Marking 10 Years of Progress in South Africa’s Succulent Karoo

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Succulent Karoo Ecosystem Programme (SKEP), an initiative seeking to protect threatened species and raise public awareness about this unique ecosystem that provides fresh water and other critical resources for local people. Conservation South Africa’s Tessa Mildenhall reflects on what SKEP has accomplished so far.

South Africa's Succulent Karoo region

South Africa's Succulent Karoo region is one of the world's most unique arid ecosystems. (© CI/ photo by John Martin)

In 2001, I walked into a cottage in South Africa to interview for a position that, I was told by my recruitment agent, was temporary and would be to help a young woman who was drowning in administrative work. Her name was Sarah Frazee, a bubbly blonde who chewed lots of gum and had wacky ideas about doing almost everything differently from the norm.

Sarah was developing a national conservation programme for the Succulent Karoo Biodiversity Hotspot , a semi-arid area with over 6,356 plant species, 250 birds, 78 mammals and 132 reptiles and amphibians, with over 40 percent of these species found nowhere else on Earth. To create this programme, CI consulted with 60 scientific experts and over 400 local people, including a network of representatives from government, academia, NGOs, the private sector and local communities.

Ten years later, I’m in Vanrhynsdorp in the Western Cape, attending a 10-year review of the programme and reflecting on just how much has changed in the past decade.

Women weaving in South Africa's Succulent Karoo region.

Local women weaving in South Africa's Succulent Karoo region. (© CI/ photo by John Martin)

When CI began working in the Succulent Karoo, less than 3.4 percent of the area was protected. Therefore, our first task was to educate local people about the value of ecosystems and train many of them to play a part in protecting them. Over time, we began to see the adoption of SKEP conservation priorities within various structures and plans all over the region; suddenly people knew what — and where — we were talking about.

Building trust in the Namaqualand region is difficult, and to the Namakwalanders, actions speak louder than words. Some of SKEP’s biggest accomplishments so far include:

  • Declaration of Sperrgebiet National Park in Namibia, a 2.6 million-hectare (more than 4.9 million-acre) national park which includes the protection of 15 vegetation types, nine invertebrates and three reptiles.
  • Doubling the size of Namaqua National Park to 150,000 hectares (370,658 acres). This expansion connects the highest mountains of Namaqualand to the west coast of South Africa. This crucial connection includes a variety of ecosystems and gradients that will act as a corridor for species migration in response to climate change.
  • Creation of a small grants fund, called SKEPPIES, which promotes conservation through socioeconomic development. The fund has contributed to the creation of more than 452 new jobs and ensured better environmental management of 42,228 hectares (104,348 acres).
  • Transitioning the management of the SKEP programme to the South African National Biodiversity Institute — a government entity — to ensure the programme’s long-term sustainability.
  • Creation of the 70,000 hectare (173,000-acre) Knersvlakte Conservation Area, renowned for its tiny succulents that emerge from the region’s quartz fields, which provide life to 133 IUCN Red List plant species.
  • Development of management plans and grazing guidelines for communally owned lands — a first for the region.
  • Establishment of a stewardship programme that has led more than 50 private and communal farmers to reduce their stock and follow grazing guidelines and alternative predator management strategies to restore and maintain these degraded high priority areas and threatened species.
  • Expansion of the Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve, which has helped to secure local water supplies.

In the past decade, the Succulent Karoo’s protected areas have increased by 90 percent, and 63 percent of vegetation types are now under some form of protection — 20 percent more than when the programme began.

There are still many difficulties to overcome in the Succulent Karoo; government cooperation and support needs to be strengthened, and responsible mining and restoration of degraded ecosystems continues to be a challenge across the region.

But all in all, what started as just an idea is now a mature programme that has positively altered the lives of hundreds of people — demonstrating conservation as a land use rather than instead of land use in the most trying of arid conditions. I’m privileged and proud to be a part of this movement, and look forward to seeing what the next 10 years will bring.

Tessa Mildenhall is the communications and operations manager for Conservation South Africa, a member of the CI affiliate network.

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