cape floristic (also known as the Cape floral) kingdom is the smallest but contains the highest known concentration of plant species in the world. Located along the southern tip of Africa, the region's main vegetation type is fynbos, a collection of evergreens, shrubs, and small plants with tough, fine leaves, and reeds.

Continued on Next Page >>


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