Mission (im)possible: Documenting all the Biodiversity on Papkuilsfontein

Bonnie Schumann, the EWT’s Dryland Conservation Programme Senior Field Officer

The Endangered Wildlife Trust recently conducted a comprehensive biodiversity survey on the Papkuilsfontein proposed Protected Environment. Papkuilsfontein is situated near Nieuwoudtville in the Northern Cape in a region known for its rich and unique biodiversity. However, the official list of species recorded on this property contains less than 300 species, and hence our mission was to rectify this and kick-start building a list that would accurately represent the incredible biodiversity found on this property.

Papkuilsfontein, owned by the Van Wyk family, is currently being declared as a formally Protected Environment in collaboration with the EWT and the Department of Agriculture, Environment, Land Reform, and Rural Development (DAERL). Following the survey, the species list now stands at over 1,300 species, and this is just the beginning!

The Bokkeveld Plateau is an area where three biomes meet, the Fynbos, the Succulent Karoo, and the Hantam Karoo. Combined with the variation in altitude, topography, and geology, this creates ideal conditions for the incredible evolution of species and diversity in the region. Nieuwoudtville is world-famous for its bulb plant diversity and density, with over 20,000 bulbs recorded per square meter. Research on the array of invertebrates associated with plant diversity has only started to scratch the surface. So the task of recording all things great and small over approximately 7,000 ha was a formidable one and will take several years to come close to accomplishing!

The EWT enlisted the help of a group of volunteers passionate about conservation to tackle this enormous task. The Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers, ably led by Ismail Ibrahim and comprising a team of students from the University of Stellenbosch Botanical Gardens, answered the call. Retired small mammal expert, Dr Guy Palmer, was put back to work, while Handré Basson was persuaded to abandon his studies for a few days and join us, bringing his passion for invertebrates and skill at finding them to the team. We were privileged to have had Dr Michael Kuhlmann, a world-renowned expert on solitary bees, join us for two days. Thanks to Dr Kuhlmann’s dedicated work on the plateau over the years, we know that Papkuilsfontein alone has an impressive list of over 100 species of solitary bees. Many of these are not yet described, and new species are still waiting to be discovered!

The EWT supplied the transport, and the Papkuilsfontein hospitality staff kept the team well-fed on some of the best hearty farm-style meals in the Karoo. Teams worked from dawn to dusk, scouring the rugged terrain and photographing and recording as much as possible. A camera trap survey was also conducted for six weeks, and tiny amounts of soil were collected for researchers to examine for environmental DNA later. Observation gathered from all three methodologies will contribute to a comprehensive understanding of the biodiversity present on the property.

The DAERL Stewardship Unit was instrumental in making the survey a success. A member of the unit, and ex-EWT staff member, JP le Roux, set up an iNaturalist project for the study and continues to work hard in the field to make sure the list of species keeps growing. iNaturalist is an online social network platform where people interested in biodiversity can share information. Anyone who sees an interesting plant or animal can photograph and upload the sighting to the platform, and a range of specialists are available to help identify the sighting. By setting up a project on the platform, all sightings made on the property can be collated, and species lists can be exported. The four-day survey provides just a glimpse of what is on the property. By having visitors and landowners take part in recording biodiversity using iNaturalist, we can ensure that a range of wildlife is captured, including plants and invertebrates, some of which may only make their appearance briefly every few years when conditions are just right for them. This makes recording the full spectrum of biodiversity at any location more achievable.

The region is special in terms of biodiversity and natural beauty. The EWT would like to thank all the landowners on the Bokkeveld Plateau who have a long-term vision to protect these features by declaring their properties as protected areas. This requires a high level of dedication at a very personal level in a day and age where talk is often cheap. Remember that Papkuilsfontein is not just an outstanding guest farm but is also a small commercial stock and rooibos tea producer. This conservation initiative is a great example of what can be achieved when the agricultural sector joins with the conservation sector to protect our natural resources at all levels.

The work on Papkuilsfontein was made possible with generous support from the Table Mountain Fund.


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