Ecological research and conservation manangement in the Cape Floristic Region between 1945 and 2015: History, current understanding and future challenges

02 November 2016

In 1945, the Royal Society of South Africa published a wide-ranging report, prepared by a committee led by Dr C.L. Wicht, dealing with the preservation of the globally unique and highly diverse vegetation of the south-western Cape. The publication of the Wicht Committee’s report signalled the initiation of a research programme aimed at understanding, and ultimately protecting, the unique and diverse ecosystems of the Cape Floristic Region. This programme has continued for over 70 years, and it constitutes the longest history of concerted scientific endeavour aimed at the conservation of an entire region and its constituent biota. This monograph has been prepared to mark the 70th anniversary of the Wicht Committee report. It provides a detailed overview of the circumstances that led up to the Wicht Committee’s report, and the historical context within which it was written. It traces the development of new and substantial scientific understanding over the past 70 years, particularly with regard to catchment hydrology, fire ecology, invasive alien plant ecology, the harvesting of plant material and conservation planning. The Wicht Committee’s report also made recommendations about ecosystem management, particularly with regard to the use of fire and the control of invasive alien plants, as well as for the establishment of protected areas. Subsequently, a combination of changing conservation philosophies and scientific conservation planning led to the creation and expansion of a network of protected areas that now covers nearly 19% of the Cape Floristic Region. We also review aspects of climate change, most of which could not have been foreseen by the Wicht Committee. We conclude that those responsible for the conservation of these ecosystems will face many challenges in the 21st century. These will include finding ways for effectively managing invasive alien plants and fires, as foreseen by the Wicht Committee. While the protected area network has expanded beyond the modest targets proposed by the Wicht Committee, funding has not kept pace with this expansion, with consequences for the ability to effectively manage protected areas. The research environment has also shifted away from long-term research conducted by scientists embedded in management agencies, to short-term studies conducted largely by academic institutions. This has removed a significant benefit that was gained from the long-term partnership between research and management that characterised the modis operandus of the Department of Forestry. Growing levels of illegal resource use and a changing global climate also pose new challenges that were not foreseen by the Wicht Committee.