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Cape conservation groups ‘undermined’ by City biodiversity branch

Several conservation projects in Cape Town have been stopped by the City’s biodiversity management branch for no apparent reason and with little notice to civil society conservation groups.

One undertaking that was stopped without a clear explanation, according to conservationists, was the Gantouw Project. This aimed to restore and conserve the biodiversity of endangered Cape Flats dune strandveld by introducing eland to browse the vegetation, thereby preventing bush encroachment. 

Phase two of the project entailed introducing the eland to another endangered vegetation type, renosterveld, at a new site. The project was cancelled primarily because of safety concerns.

Cape Flats dune strandveld and renosterveld, endemic to the Western Cape, are highly fragmented and isolated by urbanisation. This vegetation has not been browsed by large herbivores like eland for more than two centuries, resulting in bush encroachment, one of the main threats to the ecological health of these systems. 

The aim of the project was to use a herd of eland as an urban conservation tool in bush-encroached sites in Cape Town for effective management of endangered, fragmented ecosystems.  

Professor Eugene Moll, a botanist in the University of the Western Cape’s Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology, said the halting of the Gantouw Project stood out because it was a well-funded and highly successful project. A small herd of eland that had been hand-reared and semi-domesticated was used to naturally manage strandveld vegetation.

“I personally assessed the impact of these large mammals in the Rondevlei Nature Reserve. Over a short time, they had made a major contribution to opening the thicket vegetation. They were well into the process of returning this unique local vegetation type to something akin to its original structure and diversity. Then the project was abruptly halted,” he said. 

“The removal of the eland had a major impact on the management of Cape Flats dune strandveld… with eland, there was at least a chance of returning the remnants, within the metropole, back to resembling the vegetation structure and biodiversity to what it was in the past. Without eland, the extreme thickening of the shrubs hinders the biodiversity and can even cause local extinctions.”

Biodiversity

Workers at the Rondevlei Nature Reserve. (Photo: Kristin Engel)

Tom Schwerdtfeger, vice-chair of the Friends of Zeekoevlei and Rondevlei, and a member of the False Bay Nature Reserve protected area advisory committee (Paac), added: “I did request a response from the head of the department, only to have the manager of False Bay Nature Reserve at the time explain the reasons to me. I was not satisfied with the reasons offered and indicated that at the time. (The then manager) was also relocated shortly thereafter.”

Another member of the False Bay Nature Reserve Paac agreed it was very difficult to get an explanation as to why the Gantouw Project was stopped, but that it seemed to be part of an “autocratic” decision-making process. 

“Most of the people who work in that (biodiversity management) branch do an excellent job… Over the last couple of years since the new mayoral committee has come in, there’s been better communication with nature reserve staff and they are very aware of how important communication is… but there are points where it doesn’t work,” the member said. 

Dr Anthony Roberts, CEO of Nature Connect, which was working on the project, felt that the benefits of the Gantouw undertaking outweighed the perceived risks.

“Aside from the positive ecological impact of reducing bush encroachment, the project had given many children and community members the opportunity to see eland at close quarters and, for some, to have the chance to feed and touch the animals. 

“I feel this project had a great impact on many Capetonians… these animals became the flagship for Cape Flats dune strandveld, (which is) mostly devoid of large game,” Roberts said.

The project also provided work opportunities for university students and youngsters from local communities. 

The project was reportedly cancelled primarily because of safety concerns.

“The project was stopped prematurely so we never got to realise and document the full nature of the impact.

“We also never had the opportunity to expand it to other reserves within the city as had been planned. There was a great deal of investment of time and money into the project and so many lessons learnt that could be applied elsewhere. We hope that we might be able to replicate this project in due course on small pockets of vegetation that require browsing,” Roberts said. 

Cape Town deputy mayor and mayco member for spatial planning and environment, Eddie Andrews, said: “We understand there may be questions about the Gantouw Project, relationships with our protected area advisory committees and the City’s role in managing nature reserves.”

He said the City took its responsibility for nature reserves very seriously and managed them according to the guidelines set out in the Protected Areas Act, the Municipal Finance Management Act and other relevant policies, to ensure all decisions were made with the long-term health of natural areas in mind.

“There are also the Paacs that provide valuable input. While their role is primarily advisory, their insights are crucial in helping us manage these important spaces effectively,” Andrews said. 

Regarding the Gantouw project specifically, Andrews said this was a research project that concluded in 2019 and that the decision to stop the project wasn’t taken lightly. 

“We considered factors like appropriateness for the reserve, available resources, the project’s long-term viability, and even safety and permitting concerns,” Andrews said. 

‘Arbitrary relocation of staff’

According to Schwerdtfeger, another issue was the “seemingly arbitrary relocation” of staff in nature reserves by the City, and that announcements of these relocations were made to partners at extremely short notice – in some cases, crucial staff who they worked with for decades were redeployed with a day’s notice.

“The Paac understands that we cannot tell the City how and where to deploy staff. As our name indicates, we are an advisory committee – as such, we should be informed timeously of changes of staff in management positions to have the opportunity to comment on such changes.”

Schwerdtfeger said the City lost institutional value when someone was moved into a new area without any notification or a chance to transfer knowledge. 

“If the relocations were done in a transparent and timely manner, this knowledge loss could be minimised. I think this approach has a negative impact on the good work that many friends groups do.

“With the latest snap relocation, even staff working together were not informed until the day of the transfer,” he said. 

Where there was a shuffling of positions, particularly where people and partners have established strong relationships, Nature Connect’s Roberts said this could be disconcerting and disruptive. 

“In instances where citizen groups give their time voluntarily to support the City’s activities, but decisions are not transparent, this causes a great deal of frustration and a sense of not being heard. 

“Does this affect the overall conservation work being done? In some cases possibly, but I think these perturbations are balanced by a group of highly dedicated and resilient teams on the ground,” Roberts said.

Andrews said the City was responsible for ensuring its nature reserves functioned effectively. To achieve this, he said, they sometimes needed to rotate staff to balance resources and share skills across different reserves to allow for the best possible care throughout their network of natural areas.

Biodiversity

The Rondevlei Nature Reserve, where, over a short time, eland made a major contribution to opening the thicket vegetation, according to Professor Eugene Moll, a botanist. (Photo: Kristin Engel)

“We know transparency is important, but there are times when details of the staffing process cannot be publicly shared, especially whilst the process is underway. However, we are committed to keeping our valued partners informed through our biodiversity area coordinator who acts as the main point of contact for the Paac, ensuring clear communication,” Andrews said.

The City was committed to sustaining its relationships with its Paac community, according to Andrews, and that this was why they held bi-annual gatherings to connect, share updates and hear feedback. 

Colin Walker, chair of the Friends of Constantia Valley Greenbelts, added that they preferred not to work with the City’s biodiversity management branch, but said they had a good working relationship with an official within the parks and recreation department.

Walker’s concern was that much of the City’s operational capacity was being subcontracted, leading to waste and inefficiencies which had an effect on their ability to protect and maintain not only the greenbelt but other conservation and biodiversity areas around Cape Town.

“Since January, I’ve been pushing for these waterways to be cleared because they are going to cause serious flooding… No replies have come back. No effort has been made and we’re nearly in winter when these waterways are properly choked up,”  he said.

Walker said his group spends around R14,000 a month on maintaining the greenbelts without any contribution from the City.

Avenues of mediation 

Schwerdtfeger said that there had been numerous attempts to address these concerns with senior management, but the standard response essentially amounted to, “You can’t tell us what to do.” 

“We have acknowledged that it’s not a Paac’s place to tell the City (where to deploy staff). The Protected Areas Advisory Committee is an advisory body only – however, we are not even informed about decisions that affect us and the operation of conservation areas. As a result, these decisions by senior management create a culture of mistrust,” Schwerdtfeger said.

“There are many friends groups and Paacs that do a lot of good work in their respective areas. Very often these groups perform functions that are, in fact, the City’s responsibility. Effectively, these groups are often unofficial, unpaid contractors for the City.

“The lack of transparency and secrecy concerning decisions makes one feel like the work that is performed by these friends groups is not appreciated and recognised by senior management,” he said. 

Some groups reported that good progress was made across the City over the last few years in terms of improving infrastructure, reducing sewage spills and building strong relationships with the departments with which they work.

However, they felt a lot remained to be done. 

“We really need senior management of the biodiversity management branch to support our work and engage with us in an open and transparent manner,” Schwerdtfeger said. DM

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