This article was originally published on Daily Maverick.


“Ninety scientific institutions led by the South African National Biodiversity Institute have released a shock report that unveils waves of unprecedented climate impacts tearing across South Africa’s globally important wild assets.

South Africa’s first national biodiversity assessment in nearly a decade represents the findings of leading institutions such as the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the CSIR, and the contributions of 470 scientific and conservation professionals.

The vastly varied ecosystems within South Africa’s borders and coastal waters, the assessment notes, hosts such exceptional species richness that the country ranks among Earth’s top 10 “megadiverse” nations.

Much of South Africa’s terrestrial, inland aquatic, estuarine and marine realms — the key areas featuring in the assessment — have evolved to provide niche support to an ecological heritage that exists only at the foot of the African continent. According to the assessment, this remarkable web of life delivers Earth’s second-highest rate of unique wildlife issuing from an ark of nearly 70,000 animal species.

Some 80% of nearly 500 terrestrial ecosystem types are endemic: in a word, unmatched in the living record. Half the country’s reptile, amphibian, butterfly and freshwater fish species are also endemic. The Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany area alone presides over more than 8,000 plant species, nearly 2,000 of which are endemic.  Botany geeks need hardly look further: as the assessment points out, no other country beats this neck of the woods for its variety of succulent plants.

It’s an extraordinary fact that some 40% of 10,000 native marine animal species are also unique — granting South Africa the responsibility of protecting, among others, 10% of all global coral species. Marion Island, 1,200 nautical miles south-east of Cape Town, belongs to South Africa, and therefore the task of conserving a key nesting habitat of that great romancer of sub-Antarctic skies: the wandering albatross.

Almost half a million people in South Africa draw their income from a biodiversity-related job, while biodiversity-based tourism is valued at more than R30-billion annually. The informal African traditional medicine industry is worth about R18-billion a year.

For now, that’s where the assessment’s celebration ends. Using as headline indicators threat status and “how well species and ecosystem types are represented in the protected area network”, this meta-analysis probed more than 1,000 ecosystem types and found that almost half are threatened. An encouraging two-thirds of ecosystems enjoy protection, but — viewed from a more urgent perspective — this also means that a hefty 31% of ecosystems don’t.

All of South Africa’s 20,500 described plants were assessed: nearly 3,000 are threatened. Mammal, bird, reptiles, amphibian, freshwater fish, butterfly and dragonfly species were also studied, plus selected marine and estuarine fishes and invertebrates. This produced nearly 3,000 assessed species of which 360 face the guillotine of potential extinction. Some 60% of South African fauna and flora are “well protected”. But, by inference, an astonishing 40% is not protected.

The assessment’s startling findings reveal the climate crisis as the biggest hazard among all dangers to South Africa’s biodiversity. The term “climate change” appears no fewer than 126 times throughout the 214-page “synthesis” report, which focuses on the main findings from seven additional reports designed for application by a scientific and technical audience.

As an indicator of how deeply the crisis has wedged itself into every sphere of South African biodiversity, this number of mentions towers above other threats. The terms “pollution” and “habitat loss” receive the next number of mentions at 66 and 61 times respectively. “Mining” comes in at 55 times.

Nearly 500 climatic disasters impacting 140 million people’

Like a near-apocalyptic record of South African biodiversity, the assessment delivers head-spinning blow upon head-spinning blow flowing directly from the crisis.

“Increases of 2-4°C are predicted for southern Africa by 2050, and confidence is therefore high that climate change will have dramatically escalating impacts on South Africa over the coming decades.”

This warning of “dramatically escalating” blows emerges from the heart of a normally cautious local science community, placing in grave perspective the recurring ghosts of climate past, crisis shocks happening right now and potentially stark future scenarios.

The assessment states that, in the past four decades, “southern Africa recorded nearly 500 climatic disasters impacting 140 million people”. Since the early 1970s, “mean monthly, seasonal and annual temperature increases of more than 1°C have been observed over much of South Africa in the past 50 years… accompanied by the intensification of extreme events such as droughts, heavy rainfall, coastal storm surges, strong winds and wildfires”.

“Negative impacts of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystem function have now been observed in all realms,” including “large-scale die-offs of desert plant communities” as well as “shifting migration times and range contractions for bird species. Fynbos community composition has also been shown to have altered due to climate change.”

The climate crisis is, at present, “triggering large-scale spatial, temporal and compositional shifts in biodiversity. Species’ population-level changes are being translated into community-level reorganisations, and even regime shifts — for example, bush encroachment — which can impair ecological function,” the assessment’s authors state. Over the past few decades “these changes have been noted in South African ecosystems from estuaries, coral communities, open savannas to montane streams, exerting pressure either directly or indirectly on all species within these habitats”…”

Read on at: Daily Maverick.