Maloti-Drakensberg is slap-bang in the middle of the Eastern Great Escarpment, which runs from the Eastern Cape, through Lesotho, right up to Limpopo and into Zimbabwe and adjacent Mozambique. This elevated mountain region has a profound effect on our weather systems, triggering warm Indian Ocean air to fall as rain.
At the close of this session, Dr Ralph Clark, Director of the Afromontane Research Unit at the University of the Free State (UFS), made a passionate plea for facilitation and support for mountain biodiversity research – perhaps in the form of a Southern African Development Community (SADC) Instrument on Biodiversity Research.
Such an instrument – under a mooted “Southern African Mountain Convention” in partnership with Unesco – could be developed as a game-changer for biodiversity research in the region, in partnership with Unesco, a UN Agency that has developed similar instruments and taken part in the conference.
The location of the Southern African mountains is key to understanding why we should be scrutinising and analysing them and their biodiversity. At a regional level, Southern African mountains are still among the most poorly documented in the world in terms of biodiversity knowledge. But what the research is yielding is fascinating.
We may have another world-beater in these grassy montane regions, one that potentially rivals South Africa’s famous Cape Floristic Region, one of the six floral kingdoms recognised worldwide for its extraordinary and often unique plant diversity.
“Preliminary figures are starting to show that the grasslands of the Eastern Escarpment could actually rival the Cape Floristic Region in terms of absolute numbers of species and proportionate richness,” says Dr Clark, who presented at the GMBA session.
“We’re still at a point in South Africa where we don’t really know comprehensively what biodiversity many of our mountains have. The value of fine-scale biodiversity research is that we know what’s actually there and can make informed decisions.”
Why it matters
Why do we need to know? What does it matter in the broad scheme of things? It’s important, not just to scientists, but also to the public, Dr Urbach says. “Mountain biodiversity matters because it supports a number of valuable goods and services that mountains deliver to society.”
Perhaps the most crucial is water for drinking and for agriculture – mountains are our natural ‘water towers’, sources of both surface water (rivers and streams) and groundwater.
But there are a host of others, too: about 20% of humans live in mountains across the world, and the people of Lesotho, for example, use montane grasslands for pasture and other goods; timber, indigenous or not, is grown in mountains; mountains play a huge role in culture and in spirituality; mountains are important to tourism and recreation (which is why you have literally hundreds of hotels, guesthouses, and backpackers in the Drakensberg).
And in other ways, the biodiversity of our mountains plays a vital role, as Dr Urbach points out: among them, carbon storage, the regulation of air quality, living museums of genetic diversity in flora and fauna, a source of medicinal plants which could yield useful treatment compounds, and soil stability – if we don’t protect the flora and fauna of mountains, the soils become fragile, they don’t hold together well, and release stored carbon as well as create huge risks of dangerous and destructive soil loss or mudslides.
A mudslide such as those we hear of in South American countries, that sweep away towns and kill many people, generates headlines, but perhaps the constant slow loss of soil into rivers and streams, which then silt up and flood, or cause silting in downstream dams, is more of a worry.
A clear understanding of mountain ecosystems, the species that form part of them, what roles they fill, and how they work, is essential, Dr Clark says, for sensible and informed land management decisions.
To what extent do exotic timber plantations threaten soil resilience and pose unnatural fire hazards? How much grazing pressure can montane grasslands bear? What species are under special threat from invasive aliens, and what domino effect could that have? Should we impose limits or conditions on recreational uses of mountain environments?
“We need to understand what to protect, what to prioritise and how to protect what can still be protected,” says Dr Urbach.
Obstacles to research
Mountains show no respect for human borders; just as the Alps straddle eight countries, including Italy, Switzerland and France, our Drakensberg mountains are shared with Lesotho and Swaziland.
And within South Africa, mountains cross boundaries between provinces, such as the Maloti-Drakensberg, wrapped around the borders of the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal.
Different countries have different regulations governing research. So do each of the nine provinces, as another presenter at the session, Professor Michelle Hamer of the Natural Science Collections Facility, wrote in a paper1 she and co-authors published last year: “Each province has its own legislation controlling the collection, import and export of plants and animals.
“This legislation is extremely complex to navigate for collections staff and researchers. For some provinces, the ordinances predate the political transition of the 1994 democracy and are applicable to the former homelands.
“For example, the Eastern Cape currently operates under three outdated ordinances (Transkei, Ciskei and Cape Province), and how these are interpreted is unclear.
“The North West province has a similar challenge with its ordinances coming from Bophuthatswana, the Transvaal and the Cape Province. Some provinces have drafted new biodiversity legislation in the form of an Act but these are not yet in force (e.g. KwaZulu-Natal and North West province).”
Of course, it’s vital that countries and provinces have regulations in place to protect our precious biodiversity – especially from commercial exploitation, whether small-scale or large.
“But it creates an arduous and challenging situation for researchers who need to collect samples, often of species they have not seen before, and which may well be part of a group that is protected, and take them – sometimes across provincial or national boundaries – to labs where they can figure out what they are and how they fit into the ecosystem.
“It is this kind of up-close research which led Professor Peter Taylor, Research Professor in the Department of Zoology and Entomology and the Afromontane Research Unit (ARU), and another presenter at the session, to realise that we have far more horseshoe bat species in our mountains than we’d previously known of.
But, he says: “It can take as long as nine months to get the permits necessary for such research.”
This is just one example of the massive obstacle to research posed by the complex and arduous nature of this process, locally and internationally. This is made more complicated by the fact that virtually all Southern African mountains are trans-provincial or trans-national systems, making permit processes that much more laborious to achieve, and often results in some mountain sections being much better understood than other parts of the same mountain but under other territorial domain.
And it illustrates why Dr Clark and Dr Urbach are asking for stakeholders from governments, parastatals, academic institutions and other research organisations to sit down together and discuss how we can make the processes easier, quicker and less costly for genuine researchers to study mountain biodiversity, while, of course, continuing to protect mountain resources from harm and exploitation.
Our mountain biodiversity is under immediate threat from land-use changes, encroachment by human settlements, pollution and the broad changes triggered by the climate crisis.
Understanding what we’re at risk of losing and how it supports us is urgent; making the process quicker and easier should have public and political support.
Hamer M, Behr K, Engelbrecht I, Richards L. Permit requirements, associated challenges and recommendations for biodiversity collections and research in South Africa. S Afr J Sci. 2021;117(9/10), Art. #11765. https://doi. org/10.17159/sajs.2021/11765