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In the first week of March 2015 a firestorm swept through the mountains of the Cape Peninsula, South Africa. The fire caused massive destruction of mountain vegetation, forests, plantations and some homes. It left behind miles of charred, scorched wasteland that was regarded as a disaster and an eye-sore by a largely uninformed public who mourned the loss of the scenic beauty of the mountains.
In fact very hot fires are ecologically necessary for the regeneration of this world famous ‘Fynbos biome’. The fynbos requires a firestorm about every fifteen years to ensure that old plant communities make way for new growth. Seeding strategies of plants in this biome have developed over millennia to ensure this regeneration. Seeds that have lain dormant beneath the soil require the heat of a fire to germinate and, in the case of the Protea species, seeds are stored in cones which are burst open by the heat of the fire. Other shrubs (e.g. the Common Conebush) have developed sprouting strategies whereby the seeds sprout again and again from the bases of their stems, which could be hundreds of years old. Whatever the seeding and sprouting strategies, gentle winter rains are needed for the growth of the young plants. If the rains are too heavy, or come too soon (these plants need about two months to begin the process of germinating) the soil erodes and seeds wash away. But this year, after the massive firestorm in late summer, the timing of the rains was perfect!
The incredible resilience of the Fynbos ecosystem will naturally emerge, if left unhindered and unspoiled. But human beings insist on disrupting its natural ecological cycles by encroaching on the plant line, by building houses, and, in the case of the Constantia valley, by establishing vineyards and timber plantations up the slopes of the reserve.
Not only is investment in sound urban planning necessary to mitigate against the damaging effects of the fires, but more importantly, to allow for the natural resilience of the ecological processes to continue unhindered. With regard to both of these issues, and in the face of huge commercial pressures, the City of Cape Town, has managed, in recent years, to put a hold on further urbanization and agricultural ‘development,’ keeping all development below a plant conservation line. Maintenance of the Table Mountain Reserve requires financial recourses, and to keep the costs of entry to an affordable level for to the majority its residents, the costs are subsidized by the rate-payers of Cape Town together with the tax-payers of South Africa. A full accounting of the ecosystem services, such as water harvested, by the Reserve is likely to meet all the costs of maintenance but there is resistance from conservationists for the implementation of such a system on the grounds that ‘nature cannot be priced’.
The photographs in this collection were taken on the 25th and 27th June 2015, a week after the first rains, in the Silvermine Nature Reserve, which forms part of the Table Mountain National Park
Sidney Luckett BSc, MPhil, PhD