The biological invasion of South Africa
Photography by Rodger Bosch


Overview map – 7 Acknowledgements – 8 Foreword by Kader Asmal – 10 Introduction – 15 1: Shrinking planet Earth – 23 Travel and conquest on the road to globalisation 2: A little Europe in the Cape – 41 The Cape Floral Kingdom and its plant invaders (mostly silky hakea, cluster pine and long-leaved wattle) 3: Stealing South Africa’s precious water – 63 The threat of woody tree invaders (wattle, pine, eucalyptus, mesquite and lantana) 4: Troublemakers in the big blue – 83 Mussels, oysters and crabs 5: Armies from the New World – 97 Argentine (sugar) ant 6: Winged incursions – 107 Common starlings, common mynahs, house sparrows, house crows, feral pigeons, the mallard duck and the spread of indigenous species 7: The devil weed and the dinosaur doppelgänger – 121 Triffid weed and its impact on the Nile crocodile 8: Flowers of the waysides and wastelands – 129 Road and railway verges and power-line servitudes 9: Glades of grass – 141 Perennial and annual grass invaders

10: The invisible sounder – 153 Eurasian wild pigs 11: The sweet-toothed predator in the winelands – 159 The European or yellow jacket wasp C 12: The ‘C ap e nsi s calamity’ – 163 Cape and African honeybees and the painted reed frog 13: Our polluted waterways – 173 Predatory fish (trout, bass and sharptooth catfish) and invasive plants (hydrilla and water hyacinth) 14: A tale of cats and mice – 187 Marion, Prince Edward and Gough Islands 15: Blueprint of a well-nourished world – 203 Genetically modified crops and global food security 16: Staging a defence – 217 Strategies to contain invasion 17: A biological diaspora – 231 South Africa’s weedy exports
Appendices – 236

Appendix 1: Summary of South Africa’s invaders – 236 Appendix 2: A four-river case study – 238 Appendix 3: Roll of dishonour – 239 Appendix 4: Consequences of alien plant invasions – 241 Notes and references – 244 Index – 260


met Prof Steven Chown by accident seven years ago. He was looking for a journalist to put through a Master’s programme and skill up in science communication; I was looking for a career change. The shift in my focus as a writer as a result has been nothing short of seismic. I am indebted to Steven for the many opportunities this collaboration has afforded me since then, working with Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Invasion Biology (CIB) and the Capacity Building Programme for Climate Change Research, the latter of which has since been put out to pasture. Invaded is another instalment in this fruitful working relationship, one which I think demonstrates that scientists and journalists can bridge the divide between the disciplines if they put their minds to it. In 2004 the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) launched the South African Centres of Excellence Programme, creating a number of centres around the country with the mandate to conduct research, development and training in their respective fields. The CIB is one of these centres, based at Stellenbosch University. Without the vision of the CIB, or financial backing from Stellenbosch University, DST and NRF, Invaded would never have been written. Sarah Davies, the CIB’s Deputy Director: Operations and resident frog fundi, is one of the easiest people to work with. I’m deeply grateful to her for sharing her experience as a scientist, as well as for the logistical and moral support throughout. Prof Dave Richardson is the CIB’s Deputy Director: Science Strategy and has probably written more about invasive species in southern Africa than anyone in the country. He tirelessly fielded questions and requests for journal articles through the course of writing Invaded. Photographer Rodger Bosch took a difficult brief and turned it into a collection of fantastic pictures to document this story. It was a pleasure to work with him. And, of course, there are many more people who assisted in various ways, particularly the CIB team: Anel Garthwaite, Lufuno Vhengani, Kirsten Mahood, Natasha Kruger, Karen Esler, Sue Milton, Erika Nortje, Charles Griffiths, Melodie McGeoch, Michael Samways, Brian van Wilgen, Theresa Wossler, Suzaan Kritzinger-Klopper, , Paul Skelton, Steven Lowe, John Terblanche, John Wilson, Serban Proches and Dian , Spear. Dave Pepler, guest at the CIB and roving naturalist, was my favourite source of procrastination and is a walking enlightenment. Outside of the CIB were many other scientists who were always willing to spare a few moments: Res Altwegg, Ross Wanless, Marthán Bester, Deon Hignett, Anton



Wolfaardt, Ernst Baard and his colleagues Guy Palmer and Peter Lloyd, David Ehrenfeld, David Le Maitre, Adnan Awad, Niek Gremmen, Jim Cambray, Dean Impson and John Hoffman. Dr Guy Preston and Prof Kader Asmal contributed to the discussion on these pages, but have also done extraordinary work in getting invasive alien plants onto the national agenda. My thanks, also, to the Wits University Press team, particularly Veronica Klipp and Melanie Pequeux, for their unflagging support over the years; and to Andrea Nattrass, whose editor’s touch was light as a feather, but her eye eagle-sharp. And, of course, a final bow of gratitude to Wayne de Villiers for his eternal kindness.

Invasive alien species: The spread of invasive alien species and disease organisms continues to increase because of both deliberate translocations and accidental introductions related to growing trade and travel, with significant harmful consequences to native species and many ecosystem services. MILLENNIUM ECOSYSTEM ASSESSMENT (2005: 15)

Most of the direct drivers of change in ecosystems and biodiversity currently remain constant or are growing in intensity in most ecosystems. The most important direct drivers of change in ecosystems are habitat change (land use change and physical modification of rivers or water withdrawal from rivers), overexploitation, invasive alien species, pollution, and climate change. MILLENNIUM ECOSYSTEM ASSESSMENT (2005: 14, 67)



t was on a misty, drizzly day on Hogsback, in the Amatola Mountains of the Eastern Cape, that it finally occurred to me why this was such a difficult book to write. I was visiting the mountain for a December break, and my father and I were wandering along a muddy path which our family and many like us have worn smooth after decades of use. The dripping leaves of the silver birches, draped over the path, slapped runlets of water along my cheeks if I didn’t duck in time. The brambles snagged at the grey and dappled fetlocks of the Basotho ponies we rode. ‘A botanical slum,’ said my dad in passing, nodding contemplatively at the clogged undergrowth on either side of us. Even in the glorious, soft-focus light that cushions your view in this mist-belt when the cloud is down, the ugliness was unavoidable. Matted brambles, snarled into thorny knots of impenetrable green around the rotting stumps of long-felled pine trees; dense stands of black wattles, growing tall and scrawny as they jostled one another for light and room; even the silvery elegance of the birches took on a sinister mood as they slumped, alone or in pairs, amidst this scruffy tangle of alien plants. Pollution doesn’t make for easy sonnets or flowing, romantic narratives. And that’s what this book is about – pollution. Not the everyday sort of pollution that we recognise so easily, the type which piles up into stinking heaps of litter or that clogs the sky with filthy smoke. No, this is a form of pollution which is so subtle and insidious that many people do not realise it is there. Invaded is about biological pollution, the kind that comes in dense hedges of lush greenery, blooming fields of heady petals or gracefully draped creepers. It may spread incognito on the wings of a bird, tug on the end of an angler’s line or scurry unnoticed through the undergrowth.


Opposite: Advances in modern transportation have shrunk the globe, making it easier for people and cargo to move about, penetrating even the most remote places.



Indigenous forest at Hanglip on the Soutpansberg hiking trail, near Makhado (formerly Louis Trichardt) in the Limpopo Province.

These pages explore plants and animals that have traversed the borders and boundaries of their natural habitats and made their way into South Africa over the past 300 years and more. Unhindered by the predators and diseases which once kept their populations in check, many have come to outnumber and outcompete the species they encounter in their adopted homes. What is an alien invasive organism? It’s an organism that occurs outside of its natural ecosystem, having arrived in a place, an ‘adopted’ home, by intentional or unintentional human involvement.1 Most of all, it’s one that has the potential to ‘cause harm to the environment, economies, or human health’, according to the Global Invasive Species Programme. South Africans are most familiar with invasive alien plants such as pines, wattles, gum trees, hakea and hyacinth. Not only do these plants dominate a landscape, but their threat to our country’s scarce water resources has been highlighted by the government’s battle against them through the Working for Water programme. But there are many other examples of species that either are invasive, or have the potential to become invasive. This book is not a complete guide to invasive alien organisms in South Africa. Rather, it attempts to give an overview of the different kinds of species that have arrived in our country over the past few centuries, the threats they pose or their potential to become a threat.


Chapters 1 and 2 explain how we got to be in this situation in the first place. Technological advances in travel and communication have literally shrunk the globe, making it faster and easier for people and cargo to move across continents and oceans in days or hours. This high-octane travel bridges the very geological barriers, like oceans or vast mountain ranges, which prevented species from moving outside of their home ranges previously. During the years of European colonisation of Africa, many species were deliberately introduced into this country in an attempt to recreate the gardens and foods about which the new settlers felt so sentimental. Water is the theme of Chapter 3, since South Africa’s fresh water supplies are naturally scarce, and the country is prone to drought. The threat which alien plants pose to our water security makes these plants a priority to clear and control, hence Chapter 16. And sandwiched in between these are glimpses into different invaders within a variety of ecosystems in our country, or various issues surrounding invasions: marine invaders along our coast; insects from countries afar; birds, both indigenous ones which are shifting outside their natural South African ranges, and foreign birds. Feral pigs and the European yellow jacket wasp may not technically be fully fledged invaders yet, but their unique status means they still deserve a red flag, and each gets a chapter of its own. Feral pigs are destructive aliens, and the ‘footprint’ of their damage within the endangered renosterveld is so large, relative to the sensitivity of the plants and animals they threaten, that this creature got a chapter all of its own. Similarly, the yellow jacket wasp appears to be on the decline in the Western Cape, but its potency as an invader in other countries means it could be one small hop across the Cape mountains away from being a significant problem in southern Africa. The devil weed threatening the Nile crocodile breeding grounds in KwaZulu-Natal; roadsides as refuges for rare plants; the indigenous Cape honeybee being shipped north; grasses as the under-reported invader; the disastrous invasion of Marion Island by cats and mice; fish and plants in our rivers; and the need for genetic diversity to keep our global food supplies secure. Each chapter tries to encapsulate a unique angle on this vast theatre of invasive alien species and how they fit into South Africa’s unique landscapes.

A vast man-made forest – Johannesburg.



Top: The beautiful natural landscape of Mapelane dune in KwaZulu-Natal. Above: The European shore crab or green crab (Carcinus meanas) arrived in South African waters in 1983. It features in the Global Invasive Species Programme’s list of the world’s 100 worst invaders (see Appendix 3 starting on page 239).

And finally, Chapter 17 illustrates that South Africa has given as much as the rest of them – exporting its own invaders in exchange for the ones that have come here. Alien invasive species are the unintended fellow travellers which accompany human migration around an increasingly globalised planet. Today, the biological pollution associated with these organisms is better understood and is now being taken seriously by conservationists and governments. Besides bringing about the extinction of many species in the environments which they invade, alien invasive species undermine biological diversity and alter the ability of ecosystems to function and sustain life. This has implications for people who depend on those environments for resources such as food, shelter or water. A collapsed natural system is also less likely to function as a ‘sink’ to absorb sewage, biodegradable waste and other pollution associated with human settlement. Alien invasive species also change natural fire regimes, undermine agriculture and drink more than their fair share of water – all of which have implications for the natural environment and for the people living in those landscapes. The cost of invasive species to the global economy is about US$1.4 trillion every year – the equivalent of 5% of the global gross domestic product (GDP). I hope, through the pages of this book, to provide a glimpse of the many alien and invasive species that have moved into South Africa and between its different habitats.


The stories in the book attempt to quantify how these species have changed systems, disrupted the natural environment and threatened the future of the country’s many unique plants, animals and habitats. Of course, like any good plot line, this one is not without its controversy. So many people in our society depend on some of the very species which have become invasive, whether for domestic firewood or for jobs in the timber industry. Like it or not, in a country that is naturally short of trees, alien trees provide a valuable resource. Like them or loathe them, many species which are alien and sometimes even invasive, are the foundation of industries which this country would be economically poorer without: consider the role of woody trees grown by the forestry industry for the country’s many timber and paper needs, or the considerable value of the pet and nursery plant trade, or agriculture and our need for food security. I hope that Invaded will be a book that sits close to the elbow of any nature enthusiast or environmentalist or policy maker, the kind of book that will be picked up from time to time and a different chapter dipped into as a reminder of how serious this problem of invasive alien organisms really is in our country.

Below: Advances in modern transportation have shrunk the globe, making it easier for people and cargo to move about, penetrating even the most remote places. Left: The Argentine ant (Linepithema humile) was introduced accidentally, probably in horse fodder brought to the country to support the imperial war effort during the South African War.



In a country that is naturally short of trees, farming with alien species such as these gum trees is key to propping up one part of the economy.


Not everyone shares the commitment of governments, scientists and conservationists who are set on controlling the spread of non-indigenous species. A handful of critics have emerged – sociologists, philosophers, historians and horticulturists – whose opinion on the matter has been informed by contemporary ideological movements and politics. And it seems that Nazism might be where this train of thought first started. Under Nazi rule, non-indigenous plants in Germany became the focus of a vigorous ‘war of extermination’. In light of the Nazis’ ‘final solution’, which produced genocide of the Jews in Germany, it is hardly surprising that social commentary traced this biological ‘cleansing’ process back to racism and anti-Semitism. Many critics maintained that similar botanical initiatives, or proponents of the use of native plants in horticulture elsewhere in the world, were steeped in the same racist intolerance. During the Second World War the trend in Dutch landscaping was to favour indigenous species in recognition of the damage to natural systems by non-indigenous species. Daniel Simberloff writes that during the occupation of the Netherlands by Nazi forces, concern grew amongst Dutch landscapers that their conservation-mindedness was being loaded with ideology by the Nazis and metamorphosed into something far less savoury.2


In a global context nationalist zeal sometimes took a darker turn and became the undercurrent of xenophobia, racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. Likewise, social critique emerged which maintained that a propensity for favouring native species or wanting to eradicate non-native species was akin to racist and nationalist sentiments where ‘locals’ feared ‘outsiders’ or ‘locals’ were somehow better than or more aesthetically pleasing than ‘outsiders’. Attempts to eradicate non-indigenous plants became analogous with ‘ethnic cleansing’. The need to keep ecosystems indigenous and unpolluted by aliens should not be anthropomorphised in this way. Neither should this process be confused with the loaded agendas of socio-political ideology, which ultimately are pseudoscientific and detract from the issue at hand, namely, that alien and invasive species are documented to produce significant and sometimes catastrophic consequences to indigenous species and systems, often leading to extinctions. In many cases, these invasions can be quantified by their significant economic and health costs for people and environments. Before industrialisation and globalisation, the detrimental consequences of human development were usually localised. Pollution seldom affected communities far from the source. That all changed with industrialisation when large-scale atmospheric pollution brought acid rain and global climate change to countries, communities and populations who, in many cases, were not responsible for that pollution at all. Could you not argue that invasive alien species are a similar form of global pollution and should be viewed as such, rather than afforded the protection of a thin veneer of ideological ‘respectability’? Invaded was on its way to be edited at the time that the xenophobic violence broke out in many parts of South Africa in May 2008. This distressing set of events was a stark reminder of what can happen in a society when ‘the other’ is perceived as a threat or as different from ‘us’. At a genetic level, every human being is so closely related that we are brothers and sisters, regardless of what part of the globe we come from, what colour our skin, what language we speak, or food we eat. We are all part of a broader family that originated in Africa and migrated outwards over the past 100 000 years, and has continued migrating since then. When we view our presence on Earth from the perspective of the geological timeline, every single one of us is a migrant, and an immigrant at some level, even though our family might settle somewhere for a few generations, giving the place the status of ‘country’ and calling it our own. National boundaries are arbitrary constructs of this modern thing called the ‘nation state’ and an attempt to apply thinking around alien invasive species to the migration of human beings is pseudoscientific and intellectually dishonest.


Travel and conquest on the road to globalisation

onsider the sewing needle: a thin shard of metal, sharpened at one end, with a small hole at the other to receive a thread of cotton or twine. Its purpose is as utterly mundane as the chore of mending holey socks. The humble sewing needle may not appear to be the most formidable piece of engineering in a technological age, in a world where astronauts on the International Space Station watch our Sun rising over Earth every 90 minutes and scientists have mapped out the human genome. But the sewing needle’s role in human occupation of this world was, at one time, as important to the conquest of the Americas as NASA’s Apollo missions were to landing a man on the moon. Without the sewing needle, humans would not have reached the Americas when they did. This is because the sewing needle was part of humanity’s conquest of cold – the final hurdle to our ancestors reaching the last unclaimed continents about 18 000 years ago. As far as the road to modernisation goes, it symbolises the technological advancements our kind have made that have allowed us to spread our reach around so much of the globe. And the story of invasive and alien species is really about just this – travel and conquest on the road to globalisation. Archaeological records show that none of our hominid relatives, neither Homo erectus nor the Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis), was able to live higher than 53° North.1 By about 28 000 years ago both these lineages had become extinct, leaving only the ‘Wise Man’, Homo sapiens, to continue its migration around the globe. After first evolving in East Africa about 150 000 years ago, modern humans moved out of Africa and up into south-west Asia about 100 000 years ago,2 quite likely following the similar routes taken by Homo erectus who departed the cradle of humankind much earlier. Nevertheless, Homo sapiens probably lived ‘alongside


Opposite: The need to beautify gardens and waterways has helped to spread many alien species around the globe. This water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) hails from the Amazon River.



Neanderthals and other older human types’ for tens of thousands of years3 before the other hominid forms finally died out. From south-west Asia, some groups of Homo sapiens trekked south-east of that continent, reaching it by 65 000 years ago while others trekked west and settled across Europe by 41 000 years ago. The east-bound migrations probably accounted for parties which, using rudimentary boat building, were able to island-hop down from the coast of Indonesia to settle in Australia by about 30 000 years ago. But it was only with the conquest of cold that the first modern humans could trek up into the high Arctic tundra and approach what could be their only possible route into the New World. By 18 000 years ago, planet Earth was in the midst of an ice age and anywhere approaching the Arctic Circle would have been a miserable and frozen place – much worse than it is today. But massive ice sheets, trapping so much of the planet’s water, meant that the sea level had dropped, slipping back to reveal a small finger of land where north-eastern Siberia reaches out to touch a protrusion of North America: the Bering Strait.4 Between 20 000 and 12 000 years ago, writes Peter Watson, historian at Cambridge University’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, a thin bridge of land covered with steppe-tundra would have been exposed by the retreating sea, allowing small groups to migrate across into the New World, probably following the migration of the big herbivores. People would have needed very specific technology to enable them to survive the frigid hell of an ice age Arctic. By about 18 000 years ago, these groups had learned to erect shelter using the bones of mammoths, covered with hides and vegetation, which provided much better shelter than their previous resting places, mere depressions in the ground. Those early stone knives and spearheads meant they could kill the massive herbivores of the tundra, woolly mammoths. But it was the needle that enabled them to fashion garments against the persistent cold. So humans were able to make use of that slim window provided by the ice age to slip across from Siberia into Alaska. Then, as the ice age gave way to a warmer interglacial warm spell, the ice sheets retreated again, releasing their water. The sea rose again to reclaim the land bridge, trapping those first true Americans on their new continent. The year was about 13 000 before present (BP). Without belabouring the point, the needle is something of a caricature of the broader process that allowed humans to colonise so many corners of the globe. Other animals wanting to adopt the Arctic as their home would have had to evolve physical adaptations, at a genetic level, to allow them to move into the new environment. A thicker pelt would have been needed, or a different jaw and tooth structure to ac-


commodate the strange foods in this new environment.5 This takes many generations to complete. Humans could make the adaptive changes much faster – not by changing their physiology, but rather by simply developing the technology to take the hide of a woolly mammoth and fashion it into warm clothes and tents. The physical adaptation to allow for this had already been made millennia earlier – by evolving a bigger brain, in part because of our switch to include meat in our diets. It is this capacity to adapt the world around us, rather than having to adapt to the world, that enabled us to move and settle further and faster than ever before. The story of invasive species starts, simply, with the story of global travel. Whether it was a sewing needle, a mild-mannered herbivore such as a horse or a bridle to fit it, a wheel, an ox cart, a steam-powered train, a car with an internal combustion engine, a jet airplane or a lunar rocket: these were all quibbling details in the broader conquest of the globe. Travel has shrunk the globe – and the faster we have been able to travel, the smaller the world has become.

For the greater part of the emergence of Homo sapiens as a dominant generalist species on the planet, its movements were on foot. When a community migrated, it packed its belongings and simply walked. But human ingenuity learned quickly that there were ways to lighten the load and speed up the journey. The wheel was the first big technological jump forward, allowing the load bearer to shed the weight of shouldered bundles or pulled sleds. Harnessing the strength of the most available tame herbivore was another stroke of genius. It took a few hundred years for communities to develop the most efficient harness techniques to the different body shapes of the animals at their disposal, but eventually they had draught animals carrying loads, pulling plough shears and moving carts. Those societies which were able to capture the significant power of the horse through a simple arrangement of leather halter or bridle were set apart; the saddle and foot-stirrup secured their position atop their mounts just as it asserted their place within the social hierarchy; nailing a band of iron to the underside of the hoof wall made the animals more hardy and able to cover greater distances over tougher terrain. Horses led the charge: they shrank distances between villages and capitals, sped up travel and fuelled a faster and more efficient trade. Horse-drawn chariots and mounted soldiers pushed geo-political boundaries wider and elevated warfare. When Spaniards arrived in South America, their mounted soldiers were a terror to the indigenous people who had never encountered such formidable beasts, let alone seen people mounted on them.



The camel – the single-humped native to the Arabian peninsula and North Africa, and the double-humped Bactrian of the Gobi Desert – did for trade routes what wheeled vehicles could not. The simple development of the camel saddle brought these tough desert animals into the fold of beasts of burden. By allowing weight to be distributed over the animal’s ribs rather than its hump, the device opened up the transSahara trade routes. Arab merchants led their thousands-strong strings of camels through the Sahara, laden with salt to trade with West Africans for gold and slaves. Iran and Africa were suddenly linked. The silk route thrived between China and imperial Rome. Vast amounts of wealth and traffic flowed to and fro on the backs of the newly tamed ruminants. These technologies may appear simple and archaic, but in a pre-industrial society they overcame geological barriers, levelled mountains, opened up plains, bridged deserts and shrank the great expanses of continents. Another unconquered barrier remained open to exploration: the expanse of the ocean. After all, oceans do account for two-thirds of the Earth’s surface and were a formidable obstacle. The first elementary ships allowed for near-shore travel. But eventually the Chinese ‘junk’ gave this nation a formidable trade presence in the oceans off India, Borneo and Java, and as far as the Red Sea long before European communities had made much naval headway. Advances in shipping later opened up the New World, Africa and Australia to colonisation by modern travellers, and linked Europe with the established and wealthy Asian trade routes, including the highly prized spice route. The next step was to make travel and communications faster and more efficient. That’s where the Industrial Revolution came in. The steam engine put a new kind of muscle behind the movement of people and goods between places. Advances in ironore refinement allowed stronger railway tracks to spread the footprint of imperial nations deeper into their colonies. The emerging industrial economy needed new markets in which to peddle its wares and needed access to cheap natural resources in growing quantities. Rail transport became the most efficient way to extract mineral reserves, rubber, ivory, hides, fuel, livestock, labour, sugar, coffee and anything else insatiable imperialist countries desired. Historian Clive Ponting writes: One of the most important of all developments in the nineteenth century was a revolution in the speed of communications. Internally railways allowed people to travel across most countries within a day but even more important for the development of European control were the changes in sailing times. Until the 1830s the Europeans, like their predecessors in the sixteenth century and the Arab and Roman sailors two millennia


earlier, were dependent on the monsoon winds for communications with Asia, particularly India. A message from Britain to India took about five to eight months to arrive, depending on the time of year. Because of the monsoons a response would not arrive back in Britain until almost two years had elapsed. Railways and steamships shortened this time dramatically.6 The journey from London to Bombay via Cairo by then took only 30 days, a tenth of the time taken before steam power, writes Ponting. Previously, where communication depended on runners and horsemen – requiring lengthy return journeys between destinations to deliver information, dispatch cargo and finally take delivery of whatever goods had been ordered – electricity, the telegraph and Morse code did away with half the journey. Now a message could be sent back to the imperial capital almost instantly and the goods dispatched on the next ship out. The internal combustion engine put motor vehicles onto a growing network of roads which criss-crossed continents and linked cities. Then the Wright brothers propelled the first machine into the air and before long a single leap across the Atlantic was an everyday affair. Faster airplanes, more efficient road travel, bulk cargo carriers, refrigerated containers, radio and television, digital and satellite communications have all taken a massive globe and shrunk it to a metaphorical village. A burgeoning human population (which had grown from the pre-Industrial 610 million to today’s 6.5 billion), growing global wealth, cheap oil, war mongering and tourists’ hunger to explore new places are only giving people more reason to move along the transport networks crafted by the hands of these clever apes. Trade and travel routes now link even the furthest reaches of the globe like a network of veins and arteries along which people, goods, language, science, political discourse, religions, novel foods as well as strange animals and plants can travel to places which previously had been insular and isolated. The first journey from the Rift Valley in Africa, across Asia and the Bering Strait, across North America and down to South America took Homo sapiens 150 000 years to complete. Today a trip between Johannesburg and Buenos Aires takes less than 24 hours. LIFE IN THE GLOBAL SUPERMARKET The process which started with a horse-and-cart trip to the next village to trade vegetables and milk has escalated into something almost unrecognisable: globalisation. The shrinking of the globe through international commerce, transport and communication has meshed cultures, merged languages and threatens to paint cultures with the same homogenous brush. When Marco Polo entered the Kublai Khan’s China



Wheat fields in the Swartland, Western Cape. As globalisation continues to shrink the planet, more and more food varieties are being adopted by farmers around the world, spreading potentially invasive plants and any pests and diseases they might carry with them.

in the 1200s he’d have encountered language and clothing unlike anything he’d known in Europe. Today an international traveller arriving in Beijing will find most of the locals dressed in the international uniform of the West – Nike, Levi’s, Adidas, Armani and their various knock-offs – and should have little trouble finding someone fluent in an international language such as English, Spanish, French or Mandarin. Today the local supermarket is an identity crisis of foods. Consider these culturally specific foods: there are chillies that are ubiquitous to Indian cuisine, tomatoes for the quintessential Italian meal, potatoes which for decades were the staple food for the Irish and mealie meal which still bulks up the plates of most southern Africans. The fresh-produce section is bulging with sweet potatoes, beans, pumpkins, papaya, avocado and pineapple. Then there are all the variations on the addictive themes of cacao and tobacco. Every one of these plants is indigenous to the New World and yet has been assimilated seamlessly by other cultures since the Americas were opened up by Christopher Columbus 500 years ago.


Traditionalists globally are lamenting the loss of language and culture in the face of globalisation. Ecologists are documenting the damage to indigenous environments through very similar processes. Humans have settled into all but the most inhospitable places on the planet, taking with them the favoured few – the cereals, roots, fruits and nuts which favour their palate and diet, and the animals which complement their lives and carry their loads. Imperialist nations throughout history have taken along with them, on their conquests, their own equivalents of the English country garden and the menagerie of family pets. Wherever dominant cultures have settled, they have created home away from home. Tagging along, too, were the unintended companions on this mass migration: diseases, weeds and pests. Many of these tame species have remained obediently inside the white picket fences of domestication. But a few have broken through and become feral. Of those, some have slotted into their newly adopted ecosystems without too much interruption to natural systems. Others have run rampant, their numbers growing unchecked by predators or climate. Ecosystems which did not have the means to fend off invasions were overrun, in places, by these new arrivals. Having escaped the confines of domestication, these new global travellers did not respect the artificial geo-political boundaries created by nations but were opportunistic enough to hitch a ride through border posts and over boundary lines. They have since moved into and colonised many indigenous systems, upsetting the natural order. Some drink more than their fair share of water; many push out certain native species and give unfair advantage to others; they switch the recycling on nutrients and turn away the pollinators; they overshadow and undermine as they advance. These are what science labels ‘invasive species’ and they are among the greatest threats to biological diversity on the planet today. A tense co-dependence now exists between humans and the ‘alien’ species which they have transported around the globe because, in many cases, humans are dependent on these species for food, shelter, ecosystem services and medicine. A handful of crops – wheat, maize, rice, potato, barley, cassava, soybean, sugar cane and oats – account for over 70% of global food supply, while three genera of trees – pine, eucalyptus and teak – acThe loss of species and genetic diversity decreases the resilience count for 85% of the planet’s large-scale forestry. of ecosystems, which is the level of disturbance that an ecosysThe unwanted consequences of supplying a 6.5tem can undergo without crossing a threshold to a different strucbillion-strong population with goods and services, is ture or functioning. In addition, growing pressures from drivers the homogenisation of natural systems around the such as over-harvesting, climate change, invasive species, and globe. Alien species are aiding this process as the rate nutrient loading push ecosystems toward thresholds that they of invasion by non-indigenous species continues to might otherwise not encounter. escalate with globalisation. A widely used example MILLENNIUM ECOSYSTEM ASSESSMENT (2005) holds that in the San Francisco Bay area, an average of one new species established itself every fifty-five



Top right: European settlers sought to recreate the country gardens in their new colonies. The horticulture trade grew out of this. Centre right: Cecil John Rhodes introduced the common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and the grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) to Cape Town to ‘improve’ the amenities of the peninsula. Bottom right: The need to beautify gardens and waterways has helped to spread many alien species around the globe. This water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) hails from the Amazon River.


weeks during the period 1851–1960. This accelerated to one new species every fourteen weeks during the period 1961–95. This increased rate of spread poses a threat to biodiversity which is second only to habitat change. Revered British ecologist and author, Charles Elton, put it rather succinctly when he said of invasive species globally: ‘We must make no mistake: we are seeing one of the great historical convulsions in the world’s fauna and flora.’7 The main pathways which have allowed alien and invasive plants into South Africa are forestry, agriculture and horticulture. Birds and mammals found their way here mostly through the trade in pets, as well as through novelty and ornamental species for private collections, hunting and game viewing. Others were through self-introduction. Most freshwater fish were brought in for game fishing, the aquarium trade and aquaculture. SOUTH AFRICA INVADED Predictably, the invasion into southern Africa followed the paths of European settlement and colonisation. It started at the coast and slowly became entrenched further inland. During the past three and a half centuries, 8 750 different exotic plants have been introduced for the purposes of beautifying gardens, as well as for providing timber and fuel, fodder and food. Others were brought to these shores for their dune-binding potential and their bark tannins. Most of these remained in the confines of their domestication. But some, just 180 plant species in all, found conditions in their adopted home ideal. Without diseases or predators, these species have invaded, their range spreading steadily over 8% of the country’s land surface – 10 million ha in all – and are continuing to spread further. Meanwhile, waters in and around the country are now host to 58 different alien plants, animals, parasites and diseases; 25 different alien molluscs now call South Africa their adopted home, while the Mediterranean mussel is by far the most powerful invader. In the class of insects, only one wasp, the European yellow jacket wasp (Vespula germanica) has been introduced and it teeters close to the brink of becoming a possible invader, although this remains contentious. One mite has naturalised while 24 alien spiders can be found around South African homes. Two reptiles are naturalised but they remain below the radar of concern to invasion biology scientists. As far as mammals are concerned, none has formally been elevated to the ranks of invaders in this country – most, such as rats, are still only regarded as pests. But one
Japanese oysters (Crassostrea gigas) were first introduced to the Knysna Estuary nearly 60 years ago.



Top: The rain-kissed leaves of the silver wattle (Acacia dealbata). Above: A hedge of rooikrans (Acacia cyclops) – this is one of several wattle species introduced from Australia and is one of the most serious invaders of the Cape Floral Kingdom where it was brought to bind the province’s shifting dunes.

mammal, the feral pig, features in the pages of this book as needing reconsideration as an invader. This is not because of the extent of its range or its boundless population growth, but rather because of the significant impact its presence has on one of South Africa’s most critically endangered habitats, renosterveld. Forty-eight alien bird species have found their way into South Africa’s borders, but only four have become invasive.8 Some indigenous birds have also begun to shift outside of their natural ranges and into new territories. It is the invasive plants that have attracted the most attention, possibly because the impressive and highly visible nature of many species makes them easy to recognise and study. These trees change water cycles and increase the intensity of fires; they erode the existing natural diversity and can drive indigenous species to extinction; they change the way nutrients are recycled; they change soil quality and cause erosion; and they reduce river flow as they drink up excessive water. Other environmental changes play into the hand of invasive species and their destructiveness. The South Africa Country Study, published in 2005 as part of the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, estimates that today 25% of South Africa has been transformed from its natural state. The culprits are: extensive ranching of cattle, sheep and goats. Development in the form of crops, plantations, mines, settlements, roads, dams, ports and industries… Land degradation, clearing of indigenous vegetation, invasion of land by alien species and climate change all interlink to create synergies that exacerbate and compound the impact on biodiversity, leading in turn to further degradation and loss.9

Trees grown commercially for timber, pulp and paper are exotic species such as Eucalyptus, Pinus and Acacia species from Australia, North America and the Mediterranean. Many of these have become serious invaders. While plantations cover about 1.5 million ha, gums are scattered widely across an estimated 2.4 million ha, pines have invaded 3 million ha of mountain catchments, forest fringes, grasslands and fynbos. Black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) grown commercially primarily for tannin, has invaded over 2.5 million ha and is regarded as one of South Africa’s most serious invader species. SOUTH AFRICA COUNTRY STUDY (2005: 87)


South Africa doesn’t have much natural forest, so agroforestry has met the country’s need for timber, paper and other wood products. Pine, wattle and eucalyptus forests now cover over 1.3 million ha of the South African landscape where they are grown as monocultures. Top: Pine plantation at Graskop, Mpumalanga. Centre left: Eucalyptus trees at the foot of Table Mountain in Cape Town. Bottom left: Black wattle (Acacia mearnsii), outside Paarl.



AN ARSENAL OF UNDESIRABLES Problem species are found in most places where humans have transformed the landscape, from the dandelions popping up all over the lawn and the scale insect sucking the life out of a prize bonsai, to marauding locust swarms or the strangling creeper taking over a coastal reserve. Problem plant species have received the greatest attention from the scientific community because they’re rooted to the ground and won’t scurry off while they’re being counted and mapped. The geographic range or extent of problem animals is usually much more difficult to quantify because they may be able to move or hide more easily. The invasive spread of micro-organisms such as viruses, bacteria, fungi, algae, arthropods and plankton are much more difficult to find unless an outbreak of disease results in a visible manifestation of their presence. Environmentalist Aldo Leopold summarised it nicely. A thing is right, he said, when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong if it tends to do otherwise.
10 11

Here are some useful terms to help qualify what’s what in the world of invasion biology:

• Native species: This was a term used to describe species which are indigenous to an area, having evolved there or migrated to the area in a time before the human species rose up to dominate systems and alter natural movement of species. However, it is a politically loaded term because of the derogatory connotations of the word in South Africa’s historical context. • Alien species: Exotic or non-indigenous species, one which occurs in an area outside of its natural or native ecosystem, having arrived in South Africa through intentional or unintentional human involvement (this does not include species that have moved outside of their normal range because of a response to other human-initiated environmental change such as climate change). Species can be alien to continents, islands, bioregions and ecoregions, but can also be alien within man-made political entities such as states and provinces. The Global Invasive Species Programme calls invasive alien species ‘non-native organisms that cause, or have the potential to cause, harm to the environment, economies, or human health’. • Naturalised species: Established alien species that sustain a self-replacing population for at least ten years without direct human intervention and are capable of maintaining their population on their own, but are not necessarily invasive within an ecosystem. • Invasive species: Naturalised species that produce reproductive offspring, often in very large numbers, with the potential to spread over a large area. • Transformer species: Invasive species that change the character, condition, form or nature of an ecosystem over a substantial area. These either use resources excessively (such as water, light and oxygen), or are donors of limiting resources (nitrogen), promote or suppress fires, stabilise sand, promote erosion, colonise intertidal mudflats or stabilise sediment or accumulate litter, amongst other things. • Weed and pest species: These are anthropogenic terms as they are measured in terms of disruption to systems which are congruent with human objectives. However, they refer to problem species which occur in sufficiently great numbers in areas or sites where they are not wanted and have a measurable economic or environmental impact.


WHAT THE LAW SAYS The National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act (NEMBA), which was signed into law in 2004, describes an ‘alien species’ as a) a species that is not an indigenous species; or b) an indigenous species translocated or intended to be translocated to a place outside its natural distribution range in nature, but not an indigenous species that has extended its natural distribution range by natural means of migration or dispersal without human intervention. NEMBA describes an invasive species as ‘any species whose establishment and spread outside of its natural distribution range a) threaten ecosystems, habitats or other species or have demonstrable potential; or b) may result in economic or environmental harm or harm to human health’. The painted reed frog, for instance, is indigenous to the east of South Africa, but has found its way into dams around the town of Stellenbosch after being accidentally transported there in fruit crates or nursery stock. It is regarded as an alien to the Western Cape, but scientists have not yet studied the animal enough in its new habitat to decide whether or not it is invasive.

The relocation of indigenous species into neighbouring ecosystems is one area of invasion biology that has not received much public attention. This beautiful painted reed frog (Hyperolius marmoratus), photographed between Strand and Somerset West, is indigenous to the east of the country but is just as much an alien in the Western Cape, where it is now found, as the Australian wattle species. Whether or not it will become invasive remains to be seen.



TRANSFORMED LANDSCAPES An urban legend has it that Johannesburg is the largest man-made forest in the world. While this is quite unlikely – since it is doubtful that extensive plantings of such dispersed tree species could possibly function as a forest ecosystem – it is nevertheless a highly transformed landscape with little of the original flora and fauna existing in an undisturbed state.


Biological diversity – the sheer variety of life present in natural ecosystems – delivers the services which ecosystems provide the human species. These include the recycling of a breathable atmosphere and potable water, genetic material for crops as well as the land in which to grow them, materials for building and the recycling of nutrients. These services also provide sinks for the less pleasant aspects of modern civilisation: pollution in the form of sewage, household and other waste, and soot and noxious chemicals shunted up into the skies. Within reason, natural processes are able to absorb these and scrub systems clean again. Healthy, naturally diverse environments help to buffer against shocks to the system such as disease outbreaks or floods. Anything that undermines these systems will compromise the environment’s ability to sustain our needs and absorb our effluent. Increasing human populations and their associated pressure on the natural environment have, during the past few decades, begun to place unreasonable demands on ecosystems for their various services. Invasive species, spread about in this newly modernised world, become one more form of environmental change which is compromising the ability of our natural environments to sustain us. For this reason, invasive species have attracted the attention of scientists, conservationists and even the national government (see Appendix 1: ‘Summary of South Africa’s invaders’), who all realise the need to understand and map the extent of these species within South Africa, to draw up a strategy to manage or eradicate them and, where possible, to prevent new introductions. NEXT STOP, MARS I personally think that a Mars full of Martians is much more interesting than Mars full of Earthlings. Chris McKay, NASA scientist12 Earth’s growing human population, and our considerable ecological footprint on a planet with finite resources, has given science-fiction writers all the material they need for a good yarn. Biologist Edward O. Wilson maintains in his book The Future of Life, if our 6.5billion-strong population all consumed at the rate of the average United States American with today’s technology, four more planet Earths would be needed to meet the demand for resources.13 So why not hop on the next interplanetary shuttle and head for Mars? Besides making for a terrific science-fiction plot, it does raise some interesting philosophical points which could inform how we treat those few remaining wilderness places left on Earth.



Firstly, there’s the not-so-small matter of a 55.6 million km vacuum of space between here and there. But then history shows us that it may only be a matter of time before humanity has the technology to shrink that distance to something that even Christopher Columbus would regard as a grand day out. Once there, we’d have to ‘terraform’ Mars – literally change the planet to be more like Earth – which would require manipulation on a planetary scale. In this case, of the atmosphere. It may hint to a touch of grandiose madness, but NASA thinks it is within the scope of foreseeable technology. Mars is small and further from the Sun than Earth, but it is similar to Earth in speed of rotation, gravity and tilt of the axis. It also has all the raw materials for a workable atmosphere: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen. Since the planet has only the thinnest carbon dioxide (CO2) atmosphere to veil the planet from the frigid reaches of space, it has only a fraction of the air pressure of Earth. Water and CO2, which once formed part of an ancient atmosphere, are probably now locked up at the frozen poles or in underground aquifers. Releasing these back into a rudimentary atmospheric system would require heating the planet, something with which Earthlings are already quite familiar. The idea of pointing orbital mirrors at the frozen Martian South Pole has been bandied about, in order to melt the CO2 and water trapped there. Pumping the atmosphere with other more potent greenhouse gases such as methane, CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) or ammonia could also help to trigger an accelerated global-warming effect which would bulk up the atmosphere, increase air pressure and push up the temperature to something far more liveable than the current conditions, which fluctuate between 25 °C and minus 120 °C. Once this is up and running, plant life could be introduced which would convert much of that CO2 into oxygen. It would take millennia, but eventually something more closely resembling Earth’s mix (of 78% nitrogen to 21% oxygen) might emerge. An ozone layer would also need to be manufactured to protect future colonisers from the DNA-ravaging effect of ultraviolet light, but once the atmosphere has oxygen, sunlight does the rest. NASA has a team of astrobiologists applying their minds to the matter and while this generation will not see habitation on Mars coming to pass, it might be feasible in the future. The question that remains, though, is this: what are the ethical implications of sending teams of scientists and settlers off to pioneer this pristine Martian ‘wilderness’, especially since humanity has not exactly proven itself as the most responsible custodian with its home world? Debating amongst themselves about the morality of conquering Mars, ethicists argue that if anything in the universe has ‘formed integrity’ and is worthy of a proper


name, it should be respected for its intrinsic value. There’s also the interdependent connectedness of systems which justifies placing value on even the smallest parts which make up the whole, considering that every single thing – whether crafted by nature or by the hand of a person – is made of the same stuff. All matter and energy which erupted outward with the Big Bang became the universal fabric from which everything in this solar system and beyond was created. The discovery of ‘extremophiles’ on Earth – microscopic life surviving in environment extremes such as those living around super-heated vents on ocean beds – suggests that there are life forms which might be able to survive in environments as harsh as those currently experienced on Mars. NASA’s Mark Lupisella argues that while there is surely no life on the surface of Mars, there could be bacterial life hibernating below the surface. If this were the case, then sending manned missions to Mars could contaminate such life. It may already have happened, since Earthlings have already landed their robots on Mars. Countering this debate, though, is the following ethical argument: if life of this kind does exist on Mars, would killing or damaging it be any different from the en masse killing we do every single day on Earth, through dispensing of the arsenal of antibiotics prescribed by doctors? Whichever way you debate it, if Earthlings embarked on greening up the red planet, it would simply be a continuation of the processes of colonisation, exploration and conquest that has marked the history of this species for 150 000 years. Some even say the colonisation of Mars is inevitable because of the self-interested human condition which drives such exploits. As history has shown, the species has not concerned itself much with the consequences of its exploits on other indigenous species and ecosystems on this planet. To quote the late astronomer and author Carl Sagan, ‘if there is life on Mars … we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if they are only microbes.’14


Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Special offer for students: Only $4.99/month.

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Cancel anytime.