Invasive Weed Threatens South Africa Rhino Sanctuary

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
for National Geographic News
September 16, 2005

South Africa's oldest nature reserve is threatened by an alien invasion so fierce that environmentalists now fear for the renowned park's future.

Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park has won world acclaim for its rhinoceros rehabilitation program, which brought the white rhino back from the brink of extinction and may do the same for the even more endangered black rhino.

But the park is being overrun by triffid weed (Chromolaena odorata), an invasive species from Central America. The plant spreads at such a rate—smothering indigenous vegetation and driving off animals—that it was named after the carnivorous plants from the 1951 sci-fi novel The Day of the Triffids.

Guy Preston, head of South Africa's anti-invasive program, says the weed's infestation could be catastrophic.

"The animals don't eat it, and if [it is] allowed to take over, they will leave," he said. "This will be the end of the world's third oldest park and with it will go about 3,000 jobs and millions in income for the region and the country."

"Like a Cancer"

The weed has already jumped from South Africa into Mozambique and Swaziland. It poses a growing threat to these countries, which lack the resources to fight the invasive plant.

The premier of South Africa's KwaZulu Natal province, home to the 237,216-acre (96,000-hectare) Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, has warned that triffid weed could destroy more of the region's parks and cripple the agricultural economy.

Triffid weed was unwittingly introduced to South Africa in the 1940s amid horse feed shipped from Central America.

"They are like a cancer," Preston said, speaking of the plant and other invasive species. "Mostly their big danger is that by the time you notice their spread it is out of hand."

Preston leads Working for Water, a government program that combines invasive plant eradication with job creation. Former South Africa President Nelson Mandela is the program's patron-in-chief.

The eradication project is now creating about 33,000 jobs a year, a boon to participating local communities in a country where unemployment and poverty remain formidable problems.

Continued on Next Page >>


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