To understand the ongoing conservation efforts in the Makhanda region it is important to first understand the literal environment which these efforts work in, this includes knowing the history of the region. Thus the focus of this post is to provide an understanding of Makhanda’s environment and its history. As I have not partaken in Environmental Studies and other such courses I reached out to experts in this field. I spoke to Associate Professor Emeritus at the Rhodes University Botany Department, Roy Lubke, and consulted the yet unpublished book Grahamstown: A Guide to the Natural and Cultural History, which has contributions from numerous environmental and cultural experts on the area.
What excites botanists and environmentalists about Makhanda is the two of its unique features, the first is the variety of biomes in the area.
In South Africa there exist’s seven biomes. Biomes are determined their environment, while at the same time determining what plants and animals can survive in that area. Makhanda is unique in that within a 150 km radius of the city, there exists five of the seven biomes, they are the forest, fynbos, grassland, savanna and thicket biomes. Finding such an intersection of biomes anywhere else in South Africa will be very hard, as this is a unique intersection of plant and animal life.
This coming together of different biomes has created an area of immense plant and mammal diversity. Not only are these biomes present, but they are close together. Lubke explains that it is very possible and easy to pass through all five biomes in an afternoon. Of all these biomes, the most widespread one, the thicket, contains the most diverse plant and animal life.
The second unique feature of this particular area is the existence of the Albany Center of Floristic Endemism. This is an area of succulent plants which can only be found in this area, in this particular hotspot there are roughly 4000 plant species, of which an estimated 15%, or 600 species, are near-endemic or endemic. Endemic means that the plant species can only be found in that are and nowhere else There are only a number of these hotspots scattered around South Africa and that one of them is here in Makhanda, an area where five biomes converge, is remarkable.
The history of Makhanda has greatly influenced how the area now looks. Early colonial hunting practices have created an extensive list of animals that have not been spotted in the area since the 1900’s, including the likes of wild dog, the quagga and buffalo. There was also the introduction of alien plants to the area, mainly to be used as building materials, but since 1995, the Working For Water program has worked tirelessly to remove these alien plants from the region and is now one of the largest conservation programmes in Africa. The results of this program can already be seen, in the book Grahamstown: A Guide to the Natural and Cultural History it is noted that a large area of the Rietberg was “smothered” by invasive alien plants 20 years ago, now this area is mostly clear of those plants.
The growth of indigenous invaders such as the Acacia Karoo thorn tree which invades into biomes and modifies them is a result of human interference in the environment. Humans killing the browsing animals that would have kept the invading trees under control allowed these invaders to flourish. The sad reality is that once the environment has been changed, it cannot revert back to its original system.
This description of the Makhanda area by Roy Lubke and the book he contributed towards; Guide to the Natural and Cultural History of Grahamstown and Makana District shows an area that is incredibly diverse in plant and animal life but is still sensitive to human and natural threats. It is important to be conscious of what makes this area so unique so that one can be mindful of the effect’s their actions may have on the area and its environment and thus prevent further damage to it.