Three years ago I took my first steps onto the African Continent. As I walked out of Cape Town International Airport toward my next five months of study in a new country, I wasn’t exactly sure what I had gotten myself into. Against the wishes of both universities involved, I made the precarious choice to enroll in an ecology course that started the semester off early with a two-week field camp which meant missing registration, orientation, health and safety lectures, etc. Instead, after spending a sheltered weekend in my new apartment (for fear of otherwise living out any one of my parent’s alarmist “what if” situations), I was thrown straight into the deep end with some 40 University of Cape Town students for an orientation all my own. It was on this field camp that I first heard of renosterveld and connected with its conservation challenges which reminded me of those of the prairies of my home in the Midwestern U.S. Little did I know that in my first week abroad I would make life-long friends and find a cause that would define the next three years of my life and beyond. Here is some of what I’ve learned since that first, fateful week three years ago.
With a harsh-sounding name to match its often harsh appearance, renosterveld is an unassuming piece of the Cape Floristic Region (CFR) located at the south-western tip of Africa. Of the many vegetation types within the Fynbos (“fine-bush” or scrubland) Biome so iconic to the Western Cape of South Africa, the renosterveld types are sort of the ugly duckling, often looking like nothing more than small patches of scraggly grey bushes wedged between commercial wheat and canola fields. What is often overlooked as fynbos types with mountain vistas or beach access has its own claim to fame as the richest bulb habitat in the world—the environment that harbors the most number of bulb species in the smallest amount of space (“species richness” in ecological terms). Irrespective of this fact, the renosterveld landscape has been transformed beyond recognition by agricultural expansion over the last 100 years. The magnificent biodiversity maintained by the renosterveld is now Critically Endangered, under-studied, and under-appreciated.
Meaning “rhino-bush” in Afrikaans, renosterveld is only found in the Mediterranean-type climate of the CFR, the smallest and richest floral kingdom in the world. Even with nearly 9,000 plant species currently described, the entire Cape Floristic Region could fit inside the US state of South Carolina or the Kingdom of Belgium. Renosterveld itself covers an even smaller area yet still makes up a significant portion of the unique species diversity associated with the Western Cape. It was likely these grassy, lowland renosterveld areas that supported the majority of the game seen by early settlers of the Cape. Bluebuck, quagga (a half-striped zebra subspecies), and black rhino once roamed the renosterveld landscape in the presence of predators like Cape lion and leopard. These predator-prey interactions are just one of the infinitely complex ecological cycles that this landscape has since lost. Along with natural grazing regimes, periodic veld fires, and pollen and seed dispersal, this elaborate system evolved over millions of years to define the intricate diversity of plant and animal species so unique to the area.
Sadly, renosterveld’s relative fertility, location on tillable lowlands, and proximity to the Mother City—Cape Town—made it a prime target for agricultural expansion in the early- to mid-20th century leaving the natural renosterveld landscape shattered into fragments scattered across its former range. What was once a rich scrubland/grassland mosaic that supported animals reminiscent of a more recognizable South African motif has been almost completely transformed by agriculture. Where once bluebuck grazed under the watchful eye of a lion, now only cereal crops grow and lazy sheep graze weedy pastures. Bluebuck and quagga have since gone extinct with the black rhino not far behind. Lions have been removed from the Cape and the leopards have fled to the mountains. The habitat is now so fragmented that natural pollination vectors and seed dispersal systems have surely been interrupted as well, raising concern for the sustainability of the piecemeal vegetation. A shadow of its former self, renosterveld is now among the world’s most endangered habitats.
Today, renosterveld is listed as Critically Endangered by the South African National Biodiversity Institute and the Department of Environmental Affairs. There is currently less than five percent of the original renosterveld habitat left in the Overberg where I’m stationed, most of which has been left as small, highly fragmented scraps of land the plow couldn’t reach. An even smaller percentage is in good condition and maintains its original plant diversity. Though the Overberg contains some of the largest and highest quality fragments of all renosterveld types, there are only 46 fragments larger than 100 hectares left, none of which are large enough to maintain or even recreate the complex landscape-scale cycles that once governed the balance and diversity of this unique ecosystem.
Paralleling and confounding the renosterveld’s agricultural transformation was also its societal and scientific marginalization. Still today, and I fear for many years to come, renosterveld fragments are thought of and labeled as “uitvalgrond” or wasteland on farm maps. This feeling has pervaded both agricultural as well as scientific spheres. Even modern ecologists thought of it as an insignificant scrubland until very recently, focusing instead on the less agriculturally-useful, more charismatic vegetation types of the Western Cape. Even today very little is known about the renosterveld and its ecological workings both past and present. So little is known, in fact, that no one is sure how it got its name, “rhino bush”—were black rhinos once abundant in the area? Did the blue-grey hue of rolling renosterveld hills remind early settlers of a rhino’s dusty back?
With so much left to learn and with more veld being illegally plowed regularly, the Overberg Lowlands Conservation Trust (OLCT) was established in 2012 as the first group to work specifically with renosterveld and has set forth to change attitudes, shift paradigms, and help preserve one of the most endangered habitats on Earth. By fostering scientific study, educating farmers, and raising awareness, the OLCT is taking the first steps toward a sustainable agricultural and ecological future for the Overberg. While conducting field surveys in 2012, the OLCT discovered six plant species new to science. Considering that only five percent of all renosterveld remains, I hesitate to guess how many species we’ve lost before they were properly recognized. We may never know what we have already lost; at this point we are just trying to sustain the few pieces we have left within a living landscape to preserve an ecological memory and the beautiful diversity it yet maintains.
Watch this space for more information on this unique vegetation type and what’s being done to save it. If you just can’t wait, please visit the website of the conservation trust I work with (http://www.overbergrenosterveld.org.za/), or my Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/recognizingtherenosterveld).