An Outing to Munnik Conservancy
Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"
Time for another excursion report! From the 16th to the 18th of November, 2022, some friends and I went out on a big biodiversity census to a large reserve of sorts, the Greater Munnik Conservancy. That name as far as I know applies to the whole region; in practice there are four farms forming it: Munnik proper, Bloemtuin, Cordier, and Wilgebosch. The whole conservancy is on land belonging to a huge local agricultural concern, ZZ2. They chiefly cultivate tomatoes and avocados. But they have LOTS of land that is intentionally kept 'wild'. They are doing experiments to see how they can manage the land ecologically, for instance seeing if removing alien invasive vegetation improves the amount of water flowing into the streams and collected by a number of dams. The answer to that seems to be that it does, so they're mainly measuring how much it helps. They also intend as much as possible to preserve biodiversity in the wild land.
The conservancy itself is totally kept as natural as possible, devoid of farm lands. At the moment it is making money from controlled hunting. They have experienced guides and nice lodges where the hunters and other visitors can stay. We were hosted and asked to help them identify and make lists primarily of plants. The man who was in charge and organized our outings was Johan van Dyck, and our primary guides were Patrick, Simon and Harrison. At the lodge, Edson was the main chef and prepared some lovely meals for us. Edson originally came from Zimbabwe and is one of the most linguistically-gifted people I've met. He belongs to a small ethnic group living right where the countries of Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia meet, and he tells us that he was able to understand 16 different languages that are spoken there; now, for the sake of understanding some of their overseas customers, he's learning Spanish!
On our side, our group of explorers consisted of Bronwyn Egan, botanist and amateur entomologist; her husband Vincent Egan, herpetologist; Rupert Harris, arachnid enthusiast; Troos van der Merwe, expert botanist; Nyiko 'Gift' Mutileni, botanist and general ecologist; and me. We all know each other quite well having been on many similar outings in the past. So we were able to quite effectively work together. Gift presently works for ZZ2 and she already knows the area and its issues; we were joined on the second day by Wiam Haddad, also an ecologist working for ZZ2, with a big interest in plants and general biodiversity.
The Munnik Conservancy is not far from Polokwane, less than an hour's drive. The western part of it lies in the plateau region typical of Polokwane, while to the east the land descends to the Lowveld, the low-lying savannah characteristic of the eastern Limpopo Province. There are lovely rocky hills; we climbed the highest one in the locality and enjoyed some excellent views of the environment. The vegetation is chiefly grassland, wooded savannah, the interesting plant communities that grow on rocky hills and large rock sheets, and tiny patches of forests – more like large thickets based around a few tall trees – in the middle of the grasslands.
The issues affecting the region are due to human disturbance. There are many herbivores – antelopes of numerous species, giraffes, buffaloes – but no large carnivores apart from occasional leopards and hyenas, which means their numbers need to be managed, primarily through hunting and translocation. But the natural veld has already deteriorated significantly due to having too much herbivores on it. The chief effects is that it gets overgrown with shrubs and trees. People don't often realize that much of the interior of South Africa is, naturally, open grassland. Ever since humans arrived, they've been altering the grasslands, turning them to farms, planting them with crops like wheat, maize, sunflowers, fruit trees and timber trees. Wherever people settled, they also planted huge numbers of trees and shrubs not native to the grasslands or to South Africa at all. This transformation of the grasslands has robbed huge numbers of animals and plants of their natural habitats, their homes. It remains a very big challenge in the management of the remaining pockets of natural lands, to maintain the structure and diversity of the grasslands.
Another factor that grasslands need, is fire. Regular burning of grassland removes many woody seedlings and shrubs that would take over the grassland if allowed. Again, this will turn grassland into something different. Humans try to limit fires, because they don't want their timber plantations damaged, or their homes, if they live in fire-prone areas. So they make firebreaks and fight the fires that erupt and thus the veld often doesn't get the fire it needs. In nature, grasslands may not be burnt each year; some vegetation types are adapted to fires only about every thirty years – but they do need that fire. Many plants have seeds that need to be primed by fire to make them germinate; many also flower only, or chiefly, after fires.
Intensive browsing by game may also remove the most nutritious, palatable grasses – as we term them 'sweet' grasses – and cause the proliferation of tougher, less nutritious and tasty grasses – 'sour' grasses. Mismanaged grassland thus becomes thorny thickets in which the grass, if present at all, is unsuited to most grazers. We saw quite a lot of this degraded veld in the conservancy. In nature, it's especially the Black Rhino that feasts on the thorny plants that become impenetrable thickets if left to themselves. Thanks to rhino poaching, there are now almost no black rhinos remaining in most of the grasslands and savannahs of South Africa.
Bronwyn and some other botanists are now trying to work on plans for conserving the grasslands of our region together with their biodiversity. They are making maps showing patches of natural veld; they're also noting the quality of these patches, and their history of cultivation and other factors that impacted them. This kind of work is almost desperately important. Landscapes are now changing before our very eyes. Humans keep growing in numbers, keep 'developing' nature, keep altering it in so many other ways. But we need wild nature. The grasslands of South Africa and of the world play vital roles in ensuring for instance clean water run-off, and binding the soil. Grasslands sustain very high diversities of animals and also plants. Few people realize just how many of the plants growing in grasslands are not species of grasses. Grasslands host many plants with subterranean bulbs and tubers, and even plants that can be considered subterranean trees.
It almost literally is a thorny issue trying to protect unspoilt grasslands from bush encroachment and other factors that change and destroy them. There's also the factor that they are now so fragmented that the populations of animals and plants can't effectively communicate and otherwise commune with each other any more. Genetic richness is compromised; cut-off communities of species can no longer interbreed with each other, becoming 'island populations' with impoverished gene pools. Global climate change merely exacerbates this: now even in pristine, protected pockets, plants and animals may disappear because the environmental conditions they need such as warmth and rainfall may change beyond what they can adapt to.
I hope you now have an idea of the challenges facing ecologists and conservationists. And ultimately, if we don't overcome these problems, soon the challenges will be facing all of humanity, and they'll be beyond what anyone can deal with. I've estimated that if we don't mount a serious and global campaign to protect the wild places of Planet Earth, we will likely lose as much as half of all living species, and there will be environmental chaos everywhere that will impact things such as the food and water we have available to us, and where we might comfortably live. And on top of that we might also be having to deal with exacerbated conflicts between different groups of humans, for the resources that remain. Environmental degradation may even (and may indeed already) cause new disease epidemics, among humans and among our domestic animals and crops.
The farm guys who own these lands are starting to get an inkling of these issues and for that we are trying to help them. I leave you simply with these photos of the still pristine nature, of the many beautiful and impressive plants and landscapes still present on the Greater Munnik Conservancy. Think about the issues, wherever you might be, and visit the wild places close to you, appreciate them, and do whatever you reasonably can for their protection and maintenance.