Life on the Edge: Saving the Albertina Sisulu Orchid from Extinction

Written by Zoë Poulsen, Photos: Andrew Hankey

One in five of the world’s plants are at risk of extinction, according to the State of the World’s Plants report published by experts at London’s Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. We are more than aware of the ongoing threats to our tigers, our rhinos and the other charismatic mammals. But quietly under our feet and in our backyards, often unbeknown to us, many other species are also making their final journey towards extinction, to be known only to future generations from photographs and herbarium specimens.

Top & Above: The beautiful Albertinia Sisulu Orchid (Brachycorithis conica subsp. transvaalensis)

Rainforest giants may come crashing to the ground or go up in smoke, fuelled by the unrelenting demand for making a quick buck from timber or to become monocultures for palm oil. Other species may fall victim to transformation of ecosystems by the scourge of alien invasive plants or quietly disappear underneath another shopping mall, another block of luxury apartments or that perfect house by the sea.

Above: One of the iconic Black (Verraux) Eagles of Roodekraans that also call the Sugarbush Ridges home.

As this habitat loss has happened, scientists and conservationists have risen to the challenge in a desperate battle to come up with increasingly innovative ways to save our biodiversity. Plant species under threat? No worries, we can store it in a seed bank. Habitat under threat? No problem, we can make an offset. Ploughing up critically endangered biodiversity for barley? No problem, we can restore it later…. It is vital that with the plethora of tools now at conservationists’ fingertips we do not become complacent. There is no better alternative in conserving ecosystems and their biodiversity than conserving habitats, making sure they are not destroyed. We cannot keep our species in perpetuity ‘in the zoo’ with no home to return to.

Above: The Critically Endangered habitat of the Albertina Sisulu Orchid at Sugarbush Ridges.

The home of the Albertina Sisulu Orchid is under threat, a home where the iconic Verreaux’s eagles of Roodekraans soar, found adjacent to South Africa’s Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens. Plans to make Sugarbush Ridges an urban conservation area are at risk and the City of Mogale Municipality have instead approved plans for high density housing.

The Albertina Sisulu Orchid (Brachycorithis conica subsp. transvaalensis) was once known from several localities across Gauteng and Mpumalanga. However, urban development has all but wiped out the majority of habitat for this species and it was last seen in 1956. That was until 2007 when a population of c.130 plants was discovered growing above Walter Sisulu NBG, to date the only viable remaining habitat for this species. The Albertina Sisulu Orchid is thus listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ on the Red List of South African Plants.

Above: Local High School and Proteadal Conservation Association field trip to Sugarbush Ridges, with demonstration of erosion control.

Brachycorithis conica subsp. transvaalensis was named after anti-apartheid activist Albertina Sisulu (also known as Ma Sisulu) in this her centenary year by the South African National Biodiversity Institute. The species was first discovered in 1918, the same year that Albertinia Sisulu was born in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. In 1955 Albertina Sisulu joined the ANC Women’s League and participated in launching the Freedom Charter, the same year that the orchid was named by Kew botanist V.H. Summerheyes. In 1956 Albertina Sisulu marched alongside Helen Joseph and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn with 20,000 other women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the same year the orchid was last seen in Gauteng before its rediscovery above Walter Sisulu NBG in 2007. It could not be more fitting that Brachycorithis conica subsp. transvaalensis now be known as the Albertina Sisulu Orchid.

Top & Above: Beautiful butterflies of Sugarbush Ridges.

A team of conservation heroes have now come together to save the home of the Albertina Sisulu Orchid at Sugarbush Ridges, in an effort to bring about conservation of this unique and precious habitat in perpetuity. The Sugarbush Ridges Coalition comprises the Botanical Society of South Africa, one of South Africa’s oldest conservation nonprofits, local community group Proteadal Conservation Association, nonprofit Wild Orchids of South Africa, the Roodekraans Black Eagle Project and Walter Sisulu NBG.

Top: Gladiolus permeabilis, Above: Albertina Sisulu Orchid

The Sugarbush Ridges Coalition team are working towards a vision of conserving the area and home of the Albertina Sisulu Orchid in perpetuity as an urban conservation area. The case concerning the development proposals is imminently due to be heard in the High Court of Gauteng. The Coalition is fundraising for vital conservation management interventions to help achieve conservation goals. This work includes training rangers, fencing, environmental education and clearance of alien invasive plants in addition to fighting unsustainable developments that threaten the integrity of the site. Without this essential work the Albertinia Sisulu Orchid may be lost forever, with the other species that call this place home also losing one more habitat stronghold.

Above: Close up of the exquisite blooms of the Albertina Sisulu Orchid.

Help us save the home of the Albertina Sisulu Orchid by donating to the vital conservation efforts of the Sugarbush Ridges Coalition. More details on how you can help can be found here: https://www.thundafund.com/project/eagles

We thank you for your support.

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Six ways to give back to the environment this Mandela Day and beyond

Mandela Day calls on us all, every day, to make the world a better place. Each year on the 18th July we look back on what has been done,and forward to what will be done. This year we celebrate 100 years since Nelson Mandela’s birth. All are encouraged to contribute 67 minutes of public service. One minute is given for each year of Mandela’s 67 years of public service,starting in 1942 when he first started to campaign for the human rights of all South Africans.

“I dream of our vast deserts, of our forests, of all our great wildernesses. We must never forget that it is our duty to protect this environment”. Nelson Mandela

What are you going to do for your 67 minutes of service? Not sure where to start? Here we offer up some suggestions on how you may want to get involved in serving your community and giving back to your environment.

JOIN A LITTER CLEAR UP

 

Litter: The bane of the life of any environmentalist. We are all far too accustomed to the convenience of packaged foods and other goods. Once that packaging has served its useful purpose in life it usually either ends up in landfill or often becomes environmental pollution. For starters, litter is unsightly and an eyesore. Nobody wants to see it polluting their local nature reserves or national parks. Far worse are its impacts on public health, wildlife and watercourses. Often it will end up finding its way into the sea, impacting on marine life too.

The good news here is that here you can make a difference. For Mandela Day there are many organised litter clearing events happening around the country,to the benefit of our communities, rivers, mountains, nature reserves, national parks and wildlife. Many community groups also have regular cleaning events to clear litter pollution in our wetlands, waterways and on our beaches. Check out social media platforms for more information on events happening around the country and consider lending a hand. Conservation and environmental action starts at home so find out what is going on in your area or start your own initiatives.

CLEAR SOME ALIENS

 

So what is all this talk of ‘aliens’ that has been in the media before and during the current drought? One may be confused into thinking we are referring to extra-terrestrial life here. In fact,alien invasive vegetation comprises plants that have been introduced from overseas that have become invasive in our own ecosystems,outcompeting our local indigenous flora,choking our river systems,often becoming a fire hazard and guzzling far too much precious water that could be filling our dams. There is no doubt,they need to go.

Many of our local community groups are taking action here, so check out their social media platforms to find out where and when and get involved.

PLANT A GARDEN

 

With the current drought and impacts of a changing climate making their presence known, now is a more important time than any for us to realise that growing indigenous and gardening waterwise is a necessity rather than a choice. Growing a water guzzling European style garden with swimming pools,sweeping lawns,roses and hydrangeas needs to be a thing of the past in our water scarce country. Perhaps a garden in your local community is looking dead and sad following several dry summers and needs cheering up?

If there is a communal outdoor space you know that needs some love,why not donate some indigenous plants and work with and support the owners in making them grow. Not only will it benefit the people that use it but also the local wildlife too. 

JOIN A FRIENDS GROUP

 

Do you use a green space in your community regularly for recreation? Chances are your local park or nature reserve will have a Friends group. Friends groups are a strong force for community conservation and a place to volunteer your time and skills to the benefit of your local environment.

They liase with the main management authority for the space and might get involved in alien clearing,litter picking, environmental education, restoration work, conservation planning, organising talks and walks and much more. Your membership fee will go to helping support their work in conserving and making that green space that you use the place it is. Why not consider volunteering too? Get involved, attend events and consider serving on their committees for a rewarding way to give back to your community.

SHARE

Raising awareness about the importance of conserving and protecting our environment is a key way to inspire others to get involved. So don’t keep quiet about your efforts, share them with your friends and networks on your social media platforms. Our partners at WESSA (Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa) are inviting you to join the #WESSAChallenge and pledge your 67 minutes for a better environment, then post a pic of you,your family and friends doing your bit for the environment this July. 

DONATE

Feeling too pushed for time to squeeze in any volunteering? Why not consider making a donation to a charity of your choice to support their vital work?

At the end of it all, don’t forget that every day should be a Mandela Day. Make time to serve your community and help protect and conserve your local environment. Community conservation is a critical force and anyone can make a difference.

MySchool Vote4Charity Challenge

The countdown has started! You have just one day left to join the MySchool MyVillage MyPlanet #Vote4Charity challenge. Cast your vote for the Botanical Society of South Africa and we get to win a share of R1 million. For every vote submitted we receive a R5 donation and for every additional referral from simply sharing to social we receive a further R5 donation. All at no cost to you – Support your favourite charity for free! Participants will also be entered into a prize draw and stand a chance to win R5000. Read on to find out more about our work and how to cast your vote.

Branching Out

The Botanical Society, run by our team from Head Office at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, has sixteen branches across the country. These are mostly run by dedicated volunteers and allows you to get involved with your BotSoc, wherever you are in the country. Our branches run a variety of activities, including talks, hikes, environmental education, alien hacking and much more, allowing you to make a difference to conservation and awareness about South Africa’s megadiverse flora where you live. Some of our branches are based at National Botanical Gardens, where their activities are enhanced and enriched by collaboration with the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).

 Communicating the Conservation Message

In line with South Africa’s National Strategy for Plant Conservation, we place a strong focus on communicating the conservation message. We educate and raise awareness through our publications, including our quarterly journal ‘Veld & Flora’, our online magazine ‘Botanical’, our blog and social platforms. We are also active in environmental education, both through our branches and the Botanical Education Trust. We make possible a range of publications including our range of regional botanical field guides, essential for those getting to grips with our vast and unique flora. Our newest resource ‘Learning About Cycads’ helps learners understand this imperilled and fascinating plant group through a series of activities tailored to the National Curriculum.

Building Capacity in the Conservation Sector

 

We recently signed a new memorandum of agreement with the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s (CPUT) Nature Conservation Diploma Programme. This marks the continuation of our collaboration for a further three years. Through funding from BotSoc, students undertaking the course are funded through the completion of a practical training programme. This has meant that all students could complete this part of the course and those who could not otherwise afford to participate were not excluded.

BotSoc has also facilitated student visits to Kirstenbosch NBG and the SANBI herbarium. Participating students said that BotSoc was “investing in their future” in a way that far better prepared them for future work in the conservation sector. Comments Professor Joseph Kioko (Programme Director) “BotSoc is investing in sustainable, tangible partnerships. It does not come better than this….”. BotSoc would like to thank the donors who have so generously supported this programme. We couldn’t do it without you!

Conserving Threatened Species

Through our partners the Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW), we work to conserve and monitor our imperilled flora around the country. We contribute funding that allows the employment of CREW interns, thus providing career development opportunities and additional capacity to this world class citizen science-based conservation programme. Some of our former interns have gone on to become leading scientists in our conservation community. We would like to thank all of our hardworking CREW volunteers for their invaluable contributions.

How to Vote for Us

To vote for the Botanical Society of South Africa, simply visit http://myschool.co.za/vote4charity, select ‘The Botanical Society’ from the searchable drop down list and enter your MySchool or Woolies card number to cast your vote. No MySchool card? No problem! You can still vote after applying online to receive your free card at the same time. We thank you for your support!