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Thursday, 18 October, 2001, 17:09 GMT 18:09 UK
South Africa's floral riches at risk
Worker with flowers   Juan Pablo Moreiras/Fauna and Flora International
Harvesting wild flowers in Flower Valley
Alex Kirby

A UK-based group, Fauna and Flora International (FFI), is working with South African colleagues to save the unique Cape floral kingdom.

Slightly larger than Scotland, it contains about 8,500 species, 5,800 of them found nowhere else on Earth.

Spider in flowers   Juan Pablo Moreiras/Fauna and Flora International
Camouflaged crab spider eats a fly in Flower Valley
But 1,400 species are thought to be critically endangered and close to extinction. Now, conservationists have worked out a plan to protect the area against the multiple threats it faces.

There are six floral kingdoms on Earth - the Antarctic, Australasian, Boreal, Neotropic, Palaeotropic, and the Cape. Each is distinguished by the number of endemic species it contains (species found nowhere else).

The Cape floral kingdom is botanically more diverse than the richest tropical rainforest. It occupies about 90,000 square kilometres (35,000 square miles) at Africa's southern tip, stretching along the coast either side of the Cape of Good Hope.

The main plant community is known as the fynbos, Afrikaans for "fine bush", and a reference to the fine-leaved shrubby species that make up much of the vegetation. The fynbos constitutes 80% of the Cape floral kingdom.

Fire-dependent plants

The fynbos also contains many broad-leaved species, and it resembles other vegetation types like the Mediterranean maquis. It contains more than 7,000 species, nearly 5,000 of them endemic.

It produces a huge and colourful display of wild flowers, and is the origin of familiar plants like proteas, geraniums and freesias.

Flowering fynbos   Juan Pablo Moreiras/Fauna and Flora International
The fynbos provides a carpet of colour
Many fynbos plants depend on periodic fires for their survival, some needing the heat for their seeds to germinate and to recycle the scarce nutrients locked up in the woody growth.

Now, though, the fynbos faces several threats, including competition by invading species. Some were originally imported as commercial crops. They destroy the established vegetation and damage the water catchments.

Other problems include urban expansion, pollution, over-extraction of water, and the conversion of land for agriculture.

Conservation model

In 1999, FFI bought Flower Valley, which had for years supported a wild flower-harvesting business but which was on the point of being ploughed up and used for vineyards.

Bird on flower   Juan Pablo Moreiras/Fauna and Flora International
Cape sugarbird feeds on limestone sugarbush
FFI introduced sustainable harvesting methods, and the valley is now a model for fynbos conservation over a much wider area, as well as providing 60 jobs.

And to secure the future of the entire kingdom the South African Government and a range of partners have developed a comprehensive scheme: Cape, the Cape Action Plan for the Environment.

They have asked the Global Environment Facility for $35 m (25 m) over the next 20 years, when they hope to have conserved or restored the kingdom's biodiversity.

Attracting tourists

Cape, the first conservation strategy developed for an entire biodiversity hotspot, aims to establish a network of reserves, and to work towards sustainable yields.

Khungeka Njobe works for South Africa's National Botanical Institute. She told BBC News Online: "What's unique about Cape is the level of support it's got from everyone involved, from the cabinet down.

"It's more a sustainable development strategy than one about biodiversity alone, and I think it can attract a lot more tourists to the kingdom.

"We're a very environment-conscious country, and I don't doubt we can cope with tourists in a sustainable way."

Images courtesy and copyright of Juan Pablo Moreiras/Fauna and Flora International

Workers and fire   Juan Pablo Moreiras/Fauna and Flora International
A controlled fire to burn alien plants

See also:

22 May 01 | Sci/Tech
Alien species 'cause havoc'
08 May 01 | Sci/Tech
World wildlife warning
25 Feb 00 | Africa
Plant invaders blamed for blaze
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