Rare butterfly loses home too

Article by Aron Hyman and Bobby Jordan

A BUTTERFLY that was found exclusively on a few hectares of land on the western bank of the Knysna Heads, has had its habitat wiped out by the fire. But the Brenton Blue itself may yet rise from the ashes like a phoenix”, said Dr Dave Edge, the custodian of the butterfly. The insect has a rare ecology that makes it able to weather fire: ants take its larvae and pupae up to 30cm deep into the roots of a type of fynbos that thrives on fire.

“The Brenton Butterfly Reserve, the last outpost has now been burnt, but nature has amazing ways to recover,” said Edge.

“We believe there is a very good chance it will come back. Edge said humans had all but topped the natural eyele of fire that had shaped the critically endangered butterfly and its ecosystem because they wanted to protect their property, in infrastructure and especially their commercial plantations.

“The vegetation in Brenton on-Sea, the seaside settlement where the butterfly lives haven’t burnt for a hell of a long time, maybe a century or more certainly not in living memory,” said Edge.

The unique insect’s home will not be the only casualty as human activity makes infernos increasingly likely Dr Tineke Kraaij, a lecturer at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University said climate change and the spread of alien vegetation would make future fires worse.

The Garden Route fire was preceded by six months of drought, which was so bad that invasive trees, heavily dependent on water, started to die
“The climate has become more fire-prone. The relative humidity is getting lower, and the temperatures are rising, said Kraaij, who worked as an ecologist at South African National Parks for 15 years. The natural forest did not burn because it is moister and uses much less water than the thirsty blue-gum trees and pine forests of the commercial plantations.

Susan Campbell, who lost a luxury bush camp nestled in the coastal forest, said an abnormal build-up of fynbos “fuel load” had contributed to the intensity. The fynbos hasn’t been allowed to burn. “As a result, the fuel load is so much more,” she said.

The entire stretch of coastal forest between Buffalo Bay and Brenton-on-Sea had been wiped out. Susan also said: “On my property, we believe that there is a very good chance that it will come back there are not even stumps left. There were milkwood trees in there that must have been 200 years old.
People need to understand the big influence of alien plant growth, that it has a massive negative impact, and it causes fires to become uncontrollable. You can’t control a fire in an alien jungle, “the fire will help alien species spread”.

The experts are hopeful, however, that the fire will have some positive impact on an environment that has been severely damaged by human activity over the past two centuries. “The botanists are going to be delighted to probably find plants here that are very rare,” said Edge. A lot of fynbos plants, particularly the rarer ones, require fire to regenerate.”

Kraai said an intense fire had been needed to burn the thick scrub that had taken over the landscape from the much more biodiverse fynbos. As homes are being rebuilt and people pick up the pieces, Edge and his team will be watching the ashes for Brenton Blues. In November we’re going to be sitting there waiting, and if it comes out we’re going to help it,” he said.

Read more about the Brenton Butterfly here: www.brentonblue.org.za

Source Sunday Times
18 June 2017

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