Major investment in SAs research capacity to combat invasive species

Postgraduate students at the partner universities of the Centre for Invasion Biology (C·I·B) will benefit from an R8.8 million investment in research funding to further our understanding of the impact of invasive alien species on ecosystems and water resources.

Worldwide, biological invasions are causing the irretrievable loss of native species and ecosystems. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the impacts of invasive alien species are “immense, insidious, and usually irreversible”.

In South Africa, aggressive invaders such as Australian acacia have already contributed to the extinction of at least 58 plant species in the Cape Floral Kingdom and have caused the decline of many others. One of the most aggressive invaders, the notorious black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) which grows close to rivers and other water resources, alone accounts for an estimated cost of US$1.4 billion due to reduction in stream flow.

This major investment in building capacity and specialised knowledge in the field of invasion biology has been made possible through a collaborative agreement between the Department of Environmental Affairs' Working for Water (WfW) programme and the Centre for Invasion Biology (C·I·B). The C·I·B, a DST-NRF Centre of Excellence hosted by Stellenbosch University, will contribute another R5.5 million in terms of research infrastructure and student supervision.

Working for Water (WfW) was established in 1995, and is regarded as one of the most successful clearing projects in the world. It combines the clearing of water catchments and other areas with employment creation, often in rural areas.

During the signing of the contract on Thursday 28 November 2013, WfW national programme leader Dr Guy Preston said the C·I·B has been at the forefront of research on invasive alien species since its inception about a decade ago: “We've received so much added value from the C·I·B's research in terms of guidance, legislation, policies and best practice, as well as the training and empowerment of our own staff.”

Referring to the C·I·B's annual research meeting taking place on the Stellenbosch University campus this week, he said he comes every year to get new ideas and different perspectives: “These are youngsters with good supervision delivering excellent work,” he added.

Prof Eugene Cloete, Vice-rector: Research and Innovation at SU, said this kind of collaborative partnership enables world-class institutions like the C·I·B to provide science-based evidence for sound policymaking: “It is essential that we are able to do this kind of research as we need to protect our biodiversity, which is already beyond tipping point, as well as our scarce water resources to ensure sufficient water for human use and to provide an ecological reserve.”

Significant history of collaboration

This will not be the first time that the two institutions work together. As part of a previous agreement, the C·I·B trained 39 students with WfW funding to the value of R9.1 million. Several of these students are now working for major institutions such as the South African National Biodiversity Institute's Invasive Cactus Management team (Haylee Kaplan), SANParks (Nolubabalo Tantsi), the City of Cape Town's Environmental Research Management Department (Dr Mirijam Gaertner), the CSIR's water ecosystems and human health research group (Dr Tsungai Zengeya), and the Agricultural Research Council's Weeds Research Division (Dr Alana den Breeyen).

According to C·I·B director Prof Dave Richardson, the C·I·B's research focuses on the rates and societal and biodiversity impacts of biological invasions, how these might be reduced and remediated through appropriate policy interventions. Another important research focus is on the synergy between biological invasions and climate change.

“The overarching goal is to undertake world-class research in biology that draws on South Africa's unique biodiversity heritage and environmental problems, with a strong focus on providing practical solutions to these problems that affect many aspects of our livelihoods,” he said.

Interesting facts and figures

  • Plant invaders have already caused the extinction of at least 58 plant species in the Cape Floral Kingdom and threaten thousands more.
  • The potential economic impact on the Cape Floral Kingdom due to further plant and animal invasions could amount to over US$11.75 billion if left unmanaged.
  • Plant invasions have a significant impact on South Africa's water resources. Currently an estimated 7% of mean annual runoff is taken up by invasive plants, with a single species (the black wattle or Acacia mearnsii) accounting for an estimated loss of US$1.4 billion in stream-flow.
  • The cost of clearing invasive plant species across the country was estimated at approximately US$80 million per year.
  • An estimated 42% of South Africa's insect pests in agriculture are alien species, resulting in crop losses of approximately US$1 billion per year.

Author: Wiida Foerie-Basson

Signing of the collaborative agreement

At the signing of the collaborative agreement between the Centre for Invasion Biology (C·I·B) and Department of Environmental Affairs' Working for Water (WfW) programme were (front) Prof Eugene Cloete (Vice-Rector: Research and Innovation, Stellenbosch University), Dr Guy Preston (National Programme Leader of the WfW programme), (back) Prof Dave Richardson (Director, C·I·B) and Ms Sarah Davies (Deputy Director: Operations, C·I·B). Photo credit: Anton Jordaan.