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SA biodiversity assessment yields positive results

South Africa has managed to maintain its status as one of the top-three countries globally and one of 17 mega-diverse nations, when it comes to plant and marine species that are found nowhere else on Earth.

This was revealed recently during the launch of South Africa’s third National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA), which is a comprehensive scientific reflection of the state of biodiversity in the country.

According to the Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Barbara Creecy, the assessment was led by experts from the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and took five years to complete.

“It involved nearly 480 South African scientists, many of whom are emerging scientists,” she explained.

Minister Creecy said the assessment represents a significant attempt to domesticate the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services launched in Paris earlier this year.

“It allows us to evaluate our progress and our shortcomings in conservation and ecosystem management on both land and sea,” she said.

Five main findings:

  • The study revealed significant success in assessing and protecting the country’s biodiversity, maintaining South Africa as one of the top-three countries globally and one of 17 megadiverse nations when it comes to plant and marine species that are found nowhere else on Earth.

  • Biodiversity-related employment in the country is strategic and significant. The report notes that approximately 418 000 jobs are related to biodiversity. This compares favourably with the mining sector, which sustained approximately 430 000 jobs in 2017. Many of these jobs are in rural areas where there is limited employment alternatives.

  • South Africa’s protected area estate is at nine percent of its total land and sea mass. Over two-thirds of ecosystem types, 63 percent of assessed species and 75 percent of terrestrial ecosystem types have representation in protected areas, with plans for further expansion in the coming years. The report found that the country’s protected areas generally provide good protection for species. Over 85 percent of bird and reptile taxa qualify as well protected, while only 72 percent of amphibians, 63 percent of plants, 57 percent of butterflies and 56 percent of mammals are well protected.

  • Notwithstanding the country’s well-documented conservation efforts, animal and plant species are under threat. One in seven of the 23 312 indigenous species that were assessed are considered threatened with extinction. Of the 2 911 animals assessed in the study, 12 percent are also categorised as threatened with extinction. Mammals face a higher threat level at 17 percent. About 36 percent of a total of 20 401 plant species are already confirmed extinct, and a further 70 plant species are possibly extinct. Overall, 14 percent of plant species are threatened by extinction.

  • With regard to freshwater ecosystems, rivers, wetlands, estuaries and freshwater fish stocks, the NBA found the following to be the major threats to freshwater systems: overextraction of water, pollution, invasive alien species, habitat loss and climate change.

“In a water-stressed country such as ours, these findings are cause for serious concern. They call for urgent action to improve the health of the rivers, wetlands and estuaries that protect our water security,” said Minister Creecy.

The restoration and protection of freshwater eco-systems, or what is termed eco-infrastructure services, will deliver huge returns on investment with great benefit to the communities that depend on them.

Wetlands, for example, protect human settlements from flood waters and also clean pollutants from fresh water, she said.

The Minister added that estuaries are crucial nurseries for fish important for human consumption and are focal places for tourism and recreation.

The report adds to the significant global scientific evidence that nature is declining worldwide at rates unprecedented in human history. These findings support the outcomes of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in the Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

Important ecosystems

Minister Creecy said the importance of ecological infrastructure and healthy catchments for securing South Africa’s scarce water resources are already accepted within the country’s policy environment.

She said the NBA reports help to direct attention to the most important ecosystems that underpin water-related benefits for people.

“The department already has significant programmes to rehabilitate water sources, wetlands and estuaries including the removal of waste, in particular plastics, and alien species that suck up the water available to us. These programmes will now become more targeted,” she said.

The National Biodiversity Framework and the National Protected Areas Expansion Strategy are acknowledged in the report as important existing policy instruments for the protection of species and ecosystems.

The Minister added that the report will allow the department better targeting of protected area expansion as it moves forward.

She said it will also assist the department with national and international reporting obligations such as the State of Environment Report, the Convention on Biological Diversity Country Report, Aichi Biodiversity Targets and the Sustainable Development Goals.

“Armed with the scientific evidence, we will now be able to take further action in a systematic way to protect our most strategic eco-infrastructure and catchment areas and monitor the effectiveness of interventions we are already undertaking,” the Minister said.

Exceptional biodiversity

SANBI also referred to South Africa as a special country with exceptional biodiversity, much of which is unique.

The institute said the biodiversity wealth possessed by the country gives people tangible benefits like food, clean water, medicine and materials.

“It supports agricultural and fisheries production and helps protect us from natural hazards like floods and droughts; and it provides the basis of a vibrant tourism industry while offering natural spaces for recreational and cultural activities,” said SANBI.

It added this rich endowment comes with the responsibility and challenge of ensuring that species and ecosystems are conserved and used sustainably to the benefit of all South Africans and future generations.

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