Rebecca Dames explains why this rare and critically endangered type of fynbos is worth protecting. Join our conversation in which we asked her all about her work with Elim Ferricrete fynbos.
How did you find out about the Grootbos Foundation?
It’s a funny story…
There was a competition in 2015 to win a night away at the luxurious Grootbos Lodge which got me so excited! The ocean would be nearby and the fynbos would be right on my doorstep for a night. I was captivated and determined to win; Grootbos looked amazing!
I contacted Sean Privett, the Conservation Director of Grootbos Foundation, and made my pitch. ‘This is my dream’ I said, and asked if I could intern at Grootbos Foundation for one year.
I didn’t win the competition but I did begin my dream job! That was where it began and now I get to live in this beautiful area full time.
How long have you been part of the Grootbos Foundation team?
I joined the team in 2016 as a Conservation intern with the goal of completing one year of practical learning. I am still here five and a half years later, and still learning something new every day. My role in the team has developed over the years.
What do you love most about your job?
Botany is my passion. I am responsible for botanical surveying for our BioBlitzes, and for botanical work within the Elim Ferricrete Fynbos for the Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy and Grootbos Nature Reserve.
In the world of conservation, people usually expect to work with the Big 5 or on a game reserve and to help save rhinos. But I’ve always been fascinated by plants. I feel like I am contributing towards saving an ecosystem and everything in it because everything is inter-connected.
Where did you study?
I studied nature conservation at Nelson Mandela University.
Describe some of the details of your work.
I collate the Bioblitz surveys of our whole Conservation Team. A bioblitz is a collaborative team survey in which our team goes into the field to record all the species we can find (both plant and animal) in a demarcated area. Our conservation team conducts a bioblitz survey each month – one of our favourite days to get outside, all together, each doing what we love, and each contributing towards our area of expertise for the greater conservation good. Some landowners are excited and appreciate the bioblitz reports we write as they might have been unaware of the true conservation value of their land. Other landowners may take a little more time to see the magic and significance of the conservation value of their land.
In some instances, we compile management recommendations and are able to suggest alternative areas for grazing/ farming that might have already been disturbed in the past. Sometimes there is a simple solution that will suit both the farmer and conservationist goals, instead of destroying natural fynbos. Our goal is to guide farmers to consider alternatives to best achieve their commercial objectives while also achieving conservation objectives for the long run.
I have compiled management plans for the private nature reserves in the area as well as for the Walker Bay Protected Environment which recognizes and conserves 12 500 hectares of land in perpetuity. This will ensure that our precious ecosystems remain intact.
You are currently working on and researching the Elim Ferricrete Fynbos. How did your journey start?
Sean Privett and I began studying a specific type of fynbos called Elim Ferricrete fynbos which was noticed by Sean while he was out cycling on the Agulhas Plains 7 years ago. Sean realised that this type of fynbos was rapidly disappearing and that far less of it existed than SANBI vegetation maps of the region showed.
Sean and I set out to map the remnant extent of this vegetation type. We referred to the national vegetation map of South Africa and set out to test its accuracy.
It was previously reported that only 25% of Elim Ferricrete fynbos remained in the world but once we started our mapping task, we realised that this was not the case. There was, in fact, less than 5% remaining!
Who else have you worked on this project with?
We worked closely with SANBI, South African National Biodiversity Institute, to update the information on the map and worked with many landowners in the area to highlight the conservation value of their land.
What has Grootbos Foundation done to ensure the survival of Elim Ferricrete fynbos?
We have facilitated the signing of two conservation servitudes (one of 68 hectares and one of over 500 hectares) on two privately owned farms within the area. This means that these two areas are now secured for conservation in perpetuity.
We continue to work with other farmers in the area and the Nuwejaars Wetlands Special Management Area where a great deal of the remaining Elim Ferricrete fynbos is found.
We have attempted restoration of some areas that have been disturbed. We collected seeds from some of the keystone cone bush species, smoked them at the Green Futures Nursery and then propagated them. We have engaged in active rehabilitation in areas that have been heavily disturbed by grazing and previous land practices.
You mentioned that there is less than 5% of this type of fynbos remaining in the world. Why do you think that this particular fynbos is so critically engendered?
Not much is known about this fynbos type. Fynbos grows in soil that is generally low in nutrients but Elim Ferricrete fynbos is different. It grows in soils with high nutrient value which explains why landowners often plough this land, unintentionally destroying the seed bank.
Once a plough has turned soil, we cannot restore the original biodiversity which will be lost forever. One can restore functional habitats but only in unploughed, undisturbed land.
Other threats to Elim Ferricrete fynbos:
- Alien invasive plant species encroach on natural vegetation and cause the loss of biodiversity.
- Veld fires stoked by a high fuel load of alien invasive plants lead to the loss of biodiversity. The fynbos seed banks cannot survive due to the higher temperatures of these fires.
The Elim community
In and around Elim, vast tracks of intact Elim Ferricrete fynbos remain. Part of our goal is to work with this community to create awareness about the amazing biodiversity surrounding them. We endeavour to make them more aware about the value of this land as many people come to Elim purely to enjoy Elim Ferricrete fynbos.
The Elim community understands that it can make money through sustainable flower picking but there is so much more they could do as the custodians of large intact pieces of this rare vegetation type including building hiking and cycling trails, and other eco-tourism ventures.
What is the trick to build awareness?
I have taken Elim community members for walks and presented talks about the special plants found only in their part of the world. Most Elim community members remember their parents talking to them about ‘die Skaamrosie” known only to Elim, but they don’t really realise that it is now critically endangered, and they have it on their doorstep! Many of them are excited to learn about what makes them stand apart.
What can others do to help save the Elim Ferricrete fynbos from going extinct?
- By being aware and getting excited about this vegetation species.
- By supporting the local community projects.
What is Rebecca’s ultimate goal?
To see the Elim community get excited about plants and embrace the fact that they have amazing, rare fynbos on their doorstep.
I want to see these areas protected for many years to come – forever, if possible.
And I want to find the special spring bulbs that hide in this vegetation type.
I am currently working on a true definition of what Elim Ferricrete fynbos comprises. I am working my way from the eastern to the western distribution of Elim Ferricrete fynbos, setting up vegetation plots, observing the plant communities, conducting soil analysis, and recording the change in fynbos across its distribution.
I can’t wait to publish a paper on my findings next year.
We are watching this space, Rebecca!