Passive restoration of Critically Endangered Cape Flats Sand Fynbos at lower Tokai Park section of Table Mountain National Park, Cape Town

ReStory narrators: Megan Smith, Dr Alanna Rebelo & Dr Tony Rebelo

Cape Flats Sand Fynbos (CFSF) is the most threatened vegetation type within the City of Cape Town and is, therefore, high on the list of conservation priorities. The national conservation target of 30% (required to conserve 70% of CFSF plant species) is unattainable as only 10% remains. This implies that remaining areas of CFSF should be protected and restored if we are to reach our national targets. Despite this, the remaining CFSF continues to be highly threatened mostly by invasive trees and grasses.

Remaining Cape Flats Sand Fynbos with the approximate location of lower Tokai Park indicated by the bright green dot (Map produced by City of Cape Town)
Lower Tokai Park with lighter areas representing the recovering CFSF and darker vegetation the remaining plantations (Map produced by Alanna Rebelo)

The Tokai Park section of Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) contains one of the largest areas available to restore CFSF. The area has been under pine plantations for over 100 years, but an accidental fire in 1998 revealed remarkable recovery of the natural vegetation. Subsequently, in April 2005, the South African National Parks (SANParks) was assigned the management of the area and a lease management agreement was signed whereby forestry would harvest all the plantations by 2025. Owing to the high number of threatened species within Tokai Park, it is considered one of the most important Core Conservation areas in Cape Town.

The restoration success of the area has been remarkable. Over 400 species of CFSF plants have returned to Tokai Park, 22 of them threatened with extinction. Pristine reference patches are unavailable for comparison, but Purcell’s historical records from the neighbouring Bergvliet Farm, list 615 plant species that provide focus for restoration efforts.

The effects of pine plantation management (species, number of rotations, and length of longest cycle) and restorative fire management (unburnt, cool, and hot fires) on recovery is currently being studied as part of a 10-year project, the Tokai Restoration Project, between SANParks and South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) researchers. Plant richness is significantly higher in areas with hot fire compared to areas that are unburnt. Hot fires reduce alien invasive grasses (predominantly Mediterranean species) and flush Wattleseed banks, requiring urgent clearing. Species with long-lived seed banks (e.g.Pennypea and Keurboom) and bird-dispersed species (e.g. Bietou and Guarie) have high abundances in areas that had long (~60 years) pine cycles and cool fires. Some threatened species (e.g. Cluster Spiderhead and Capeflats Silkypuff) are largely associated with hot fires and short pine cycles. Two guilds are largely absent from the seedbanks: resprouting shrubs and overstorey plants with canopy-stored seed banks (largely Sugarbushes and Conebushes). Attempts at restoring the latter with locally collected seeds sown post fire have been successful, but plantings of threatened and resprouting species have been met with mixed success – with heavy mortality during drought years.

Unburnt areas are usually species-poor and have been invaded by bird-dispersed species (Photo credit: Tony Rebelo)
Burned areas have a high abundance and cover of perennial indigenous graminoids (Restios and Sedges) and ericoid shrubs (Photo credit: Tony Rebelo)

Lessons learnt

Collaboration between various role players (principally TMNP, SANBI, Kirstenbosch, Working for Water, Friends Groups and other organisations) is necessary for efficient management and restoration of CFSF. Continuous communication and monitoring by all stakeholders are needed to prevent local disasters, such as fire belts through new plantings, clearing of naturally restoring species in areas planted, applying herbicide carelessly, and flood control measures draining restored wetlands. Even with the best intentions, when so many role players are involved, constant vigilance is required.

Proper fire management is one of the most critical factors in restoration success of CFSF. Hot fires contributed immensely to successful recovery of indigenous species. However, legal and capacity issues require that fires be cool and at the wrong time of the year for Fynbos.  Fire management will remain the biggest obstacle to restoring and maintaining Fynbos ecosystems for the foreseeable future.

The encouragement of volunteers in monitoring is essential. The Tokai Restoration Project has shown that large-scale, detailed biodiversity information can be obtained using Citizen Scientists. Over 10 000 records of plants and animals (see here) have been obtained to date.

Citizen Scientists help collect data for the ongoing Tokai Restoration Project by joining vegetation surveys and making observations in their spare time (Photo credit: Tony Rebelo)
Friends of Tokai Park and TMNP Honorary Rangers clear alien trees at lower Tokai Park (Photo credit: Tokai Park Honorary Rangers)

The main costs and benefits

Although most of the restoration at lower Tokai Park has relied on the natural regeneration of indigenous species, there has been extensive clearing of alien invasive species and active planting of certain indigenous species. Although alien control at the park has largely been done by volunteers at little cost, it is still the largest cost to the restoration. The restorative plantings and propagation, associated seed collecting and germination, have largely been absorbed by Kirstenbosch and the Millennium Seed Bank as part of their species rescue programmes. However, the benefits of the restoration are numerous, relating to biodiversity enhancement, reduced fire risk, and benefits of recreation and education.

Members of the community enjoy the spring flower display in the Cape Flats Sand Fynbos on a walk led by the Friends of Tokai Park (Photo credit: Alanna Rebelo)

Further reading

Hitchcock, A., & Rebelo, A.G., 2017. The Restoration of Erica verticillata – A case study in species and habitat restoration and implications for the Cape flora. Sibbaldia: Journal of Botanic Garden Horticulture (15):39-63.

Hitchcock, A., Cowell, C., & Rebelo, A.G., 2012. The lost Fynbos of Tokai Park. Veld & Flora: 30- 33.

Morris, S., 1996. Tokai Forest: sterile or surprising? Veld & Flora: 44-45.

Mostert, E. 2016. Identifying priority areas for active restoration after alien plant clearing in the city of Cape Town. MSc Thesis, Department of Botany and Zoology. Stellenbosch University.

Petersen, N., Husted, L., Rebelo, T, & Holmes, P. 2007.  Turning back the clock. Veld & Flora: 102-103.

Rebelo, A.G, Petersen, N, Husted, L & Holmes, P.  2007. Restoring Cape Flats Sand Fynbos after three cycles of Pine Plantations in Tokai. Report for SANParks.

Rebelo, A.G., Holmes, P.M., Dorse, C., & Wood, J. 2011. Impacts of urbanization in a biodiversity hotspot: Conservation challenges in Metropolitan Cape Town. South African Journal of Botany 77: 20-35.

Rebelo, A.G., Freitag, S., Cheney, C., & McGeogh, M.A., 2011. Prioritising species of special concern for monitoring in Table Mountain National Park: The challenge of a species-rich, threatened ecosystem. Koedoe 43: 14.

Partners

  • Friends of Tokai Park
  • Table Mountain National Park
  • TMNP Honorary Rangers
  • Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens: Nursery
  • iNaturalist
  • Millennium Seed Bank
  • SANBI research (including Dr Tony Rebelo, and many interns)

Funders

  • Donations and time from the public
  • Millennium seedbank assessment funding

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