Conscious Conservation: why knowing where species are is crucial for protecting them

Oliver Cowan, the EWT’s Conservation Planning and Science Unit
How can we protect what we do not fully understand?

That is the key question driving our work on ‘uplisting’ species considered Data Deficient according to the IUCN Red List Assessment Criteria (See Box 1). The Conservation Planning and Science Unit has been working with experts across different taxonomic groups (Amphibians, Reptiles, and Mammals) to identify Data Deficient species most likely to need protection and enhanced conservation efforts (See Box 2). If a species is ‘uplisted’ to a threat category, then it is afforded some form of protection by law, and its presence must be taken into account during the Environmental Impact Assessment process (See Box 3).

One species identified early on as requiring urgent work was the Orange Sandveld Lizard (Nucras aurantiaca). Sometimes referred to as Lambert’s Bay Sandveld Lizard, the species had only been captured once when farm workers caught two individuals from a location just outside of Lambert’s Bay on the West Coast of South Africa in 2005. Having never seen an animal like it, the farmer sent the specimens to the provincial conservation body, whereafter they arrived at Stellenbosch University, after which it was formally described. Since then, it has only been recorded once – by a   camera trap set up by researchers looking for something else entirely – in 2011 on a farm 20 km northeast of the original locality.

Its apparent scarcity has made it an almost revered species among the Southern African herpetological community. However, the need for more records has more important implications than merely ticking it off one’s ‘lifer’ list. The habitat in which the species is known to occur has undergone substantial historical transformations, much due to agriculture, and in more recent years, a slew of mining developments have occurred along the West Coast. Indeed, in 2022, a right to prospect for phosphate ore was granted that encompassed both known localities. The need to gather the data to uplist the species is thus crucial to ensure it is safeguarded against irresponsible development.

With this in mind, a team of some of the country’s top herpetologists from the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and Bayworld Museum joined the EWT for two weeks of intensive surveys in November 2022. Braving the summer heat, storms, and deep sand roads, they employed a combination of pitfall traps, drift fences and active searching to find additional records and information that may shed light on the lizard’s ecology, habitat requirements, and population dynamics. Their hard work was rewarded with three more occurrence records, all from a single site adjacent to the camera trap site where the species was recorded. The data gathered from this survey will be used to conduct an updated Red List assessment later this year, with the likely outcome that the species will be placed in the Vulnerable or Endangered category. Once the assessment has been reviewed, the species will be incorporated into the Environmental Screening Tool and accounted for during subsequent development proposals.

In total, 37 amphibian and reptile species were recorded on this highly successful trip, including species of conservation concern such as the Endangered Kasner’s Dwarf Burrowing Skink (Scelotes kasneri) and the Near Threatened Armadillo Girdled Lizard (Ouroborus cataphractus), as well as a potential range expansion for the Cape Long-tailed Seps (Tetradactylus tetradactylus).

Box 1 IUCN Threat Categories

 The different Red List categories as defined by the IUCN

Established in 1964, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species has evolved to become the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global extinction risk status of animal and plant species. Species experts assess species according to set criteria considering population dynamics, ecological and habitat requirements, and past, current and future threats to ultimately assign a species into an extinction risk category.

Box 2: Data Deficient Animals in South Africa

The Data Deficient Orange Sandveld Lizard (Nucras aurantiaca) – photo credit: Chad Keates

“Data Deficient” is an IUCN Red List Category assigned to species where there is not enough information to conduct an extinction risk assessment. Listing of species in this category indicates that more information is required and acknowledges the possibility that future research will show that threatened classification is appropriate. In South Africa, there are currently seven Mammal, five Amphibian, seven Reptile, and one Butterfly species listed as Data Deficient.

Box 3: Environmental Screening Tool

An example of a species distribution model – Brown Hyena (Parahyaena brunnea) – which informs the Environmental Screening Tool Animal Layer

The National Environmental Screening Tool is an online tool which contains, amongst other things, spatial information on the distribution of plant and animal species of conservation concern, that is regionally listed as Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered according to the IUCN criteria. By law, the tool must be used in the screening process for any proposed development in the scoping phase of the Environmental Impact Assessment process. The EWT collaborated with SANBI and Birdlife South Africa to create and collate the animal and plant layers used in the tool.

The EWT would like to thank the Anglo-American Foundation for funding this project, our expert collaborators (particularly Dr Krystal Tolley at SANBI and Werner Conradie from Bayworld Museum), and of course, the landowners for kindly allowing access to their properties, supporting our work, and being at the forefront of protecting the biodiversity of the region.