More than 130 people attended a special event on 7 April in the heart of the Succulent Karoo biodiversity hotspot to mark the official launch of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) $8 million investment strategy for the region. The Succulent Karoo, which stretches across southwestern South Africa into southern Namibia, is home to more than 6,300 plant species, 40 percent of which are unique to the hotspot.
Rather than the number of people in attendance, what stood out at this gathering in the small town of Vanrhynsdorp in Southern Namaqualand, South Africa was the diversity of participants from South Africa and Namibia, from community leaders, local landowners and nongovernmental nature and tourism groups to representatives of governmental institutions and multi-national mining companies.
"People have said that nature knows no boundaries but this is definitely one of those programs that can contribute to development of a regional plan and even to peace in the region," Pam Yako, deputy director general of the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, said in an opening address.
One of the most urgent conservation priorities, the Succulent Karoo boasts the world's richest variety of succulents—plants with thick, fleshy tissues that can store water—as well as high reptile and invertebrate diversity. The Succulent Karoo is the only entirely arid ecosystem classified as a biodiversity hotspot.
The Knersvlakte priority area of the hotspot, where the event took place and the vegetation of the Succulent Karoo and Cape Floristic hotspots converge, is a vast plain of gently rolling hills with fields of white quartz pebbles supporting unique dwarf succulent plants. Walking through some of the areas requires a watchful eye and careful step as minute succulents dot the land.
Yet the Knersvlakte is also home to the hotspot's greatest percentage of threatened endemic plants, with 128 threatened species. Threats include small-scale mining for gypsum, diamonds and limestone; overgrazing; and unsustainable harvesting of wild plants. Agricultural expansion poses a threat as well: the riverbed of the once mighty Olifants or Elephants River is planted with vineyards as far as the eye can see.
The CEPF strategy for this region includes awarding grants to nongovernmental and community groups to expand protected areas and engage specific land users such as the agricultural sector, mining companies and communal authorities to help meet conservation objectives identified by the Succulent Karoo Ecosystem Planning (SKEP) process.
Conservation International's Southern Africa Hotspots Program facilitated the yearlong participative process as part of CEPF preparations to expand to the hotspot. SKEP involved more than 60 scientific experts and 400 local stakeholders representing government, academia, nongovernmental organizations, private sector interests and local communities.
"We have fought and we have argued but we have all sat around the same table," Russell Smart of Namaqualand National Park said. "It could have fallen apart at any moment but amazingly, it didn't."
The result is a common vision to maintain biodiversity while improving livelihoods and a 20-year strategy for conservation of the Succulent Karoo, which aims to effectively conserve 75 percent of the species in the hotspot. The CEPF approach in the hotspot will be to catalyze SKEP, now known as the Succulent Karoo Ecosystem Program.
Not everyone at the launch was equally enthusiastic. One farmer sat frowning. He said he planned to "wait and see" what the results would really be. "A lot of people attend these types of things just to be there," he said. But for the SKEP team, his attendance at the launch and possibly that of others still not quite sold on the overall idea marked a first important step.