People come from all over the world to visit the Klein Karoo. Its wide landscapes, solitude and the spiritual calm of the mountainous, dry landscape is a hugely valuable commodity.
The vegetation of the Klein Karoo, and the adjacent coastal plain, includes 4 500 species of plants that occur nowhere else on Earth, over 70% of which has been damaged and needs protection.
To acquire recognition as a hotspot a region must have at least 1 500 species of endemic plants under threat. The Klein Karoo has three internationally recognised biodiversity hotspots– Fynbos, Succulent Karoo and Valley Thicket.
1. Valley Thicket has more trees, shrubs and climbers than the other two hotspots. Dense and thickly packed it is an important migration corridor for wildlife, a good source of food, and a rich population of invertebrates. Farmers use it for their stock resulting in overgrazing, removal of ground cover, erosion and poor recharge of underground water systems.
2. The Succulent Karoo hotspot spreads far beyond the Klein Karoo into the Northern Cape and Namibia. These ‘fat plants’ have the richest diversity of succulent flora in the world, with over 6 000 plants. About half of these are endemic to South Africa. Only 2.5% of the biome is under protection at the moment.
3. Fynbos is the best known of the hotspots. It is made up of shrubby evergreen plants, fine-leafed shrubs and restio reeds that survive in sandy soils on higher ground. It has one of the highest concentrations of plants in the world and the country’s highest concentrations of threatened species.
The Klein Karoo, which falls into the catchment of the Gouritz River system, is also water stressed: rainfall is low, and water catchments and rivers have been degraded. And so the Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve (GCBR) is created.
Established in 2011, this community-based initiative aims to save the Klein Karoo from further damage. At the same time it wants to provide decent livelihoods based on sustainable use of the Klein Karoo’s resources, and also partners with existing nature reserves, and private landowners, to encourage conservation-conscious farming.
1. Land clearing for farming
and 4×4 routes bulldozed through areas can easily wipe out the only population of a particular plant species. A plant’s close relationship with a particular insect means that should the plant die, the insect would soon follow.
2. The honey bee
which pollinates about 80% of the Klein Karoo’s food crops, has an uncertain future.
3. Lichens and mosses
are a living crust that soaks up rain in catchment areas, holding water long enough to percolate into the soil, nourishing plants and recharging aquifers that feed the springs that keep the ground water in lower lands at accessible levels. To ensure a consistent supply of clean water, the living crust needs protection.
4. Ancient fish species
like the indigenous Cape galaxias, live in the Gouritz river. Most of these fish face extinction from alien plants, or alien fish species.
5. When soil is thoughtlessly destroyed
we destroy the habitat of soil communities, like ants, who ceaselessly collect and recycle organic matter, decompose it and mine minerals from deep under ground to produce the nutrients needed to enable the plants above them to grow.
6. Severe loss of biodiversity and erosion
means the soil is stripped of its vital protective cover leaving nothing to hold the soil, which, when it rains, is simply swept downstream – a disaster for the water catchment areas.
7. Flood irrigation
the historical form of watering, uses about 80% of the Klein Karoo’s water. In a region where evaporation is as high as 10 times the rainfall this is not efficient.
8. Much of the land has been cleared for farming
in the southern reaches of the GCBR, upsetting the delicate eco balance that keeps plants healthy.
9. Alien plants
oleander, black wattle, blue gum – are thought to steal as much as 15% of the rainfall in the water-stressed Gouritz region, seriously reducing the flow of the rivers and invading the few functioning wetlands.
10. Many of the rivers of the catchment are silting up
This starves the coastal estuaries.
8 ways the GCBR is saving the Klein Karoo:
1. Controlling the spread of alien vegetation
The government’s Working for Water’ programme (training and work for 3 000 people in the Klein Karoo) is controlling the spread of alien vegetation; the biosphere’s most serious threat, particularly to the fynbos biome. If the Klein Karoo does not get on top of alien vegetation in the next 15 years, any talk of development or economic growth is a waste of time.
2. Rehabilitating wetlands
The ‘Working for Wetlands project’ is rehabilitating wetlands and providing skills and training for locals to build gabion weirs, earth berms and reinforced stone weirs etc.
3. Monitoring of the overall health of the rivers
Biological monitoring of the overall health of the rivers using the South African Scoring System (SASS) that monitors the presence, or absence, of certain species of macroinvertebrates (visible to the naked eye) is an indicator of a river’s health status.
4. Switch from flood to drip and spray irrigation
Farmers are encouraged to switch from flood to drip and spray irrigation. There is a downside: farmers have had to invest in dams and pumping systems.
5. GCBR works with ostrich farmers to recover and rehabilitate farms
Ostriches, who used to roam free on farms, destroying much vegetation in the process, are now confined to feed lots, or quarter hectare pens, as the GCBR works with ostrich farmers to recover and rehabilitate farms (ostriches are still a huge contribution to the area’s economy).
6. Spekboom on overgrazed farm land
‘Jobs for Carbon’ has dry-planted cuttings of fast-growing spekboom on overgrazed farm land in Kannaland as a way to explore the effectiveness of carbon farming as a trigger for the return of other indigenous plants and animals as the thicket recovers.
7. The Klein Karoo ecosystem provides sustainable work
Where natural vegetation is still in good condition and properly cared for, the Klein Karoo ecosystem provides sustainable work:
- restios for thatch (less intensive work with no great inputs, and once cut the reeds grow back)
- proteas for the overseas market (provided they are harvested sustainably)
- herbs and medicinal plants offer similar opportunities
- as does aloe ferox (already used in medicine and cosmetics)
- and fynbos honey, from bees that feed on fynbos
8. Exploring stewardship options with landowners
Cape Nature is exploring stewardship options with landowners. In the face of water scarcity, many landowners use their land differently – conservancies, private reserves, and game farms (stocking of animals not of the Karoo is audited by Cape Nature to prevent further damage to natural vegetation).
The GCBR is not just about encouraging tourism or promoting game farms, they protect what remains of the biodiversity hotspots and, in particular, emphasise the provision of clean water upon which survival in this region depends.
Reference: It’s Everybody’s Business –written, photographed and produced by Neil Curry, a member of the GCBR, who allows distribution and sales of the DVD to raise funds for the reserve.