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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.

The Cape floristic region was given international recognition as South Africa's sixth UN World Heritage site in June last year. More than 9,000 plant species make up the region, 6,000 of which are found nowhere else on Earth.

"In a sense, the Cape floristic region has ancient evolutionary roots, with the protea family going back 60 to 70 million years," Midgely said. "However, fynbos as we know it today diversified from about six to eight million years ago. This generally was a cooler period than now, with the result that species like proteas, which evolved under cooler conditions, are being endangered not only by natural warming but also by that being unnaturally added through humankind's doing."

Proteas were chosen as the species to be studied for several reasons, according to Tony Rebelo, a researcher with the NBI who initiated and coordinated the PAP project. The flowers are charismatic and fairly easy to identify. More important, the distribution of protea species is strongly correlated with that of other major plant groups in the region, which makes them good indicators of diversity patterns.

Of the roughly 370 protea species found in South Africa, 350 occur in the Cape floristic kingdom. More than 120 species are currently listed as endangered or threatened by the Red Data Book, an internationally sponsored list of endangered and threatened species.

Fire plays a vital part in the fynbos ecosystem and is essential in the distribution and germination of the plants' seeds. The king protea (Protea cynaroides) releases its seed only when the heat of a fire opens the plant. The seeds fall to the ground and germinate when it rains. The seeds of the pincushion protea (Leucospermum tottum) are buried in the ground by ants, and germinate only when mature plants have been killed by fire.

Spreading the Conservation Ethic

Researchers at NBI, the University of Cape Town, and the University of Connecticut in the U.S. collaborated to use the PAP data to develop a "climate envelope" for each species. They identified necessary factors like soil moisture content and temperature parameters in which each thrives. The data enabled the researchers to project what the impact of a variety of climate-change scenarios might be.

Under the most extreme climate-change scenario, one-third of all fynbos protea species could lose their range completely by the year 2050. Only 5 percent would be likely to retain more than two-thirds of their range. These findings are now being extrapolated to other fynbos species.

The information has also proved helpful in devising conservation strategies. The findings contributed to the Cape Action Plan for the Environment, a systematic conservation plan for the entire Cape floristic region. They are also benefitting efforts to identify and protect species on local mountain ranges as well as remaining fragments of natural vegetation on the Cape Flats, a sprawling, built-up area consisting mainly of low-cost housing.

The PAP data have also proved exceedingly helpful in compiling a new fynbos map. The approximately 250,000 records on about 60,000 localities provided far more detail than has been possible to draw from satellite data, which tends to be distorted by alien vegetation.

The information will also be used to update the World Conservation Union's Red Data List, Rebelo says. The list is called the world's most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of plants and animals.

But perhaps the most important impact of the study was the community involvement. A follow-up survey of volunteers shows that the participants, their immediate families, and their friends gained a better understanding of the fynbos and became more aware of the conservation ethic.

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