Cape Town – Recent reports have made a link between the Covid-19 viral outbreak and forest degradation – today the FBIP observes International Day of Forests 2020 by reflecting on its Eastern Cape Forests project.

Despite the present pandemonium around the Covid-19 virus, the global spotlight has shifted to the planet’s forests – if only for a day and most likely only by certain interest groups.

This is fitting as many arguments are being made that the Covid-19 crisis has its origins in the destruction of natural systems (and particularly forests) by humans.

In 2012 The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 21 March the International Day of Forests (IDF).

The Day celebrates and raises awareness of the importance of all types of forests.

2020 has been referred to as a “Nature Super Year” and must be the year where we turn the tide on deforestation and forestry loss.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

Forest-human-disease nexus

A recent report in the Guardian said the disruption of pristine forests driven by logging, mining, road building through remote places, rapid urbanisation and population growth was bringing people into closer contact with animal species they may never have been near before.

The report said that in 2008 a team of researchers identified 335 diseases that emerged between 1960 and 2004, at least 60% of which came from animals.

Chair of Ecology and Biodiversity at UCL Prof Kate Jones told the Guardian that the zoonotic diseases were linked to environmental change and human behaviour.

Forests are home to about 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity.

Source: United Nations

SA’s Eastern Cape forests

The Eastern Cape is home to 46% of South Africa’s remaining natural forest cover, including many of the country’s most threatened forest types.

The area also forms part of the Maputuland-Pondoland-Albany Hotspot for biodiversity.

Challenges facing the EC forests represent a crucial test case for the nexus between human survival needs and the importance of keeping indigenous forests intact.

According to Stellenbosch University biodiversity expert Prof Michael Cherry forests are important in terms of the bio-economy.

Cherry told the FBIP that forests had traditionally been harvested by local rural communities, but had experienced increased pressure for timber for building material collection post-democracy.

While collection of bark for medicine has also emerged as a key factor affecting forest integrity.

Furthermore the region has also been earmarked for economic development including dry gas exploration, titanium mining, dam construction, and road-highway infrastructure.

More than a billion people depend directly on forests for food, shelter, energy and income.

Source: United Nations

FBIP Large Grant project

It is within the aforementioned development context that Cherry submitted a proposal for Foundational Biodiversity Information Programme (FBIP) Large Grant Funding to conduct an extensive study on the biodiversity of the Eastern Cape forests.

As per the project proposal the FBIP recognised that intact forests were better equipped to sustain healthy animal and plant populations and broader ecosystem services.

These ecosystem services include the provision of bark and timber products, cultural and spiritual values to indigenous people, and flood regulation potential.

Cherry’s project proposal titled “The effect of habitat fragmentation on faunal diversity of Eastern Cape forests” satisfied the strategic requirements of the FBIP for addressing among other things biodiversity ‘knowledge gaps’ and kicked off in 2016.

The team comprising an extensive network of South African researchers and institutions would focus primarily on forest fauna (animals) as Eastern Cape forest trees were “well-documented”.

The FBIP is funded through the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI)‘s Global Change Research Plan and is jointly managed by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the National Research Foundation (NRF).

Findings to date…

The scope of the Eastern Cape Forest project is broad and includes bird distribution studies, mammal and herpetofauna surveys, invertebrate studies (including those with low mobility), studies on fig wasps together with forest fig trees, freshwater invertebrates, geographic information system (GIS) and satellite imagery studies, long-term monitoring of tree communities, and interviews/surveys with the local community on forest resource use…

Invertebrates

  • 2017 study discovers new ‘pearl white’ freshwater crab species at Mbotyi, a picturesque forested region northeast of Port St Johns and adjacent to the East Coast of South Africa. Read full story
  • 2017 velvet worm study concludes that conservation of forest habitat is critical to conserve genetic diversity – additional novel lineages detected thus boosting potential diversity. Read article
  • 2019 ‘fine-scale’ study on velvet worms raises the flag for better protection of South Africa’s threatened forest habitats. The study finds higher levels of ‘localized endemism’ than previously thought and leads to the detection of a (potential) new species. Read full story
  • 2019 monograph revises the taxonomy of the forest land snail genus Chondrocyclus, thereby uncovering high levels of hidden diversity. An additional genus, Afrocyclus, is recognised while 12 new species is been described. Read article

Herpetofauna (amphibians & reptiles)

  • 2019 molecular genetic study reveals hidden cryptic species within a forest gecko – the Pondo flat gecko. Read full story
  • 2020 study on three frog species (two of which were forest specialists) finds that the forest frogs have marked genetic differentiation suggesting the presence of distinct ‘management units’. These should be considered in future conservation management decisions. Accepted for publication

Avifauna (birds)

  • 2019 study finds that unregulated harvesting of timber, bark and poles from indigenous forests in the Eastern Cape is having a negative impact on bird diversity. Read full story
  • 2019 study finds that patterns of forest bird diversity are affected by elevation. In addition, harvesting of forest products results in increased habitat heterogeneity which affects bird communities at the forest scale – with positive effects for forest generalists and negative effects for forest-specialists. Read article
  • 2020 study investigates the efficacy of two survey techniques used in assessing forest bird communities; point counts and mist-netting. Point counts are shown to better represent all aspects of forest bird community structure. Read article
  • 2020 study assesses informal forest product harvesting by communities living nearby Eastern Cape forests. The study raises concerns about commercial scale bark harvesting and (relatively) high timber extraction of a threatened forest type. Read article

Fig trees & wasp pollinators

  • 2020 study finds despite fig wasp pollinator’s ability to transfer pollen for distances over 100km, forest specialist fig trees show ‘genetic structure’ and are not immune to habitat fragmentation. Read article

More information on International Day of Forests 2020

7 secrets that forests have been keeping from you

2018: The state of the world’s forests

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