Extraordinary ecological wonders of Cape Town’s ‘Lilliputian’ kingdom

With the iconic Table Mountain, pristine beaches and nature’s finest beasts roaming game parks just a short drive away, it’s easy to see why Cape Town continues to be one of the world’s favorite tourist destinations.

But for all its epic beauty, South Africa’s “Mother City” should perhaps be just as well known for some of its smaller but no less spectacular botanical treasures.

Boasting more plant diversity than the Amazon rainforest, the Western Cape’s native fynbos vegetation is the cradle for thousands of plant species including South Africa’s national flower, the majestic King protea.

Dozens of extraordinary animal species have also thrived amid the fynbos including the native Cape dwarf chameleon and the aptly named micro frog whose length is about the same diameter as a nickel.

Many of these habitats have been destroyed in recent decades as Cape Town has expanded from around 500,000 citizens in the 1950s to nearly four million today. But pockets still remain.

One area that continues as a haven can be found at Kenilworth Racecourse — South Africa’s oldest horse racing track located in the city’s southern suburbs.

Most racegoers attending popular events like the J&B Met and the recently established Million Dollar race will be unaware of the natural riches that surround them.

Kenilworth Racecourse Conservation Area (KRCA) is home to more than 350 plant species, 93 bird species, 21 reptile species, 15 mammal and nine amphibian species. The Cape Flats Sand Fynbos — one of the richest of all fynbos types — covers 52 hectares (130 acres) of the racecourse which dates back to 1882.

“Cape Flats Sand Fynbos is a critically-endangered vegetation type — there is only 14% remaining in the world and 1% of that is conserved,” KRCA manager, Rob Slater told CNN.

“Fynbos is quite a dry fine bush vegetation and grows in low nutrient, acidic soils,” Slater explains. “In the summer it is quite dry and relatively gray but there is also greenery. After winter, flowers come out and beautiful species of plants come up.

“We have 34 rare or endangered (plant) species — that means they are threatened and nearing extinction. Then we have two site endemics which means you cannot find them anywhere else in the world. One is called Erica margaritacea the other is Isolepis bulbifera.”

Floral kingdom

South Africa’s Western Cape province is the smallest and richest of the world’s six floral kingdoms containing 1,300 plant species per 10,000km², according to the WWF.

The Cape floral kingdom is home to 3% of the world’s plant species and one fifth of those found in the African continent.

Professor Guy Midgley from Stellenbosch University’s department of botany and zoology describes the fynbos as “an acquired taste” offering a clue to why this botanical paradise is often overlooked.

“From a distance you don’t see that much over diversity apart from the plants that are flowering,” Midgley told CNN.

“It’s only really when you get down on your hands and knees that you realize that you’re in the equivalent of a tropical forest — a really small one!” he explains.

“What’s extraordinary about the vegetation here is that if you crawl along you keep on encountering these species — there’s very little repetition. As you move across meters and then hundreds of meters to kilometers you will continuously move through more and more species.

“It’s something people from the northern hemisphere would never expect. If you got on your hands and needs in the peatlands of Scotland and crawled along within 30-40 meters you would have encountered all the species you are going to encounter.”

The abundance of plant species in the Cape is partly down to its climate history — the region hasn’t experienced glaciation in the last several million years, Midgley explains.

“In this part of the world you don’t have to migrate very far when the world goes through these interglacial climate cycles. There is a fascinating evolutionary history as to why these areas are so rich and accumulated species over literally millions of years. It’s very precious.”

But it’s wasn’t always viewed this way. More than 80% has been transformed or destroyed over the past century, Midgley estimates, as Cape Town’s population swelled.

Slater is sympathetic to the requirements of Cape Town’s human population but argues a balance needs to be struck.

“I understand that we need to make space for the growing population coming to our cities but people need to realize we need natural areas in order to survive,” Slater says.

“Whether it’s aesthetic or not, natural areas provide ecosystem services that people don’t actually see. Often it can feel a little bit like a losing battle. People do appreciate it but I think we need to create awareness and educate people that we need the environment to live.”

To that end, Slater and his team invite around 2,000 visitors to the conservation area every year — many of them schoolchildren who are taught the history of the fynbos and the fragility of the ecosystem.

The conservation area contains 16 seasonal wetlands which sustain populations of amphibians like the Cape rain frog and Cape sand frogs.

“We do frog walks in the winter,” Slater explains. “Our flagship species is the micro frog — it’s about the size of a fingernail so they live up to their name!”

Given its ecological importance, Midgley is genuinely baffled as to why the southwestern Cape’s extraordinary abundance of flora and fauna isn’t more widely promoted.

“The thing about Cape Town and the Cape is that it’s not about African elephants, it’s about plants and the incredible globally unique vegetation type,” he says.

“I think that’s often not recognized by tourists — you are in one of the most incredible botanical riches of the world when you come here. It’s like the big five (game beasts) and the tiny 10,000! A Lilliputian community that is incredibly rich which you won’t see anywhere else in the world.

“It is an absolute gem.”

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