Rampant development along the Garden Route could undermine the
ecological systems that create the scenic wonders of this precious
section of South African coastline. Environment Writer John Yeld looks
at the issue.

The Garden Route along the southern Cape coast is one of
the country's "top 10" most-visited tourism destinations and world
famous for its awe-inspiring landscapes and natural beauty.

the character of this much-travelled route has been changed
substantially through unbridled development over the past two or three

Now, new forms of development are threatening even
greater changes that affect not only the scenic beauty, but also the
region's ecology, sometimes with irreversible consequences.

Western Cape Nature Conservation Board has signalled its alarm at the
large-scale developments like holiday resorts, golf courses, golf
estates and polo estates taking place along the southern Cape coast and
has called for urgent political intervention at the highest level.

and more of the last remaining natural areas containing critical
habitats for plants and animals are being fragmented and destroyed by
developments at an alarming rate," the board warned in a recent report
entitled The demise of the southern Cape coast – a plea for

"Ecological corridors linking the mountains to
the sea, as well as corridors along the coast, are now almost
impossible to establish."

The report points out that, from a
conservation point of view, the southern Cape is a "truly unique and
very special area" containing two of the 27 globally recognised
"biodiversity hotspots" – areas containing a disproportionately large
number of species.

These are the Fynbos and Sub-Tropical
Thicket biomes – a biome being a large area dominated by a particular
arrangement or combination of plant and animal species.
Both these
biomes are known to be very rich in species, many of which are endemic
– occurring naturally only here – to the region.

"The two
biomes often become intertwined to form mosaic vegetation units rich in
localised endemic species adapted to the specific mosaic habitat
conditions," the report explains.
Most of the vegetation types in the area between Stilbaai and Plettenberg Bay have very limited distribution ranges.

Examples are Hartenbos Strandveld, Robberg Dune Thicket, Keurbooms Grassy Fynbos and Albertinia Sandplain Fynbos.

These have all been transformed to some degree by agricultural expansion, coastal developments
and urbanisation, cultivation, heavy grazing, forestry and dense stands of alien plants.

from under-estimated and incomplete information (in 1998), it is
evident that transformation has had a significant impact on most of the
vegetation units, with very little remaining of Riversdale Coast
Renosterveld, Hartenbos Strandveld, Robberg Dune Thicket, Herbertsdale
Renoster Thicket, Blanco Fynbos Renosterveld Mosaic and Outeniqua and
Tsitsikamma Plateau Fynbos," the report states.

"In most vegetation units in the area, virtually nothing is conserved in formal statutory protected areas."

a part of the Goukamma Dune Fynbos and Knysna Afromontane Forest and a
small proportion of Stilbaai and Robberg Dune Thicket fall into
protected areas managed by either the Western Cape Nature Conservation
Board, SA National Parks, or the Department of Water Affairs and

The results of two major conservation planning
initiatives now under way show most of the remaining natural vegetation
in the southern Cape coast has been identified as "highly to totally

The entire region has been categorised as "endangered" or "critically endangered".

to this high conservation status, which is driven by the high levels of
transformation and future threats, any further loss of these vegetation
units will compromise conservation options substantially," the report

In particular, the planning initiatives have emphasised
the importance of establishing a coastal corridor, referred to as the
"Dune Mega-conservancy Network".

This is because on the coast,
many ecological and evolutionary processes are aligned along east-west
climatic and biogeographic gradients.

"Options for maintaining
any continuous coastal corridor have already been almost totally
foreclosed, but any remaining natural vegetation should receive
protection of the highest status."

The report warns of major
problems and impacts associated with large-scale developments such as
golf courses and golf estates, and notes there are about 40 of these,
both existing and proposed.

Ironically, most existing golf
courses have been developed since 1997, when environmental impact
assessment regulations were promulgated in terms of the Environmental
Conservation Act of 1989.

Referring to habitat loss, the report
notes that although developers and consultants often argue that golf
courses are a "soft development option", their direct and indirect
impacts on the biophysical environment are "substantial".

courses and golf estates take up vast areas of land and mostly lead to
significant habitat loss and fragmentation," it states.

when maps showing the position of golf courses are compared to maps
showing the transformation of vegetation, it's evident that most of
these golf courses and estates are, or will be, impacting on some of
the remaining natural areas, "thereby resulting in more habitat loss".

report warns that the fragmentation of natural areas on the Garden
Route as a result of these large-scale developments is having a
"significant" impact on some of the ecological processes that sustain
the vegetation units.

In particular, the vegetation units that
are dependent on fire to thrive and regenerate – such as Hartenbos
Strandveld, Herbertsdale Renoster Thicket, Blanco Fynbos Renosterveld
Mosaic, Outeniqua Plateau Fynbos and Tsitsikamma Plateau Fynbos – are
being affected.

"Fire plays an integral role in the maintenance
of species diversity and ecological processes in fynbos and
renosterveld," it says.

Research has shown it is critical for
fynbos fires to burn in hot and dry conditions during late summer –
that is, in February or March, so that they reach the high intensity
heat required for optimal regeneration and seedling recruitment.

when fynbos vegetation becomes fragmented by developments such as
houses, buildings and various kinds of infrastructure, it becomes
almost impossible to burn the fynbos patches under optimal conditions,
because houses or infrastructure could be destroyed.

If fire is
kept out of the fragmented fynbos areas for too long, the species
composition of these areas will be altered. Thicket species become
established on these sites which eventually shade out and replace the
fynbos species.

This is a particular threat to the Brenton Blue Butterfly Reserve, near Knysna.
such ecological burns occur under cool, wet conditions, then the
species composition will also change, with resprouting species being
favoured at the cost of many non-sprouting species.
"But whenever
these facts have been pointed out to consultants and developers and the
authorities, they have received only marginal attention – for example,
in comments on Roodefontein Golf Estate, Pinnacle Point Golf Estate,
and Turtle Creek Golf Estate," the report states.

"The usual
response is that fire is a management issue that will be addressed in
the operational phase environmental management plan for the

"Not one of the existing developments have yet
implemented a burning programme under optimal conditions because of
fear that houses or infrastructure could burn down. In addition, very
little or no enforcement or compliance monitoring is taking place."

problem is that the links between different vegetation units are
affected. These are vital for the migration of genetic material between
plants and animals.

"This linkage is critical for the maintenance of the integrity of many species in the area."

Another major problem the report highlights is water.

"The provision of water to large-scale developments is a matter of serious concern.

is an issue that has also been repeatedly raised by the Western Cape
Nature Conservation Board – consultants and developers usually respond
by saying it is the duty of the local authority to supply water to the

Developers often attempt to get around this problem by saying recycled sewerage water will be used to irrigate the golf courses.

they are told nutrient enrichment of the soil will be detrimental to
the fynbos, which is adapted to nutrient-poor soils, they respond that
the issue will be dealt with in the environmental management plan of
the development."

However, it was unlikely that even the best
engineered mitigatory measures could prevent the draining of
nutrient-enriched water into adjacent fynbos areas, the report

Surveys by the River Conservation Unit of the Board
had shown that most rivers in the southern Cape were already severely
stressed through over-utilisation.

Most of the coastal towns were already experiencing water shortage problems during peak holiday periods.

report concludes: "The Garden Route is renowned for its unique
landscapes and natural splendour. The maintenance of its environmental
integrity is the very fragile platform on which sustainable
socio-economic development is constructed for the benefit of all its
communities, present and future.

"One of the distinguishing characteristics of humans is that we are capable of learning from our mistakes.

too often, it seems, our actions appear to contradict that ability –
and nowhere more so than in our allowing developments that destroy the
natural environment and sense of place that attracted people in the
first place."

  • This article is part of an occasional series by
    the author, who was awarded a Cape Town Press Club grant to investigate
    developments on the southern Cape coast and elsewhere in the Western

Proposals: These are the recommendations made by the Western Cape Nature Conservation Board to save the Garden Route:

  • An immediate detailed conservation plan should be drawn up for the
    entire area to ensure its ability to sustain any further developments
  • A study should be commissioned to investigate developers' claims that golf courses and estates create sustainable jobs
  • Intensive alien vegetation clearing programmes should be undertaken to
    prevent further degradation of currently intact coastal vegetation
  • Alternative, environmentally-suitable sites for golf courses should be
    identified, such as currently degraded coastal sites
  • Serious consideration should be given to developing a comprehensive and
    strategic compliance management strategy, with developers who ignore
    development conditions and environmental legislation being taken to
  • The potential impact of all developments on available
    water resources should be investigated before any further approvals are