Biodiversity of Durban, kwaZulu-Natal

Durban Our Bio Diverse City  

DID YOU KNOW?: Durban is a biodiversity hotspot, meaning an area that has both the richest and the most threatened collection of plant and animal life on earth. Conservation International defines a hotspot as an area that contains at least 1500 species of vascular plants as endemics (unique to that particular area) and that has lost at least 70 percent of its original area.

South Africa is the third most biodiverse country after Brazil and Indonesia and is the only country in the world with more than one biodiversity hotspot. Durban is located in the middle of one of these hotspots, called the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Region. This includes terrestrial ecosystems (like grasslands and forests) and aquatic ecosystems (like rivers, oceans and estuaries). In Durban alone, there are over 2000 plant species, 82 terrestrial mammal species and 380 species of birds. There are also 69 species of reptiles, 25 endemic invertebrates (e.g. butterflies, millipedes and snails)and 37 frog species.

However, many of the vegetation types where these species occur are under serious threat. The KwaZulu-Natal Coastal Belt vegetation for example, used to occupy approximately 65% of Durban. By 2007, about 67% had been transformed by formal urban settlements and, to a lesser extent, cane farming. This level of habitat loss places many species in danger. We all need to learn more about indigenous plants and animals. Most of us can name hundreds of consumer brands but we cannot name the species that occur in our immediate environment. We need to begin taking notice of nature and appreciate the diversity of life around us.

DID YOU KNOW?: In many ways, biodiversity begins and ends with soil. Beneath its quiet surface millions of species interact, producing the chemistry that life depends on. We owe a great deal to the biodiversity that lies hidden in dirt and mud.

DID YOU KNOW?: The high-rise concrete jungle of the inner city centre of Durban is the home of several pairs of Lanner Falcons, a Red Data species, which feed on the city’s burgeoning pigeon population and nest on ledges on some of the skyscrapers.

DID YOU KNOW?: A single insectivorous bat can eat 2000 mosquito-sized insects in a night, providing an invaluable service controlling disease and pests. A species does not have to be cute and cuddly before it deserves to be saved.

DID YOU KNOW?: Pesticides from lawns, golf courses and agricultural land wash into aquatic habitats, causing the infertility and death of plant and animal species. Pollutants like heavy metals become concentrated in the bodies of fishmaking them poisonous for humans.

DID YOU KNOW?: Many invasive plant species respond well to global warming, elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide, nitrogen deposition and habitat fragmentation, which increases the threat they pose to local biodiversity.

DID YOU KNOW?: Simply cutting a road through a forest can cut a species off from its breeding and feeding grounds. The road can also expose and dry out the habitat leaving it vulnerable to invasive alien species which thrive in vulnerable and destabilised ecosystems.

DID YOU KNOW?: The endangered Pink-footed Giant Black Millipede, Doratogonus rubipodus, is only found in the Hillcrest and Kloof areas where it lives in forests. Much of its habitat has been destroyed by development and alien invasive plants.

DID YOU KNOW?: The over-exploitation of species can also reduce biodiversity. Many of Durban’s medicinal plants, for example, have disappeared from the wild. The root of Wild Ginger (Siphonochilus aethiopicus, isipiphepheto or indungulo) is one example. It is used to treat malaria, oral and vaginal thrush, fever, headaches, colds and respiratory infections. The plant has gained interest from the herbal and pharmaceutical industries, but is now locally extinct due to over-collection.The use of indigenous plants and animals for medicinal and magical purposes, known as muthi, is a cultural practice that continues to thrive in South Africa today. Growing demand for medicinal plants has, in many cases, become  unsustainable. The medicinal plant trade is recognised as an important local economic sector and in 2007 was estimated to be worth R21 million per annum and supporting some 13 000 traders and harvesters in Durban.

DID YOU KNOW?: Carbon dioxide dissolved into sea water forms a weak acid, which interferes with natural processes like shell formation, the growth of coral reefs and the creation of the tiny skeletons of plankton.

DID YOU KNOW?:The concept of ‘ubuntu’ has become popular in South Africa. This is the idea that humans can’t exist in isolation and that the essence of who we are comes from our interconnectedness with others. The same is true of our relationship with the natural environment. We humans are unable to survive without the biodiversity of our environment.

DID YOU KNOW?: Biodiversity supplies us with a range of ecosystem goods (like food, medicines and building materials)and services (like flood control, water supply, climate regulation and spiritual fulfilment). When we destroy species and ecosystems, we are at risk of losing these life-supporting functions, thereby endangering ourselves.

DID YOU KNOW?: Loss of biodiversity increases disease causing organisms like the malaria mosquito, because it involves a loss of their natural predators. Malaria makes up 11 percent of disease in Africa. If it had been eliminated 35 years ago, Africa’s GDP would have increased by $100 billion.

DID YOU KNOW?: The conservation of biodiversity is critical if ecosystems, and the goods and services they provide, are to be sustained. These goods and services are essential in meeting peoples’ basic needs. The conservation of biodiversity means maintaining enough open areas in our city for these natural resources to survive. One of the most serious threats to biodiversity in our city is the reduction of open spaces through habitat destruction. Activities throughout the City continually threaten open spaces, and natural ecosystems are compromised because of the short-term benefits of development. When open spaces are too small or degraded, their ability to deliver environmental goods and services is reduced or in some cases destroyed.

The Plan

In order to protect and enhance the remaining significant ecosystems and biodiversity in Durban , as well as to ensure that people’s basic needs are met and that development of the city can proceed in a sustainable way, the eThekwini Municipality has developed the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System (DMOSS) plan.

In order to prevent the possible extinction of plant species through overexploitation, a number of projects have been set up. Silverglen Medicinal Plant Nursery in Chatsworth is one example. It was established to prevent the unsustainable harvesting of medicinal plants from the wild. Techniques were developed to cultivate the medicinal plants needed by traditional healers and muthi-gatherers. Today, over 200 medicinal plant species are grown there.

The Municipality has also introduced a free education programme at the nursery to help combat over-harvesting in the wild. Traditional healers and muthi-gatherers are trained in plant identification, propagation, nursery establishment and management.

What can I do?

  • Plant an indigenous garden. Indigenous plants and trees thrive in local soil and climate conditions. hey are resistant to pests and diseases and are more likely to attract local wildlife. Let your garden become a wildlife sanctuary in your community. We need to create a mosaic of these sanctuaries all through the city, attracting birds, butterflies and possibly even frogs.
  • Reduce your ecological footprint by doing things like reducing your use of electricity, conserving water, recycling materials and using environmentally friendly products. Using electricity for example, increases the production of greenhouse gases which cause climate change. Climate change in turn poses a serious threat to both biodiversity and humans. You can conserve energy at home by buying energy efficient appliances, using compact fluorescent light bulbs instead of incandescent bulbs, using natural light wherever possible and using blinds to reduce heat and the need for an air-conditioner. You can reduce further production of greenhouse gases by lowering your use of fuel.Start a lift club and share transport instead of driving alone.
  • Become a critical consumer. Urban living cuts you off from nature. You are cut off from the sources of your food and the other resources you consume. You are also cut off from the places your waste is taken to. Develop more of an interest in the biodiversity consequences of your consumption. Buy local fruit and vegetables that haven’t used enormous amounts of fuel to get to you. Wherever possible, select organic products that have been produced without the use of pesticides and fertilisers that are harmful to natural ecosystems and biodiversity. Practice green consumerism by buying environmentally friendly products and re-use plastic bags when these are given to you. Plastic is a petroleum based-product and, since petroleum is a fossil fuel, greenhouse gases are released when plastic is produced. Greenhouse gases contribute towards climate change, posing a risk to biodiversity.

Written by:
Durban Natural Science Museum
Environmental Management Department, eThekwini Municipality.

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