Newsletter #81

January 2016

This is our first newsletter of 2016. We hope that our members and readers experienced a wonderful holiday season, and are ready to tackle 2016’s challenges: “Whatever is beautiful, whatever is meaningful, whatever brings you happiness ... May it be yours throughout this coming year”.

Comments on our previous newsletter: Our readers seemed to have found the articles on the scarcity of water, the beautiful moth species and the owl chick interesting. One of our members, Linton Raaff, identified the moth species as an Emperor moth. They observe this species in their area quite often. The moths are sometimes much bigger than the one who visited us. The colourful spots on the wings resemble eyes, and serve to scare off predators.

White Stork and Black Eagle found


stork

White Stork: During November, a balloon pilot in our area, Tracy Robb, came across a seriously dehydrated White stork (Ciconia ciconia) during one of her flights. She took the bird to one of our members, Lourie Laatz, where it drank a lot of water, but wouldn’t touch the food presented to it. This is because storks prefer catching their food (grasshoppers, frogs, small reptiles and mammals) themselves. After two days, the stork was set free, and quite happily marched off towards the river. These storks are relatively common in the whole of South Africa and Namibia. However, their numbers are declining sharply, mainly as a result of collisions with power lines, thunder storms and pesticides used to get rid of locusts. (Photo by Tracy Robb).

Black Eagle: On 16 December, an injured Black Eagle (Verreaux’s Eagle, or Aquila verreauxii) was found by a hiker on one of the Rustig hiking routes. The bird was fetched by Kerri Wolter of VulPro (Vulture Rehabilitation Centre). When enquiring about the progress of the bird on 21 December and once again on 30 December, we were informed that the bird’s condition had stabilised and that she was somewhat better, but that she still couldn’t walk, in spite of all their efforts, and that the prognosis was guarded. Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending – the eagle died on 10 January. These eagles are quite common in rocky mountain areas and kloofs in large parts of South Africa, where they can find rock rabbits (their main diet). Urbanisation and deforestation have limited their habitat, and they sometimes have to fly great distances to find food, which has resulted in their numbers declining sharply. (Photo by Elmar Steenkamp).

A dry, hot season

In many of our country’s provinces, the arid landscape reminds us of the seas of sand of the Namib desert rather than of South Africa’s fertile bread basket (Leon Schreiber, Rapport Weekliks, 6 December 2015). Large parts of our country are suffering from the worst drought in three decades, with five of the northern provinces having been declared as disaster areas. Water levels of all the largest dams are critically low, while the taps in some towns have long since run dry.

The Department of Water and Sanitation’s Weekly State of Reservoirs released in October 2015 said the average reservoir level of dams was 11% lower than at the same time in 2014. Dam levels decrease with an average of 2% per week. While the immediate cause of the current drought can be ascribed to an exceptionally strong El Niño, scientists agree that human-made climate change is the actual reason for the severity of climate disasters. Yes, there have been devastating droughts in the past, but the effect of the current drought is that much worse, because many more people are now dependent on available water resources.
We can all identify with Annemarie Bremner’s editorial letter in ProAgri of November 2015 (translated from Afrikaans): “Statistics on when last it was this dry are communicated daily. The price of maize is averaging around R3 000 per ton at this stage. Planting equipment remains unused. El Niño is having a ball in the ocean, and large parts of the country have had less than 25% of its normal rainfall up to now. It is a struggle to keep livestock herds/flocks going. Nevertheless, we complain loudly about the price of meat. Lettuces, apples and potatoes with little marks are tossed aside, because we are used to only the best and freshest in the shops every day. The reality of food production in South Africa will only be experienced when the price of imported maize products eat away the monthly food budget, and when taps run dry. And then it will be much too late to pray for rain… In the meantime, I turn off the hose when walking from tree to tree on our plot, because those nine metres of wasted water on the ground can save the life of a tomato plant, a cabbage or a mealie. Rain forecasts for 2016 are not promising. Good luck to every farmer who has to make difficult decisions at this time. We can only hope and trust that relief will come”.

Most city dwellers are unaware of the severity of the current drought. Those of us living close to the soil are experiencing the oppressive drought first hand. Many boreholes are running dry, and the Magalies River, as well as the Zwartspruit in Hekpoort, Hartebeestfontein and further down to Skeerpoort, stopped flowing in October already. At only a few places in the river bed, pools of water can still be found. This has a devastating effect on the environment. Lucerne and crops that were planted along the river have perished as nothing can be irrigated. Pecan nut farmers are expecting a small harvest (if any) next season as the flowers on the trees have shrivelled up because of the dry, hot air, even if the trees are being watered. Lawns have died, and even indigenous trees are dying, which also resulted in the fire season being extended until end December.

Plans are being made to supply those whose water resources have dried up with water from tankers (with the help of well-wishers who still have strong water), and to move fish species and otters to deeper pools in the river. (See the article on a very rare fish species in the Magalies River). In the midst of all this, an illegal wall was built in the river and sluices broken down to get hold of water, while some farmers higher up along the river have claimed all available water for themselves. The Department of Water Affairs have known about this state of affairs since 18 October 2015, but has up to now not lifted a finger to rectify the situation. The Steenkoppies Aquifer near Magaliesburg, which supplies water to most of the West Rand, is under severe pressure, and has not supplied water to the Magalies River since 31 December. Therefore, there is a serious shortage of water for sewage purification, resulting in pollution of the remaining water in the river.

The Farmer’s Weekly of 30 October 2015 reported that The National Water Act (Act no 36 of 1998) provides an extremely good basis for managing water availability, but unfortunately the Act has never been implemented.

Deon Greyling’s opinion: The current drought is probably the worst that can be remembered. When an oak tree of more than seventy years old, that had grown well and was healthy before the drought, is now perishing, I realise that previous droughts could not have been this severe. The drought won’t be over soon, and the winter season is lying ahead. The time has come to give serious thought to weather experts’ and researchers’ forecasts.

Months ahead, we knew that we were facing a serious drought. Nevertheless, crops were planted, the Magalies River was pumped dry, and the Steenkoppies Aquifer that supplies water to the river was put under such stress that no water could be supplied to the river by Maloney’s Eye. The natural environment in and along the river is now being destroyed. The crops that were planted are now perishing, and even the pools of water that give life to the fish and help to replenish the underground water, are being pumped dry. Farmers’ boreholes are running dry, with a number being forced to decrease or stop water use, but nevertheless borehole water is being used by some to irrigate lawns with rows of sprayers on the heat of the day, when more than half of that water is lost due to evaporation.

We can agree with the statement that city dwellers are usually not aware of the country’s serious water shortage or that they can’t be bothered by it, but it is sad when people in the rural areas who should know better, cannot exercise control, and can waste water like this. Until such time when the Department of Water Affairs and the municipalities will enforce the Law and also ensure the clean-up of more than half of the country’s severely polluted rivers, and all water users realise the value of clean water and strive towards applying their own water saving measures, the situation won’t normalise. Most probably, we will be unable to survive another drought without famine and starvation. With available, drinkable water decreasing at an alarming rate and the population growing unsustainably, our water resources will simply not be sufficient.

Endangered fish species in the Magalies River

rare fish

Our members/readers might be aware that the Magalies River is an important conservation area, and has been identified as a sensitive catchment area in the Gauteng Nature Conservation Plan.

A very rare fish species, the Marico Barb (Barbus motebensis - Afr Ghieliemientjie), can be found in this water system. This tiny little fish (maximum length about 8cm) can only be found in South Africa, and is indicated as endangered on the IUCN Red Data List. The photo was taken by Roger Bills of the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB). Please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for further information and/or visit the most interesting website: www.saiab.ac.za/

Dogs to make wind farms safer for birds and other wildlife

dog windIn a press release on 13 November 2015, it was announced that Eskom, in partnership with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and Bioinsight South Africa, has deployed two carcass detection dogs, Aston and Wanda, in an attempt to increase the safety of wind farms for birds and other wildlife in the long run.

The detection dogs will use their keen senses of smell to improve the estimations of wildlife fatalities during operational monitoring, and is a measure that goes above and beyond the industry minimum standard. This is the first project of its kind in South Africa, and will be carried out according to a rigorous protocol in order to deliver scientifically justifiable results. The two Belgian Malinois selected for the work, have been specifically conditioned to detect birds and bats and have been on site since early November. They will work alongside human carcass searchers to assist in areas where vegetation is particularly dense, and at the same time measure efficiency of the current search methodology. Unlike humans, a dog’s detection ability is independent of carcass visibility, and carcasses can be detected in various states of decomposition. “Similar work in Europe has illustrated that sniffer dogs can increase detection rates from 30% to over 90%, and they may also decrease the time it takes to search each turbine. No such study has, however, been conducted in South Africa and we look forward to having local results to which specialists and developers can refer”, said Constant Hoogstad, Manager of EWT’s Wildlife and Energy Programme.

This work presents massive challenges as search plot size, vegetation, substrate, fences, weather, searcher efficiency and carcass removal rates are all variables and limitations that must be considered during the final mortality estimate. Human searchers have a carcass detection accuracy of 3/10 on average while most carcasses disappear completely from the veld within five to seven days. This often results in questionable mortality estimations and crucial data not being recorded such as species, age, sex and nature of injury. The Eskom/EWT partnership hopes to replicate this work across different habitats in the future which may assist other projects in designing operational protocols of their own where habitat provides a challenge to conventional carcass detection methods.

Please visit www.ewt.org.za or contact EWT Manager, Constant Hoogstad (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.), for more information about the Eskom/EWT Partnership and the Wildlife and Energy Programme.

SA Reptile Rescue List

Many of our members have had encounters with snakes recently, mainly with Rinkhals (Hamachtu haemachatus) and Mozambique Spitting Cobras (Naja mossambica). Both these species are very dangerous and are quite common to our area. A summary of contact details of snake handlers in our area follows below (a complete list was emailed to all our members during December). At all times, please be aware that snakes play an important role in our ecosystems, and that they should not be killed regardless, especially if no one’s life is in danger.


Gary & Rex Strydom (Hartbeespoort & Brits): 082 469 2979
Lee Jovanovic (Hartbeespoortdam & surrounds): 072 638 9250
Louis Trichard (Brits, Mooinooi & Hartbeespoort): 076 588 1082
Hartbeespoort Snake and Animal Park: 012 253 1162
Chameleon Village Reptile Park: 082 469 2979/012 253 5119
Bertus van Jaarsveld (Hartbeespoort & surrounds): 071 541 8206
Clinton Braun (Krugersdorp/Roodepoort): 083 556 1664

Environmental snippets

Protecting our Longnecks: According to dr Francois Deacon, game expert of the University of the Free State, giraffes like watching their own shadow. He fitted GoPro cameras to giraffe’s heads, so that he could study social interaction among giraffes, and to find out which leaves they like eating, and in which ones they’re not interested. The theory that giraffes close their nostrils to prevent ants from creeping in, was confirmed with use of the cameras. Together with dr Deacon, Discovery Channel is now shooting a documentary, The Last of the Longnecks, on declining giraffe populations worldwide, to emphasise the role of technology in conservation of this species. Although elephants are also fast becoming a threatened species, there are still six times more elephants than giraffes on the African continent. In 1999, there were more than 140 000 giraffes on the continent, but currently, only about 80 000 are left – 30 000 in South Africa. This is the only country where giraffe populations have doubled the past 15 years, as a result of excellent game conservation methods (Jaco Nel, Rapport, 6 December 2015).

African Greys are becoming extinct: Research indicates that African Greys are close to extinction. These birds’ intelligence is similar to that of a four year old child. According to Rowan Martin of the World Parrot Trust, the parrots are on the brink of extinction in countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and the Cameroons, while countries such as Ghana and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are following suit. Large-scale, illegal parrot exports to South Africa (about 5 500 annually), where the birds are sold to breeders and collectors of exotic bird species worldwide, are the main problem. According to dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson of Birdlife Africa, the only way to stop the extinction of African Greys in nature will be to put a complete embargo on imports (Johan Eybers, Rapport, 29 November 2015).

Battling invasive species – across the world: A new manual on “Best Management Practices (BMPs) for Wildland Stewardship: Protecting Wildlife when using Herbicides for Invasive Plant Management” was published recently. The manual includes field techniques from experienced land managers as well as risk charts for commonly used herbicides. It can be downloaded for free from www.cal-ipc.org/ip/management/BMPs.

Human-wildlife conflict: A German Master’s degree student, Benjamin Ghassemi, is investigating the attitudes of various sectors of society in South Africa, and their tolerance to predators, especially the Black backed Jackal, Caracal and Cheetah. This has been a highly contentious and sensitive issue for livestock farmers and conservationists for a long time. It you would like to provide an input to this research, visit https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/JMPKHGX.

New floral wonders appear: According to Rupert Koopman, a botanist of Cape Nature, the optimal fire cycle for fynbos is between 10 and 14 years, and some of the veld that burned during the summer of 2014/15 was over 15 years old (Farmer’s Weekly, 17 April 2015). However, Johan October, a field guide in Cape Town and surrounds, says that new floral wonders are appearing on Table Mountain after the veld fires of 2015. Some of these species have not been observed for many years. At the moment, there are many species of orchids, and recently, the very rare yellow Disa, that was last sighted over seven years ago, was spotted. Green heather, usually only seen between Muizenberg and Kalkbaai, have now spread to other areas, as a result of the 2015 veld fires. It is widely believed that the fynbos in the area will be most spectacular during the 2016 season (Rapport, 6 December 2015).

Did you know?

Interconnectedness: We often don’t realise that everything, but everything, on this little ball of slowly-cooling lava we call Earth is interconnected. It is worth reflecting on just how our actions – and inactions – affect what happens around us, now and in the future. And also to reflect on how big, and yet how small, the issue of environmental change, degradation and management really is. When you decide to fell a tree that has been growing for decades, because you wish to grade a new road, plough the field in which it grows or do anything similar in the name of “progress”, be aware that you are destroying a habitat for creatures of all sizes and varieties, many of which will simply die as a result. If you cut down enough trees, like in destroying a forest in the name of progress, you risk driving entire species to extinction. There is no quick fix for climate change and/or global warming. To a great degree, ordinary humans are going to have to adapt to a new reality which will include a hotter environment and more violent weather patterns (Pete Bower, Gauteng Smallholder, Dec 2015/Jan 2016).

The green light: Arguments in favour of a green light on legislation to reduce carbon emission are growing stronger by the day. There is no Planet B if the world turns into a microwave oven. (Clem Sunter, co-author of Mind of a Fox, March 2015).

Sweet, sweet basil: Basil is one of the most versatile, delicious and easy herbs to grow. You can never have too many sweet basil plants growing in your garden. Sweet basil is used extensively in aromatherapy for ailments such as stress, migraine, colds and hay fever. It is also quite effective for tension headaches, exhaustion and digestive upsets such as stomach cramps, constipation, diarrhoea and enteritis. Make an infusion by adding two teaspoons of freshly chopped leaves to half a cup of boiling water. Steep for about 10 minutes. Strain and drink hot, three times a day. Traditionally, the dried leaves were pounded and, taken as snuff, used as a remedy for colds. Sweet basil is a most beneficial companion for your other plants. It is a good insect repellent for white fly, aphids and fruit fly (Get It, Joburg West, Dec 2015/Jan 2016).

Quivering forest: The kokerboom or quiver tree is indigenous to the semi-arid northern Bushman Land and southern Kalahari regions of the Northern Cape. Although called a tree, the plant, Aloe dichotoma, is a member of the succulent family. A well-known quiver forest is located about 4km south of Kenhardt on the Brandvlei road. One quiver tree – on the Keetmanshoop-Koës road in Namibia – has even been declared a national monument! (Jaco Visser, Farmer’s Weekly Perspective, 12 September 2014).

Know your alternative agriculture terminology:
Sustainable agriculture is the efficient production of safe, high quality agricultural products, in a way that protects and improves the natural environment, the social and economic conditions of farmers, their employees and local communities, and safeguards the health and welfare of all farmed species.
Organic farming refers to the type of farming that is done without the use of synthetic chemicals such as pesticides, fertilisers, fungicides and insecticides, or genetically modified seeds.
Permaculture is an approach towards designing human settlements and agricultural systems that mimic the relationship found in natural ecologies.
Biological farming focuses particularly on the soil: It is a system that uses both nature and science to build the quality of soil, with the understanding that healthy soil will be able to support healthy crops and livestock.
(Gauteng Smallholder, Dec 2015/Jan 2016).