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The Minister of Environmental Affairs, Mrs Edna Molewa, revealed that the Department has budgeted R200 million over the next three years to build up its capacity to regulate invasive alien species. This is in addition to R4.2 billion budget to control these species through the internationally renowned Working for Water Programme over the same period. “The costs of controlling invasive alien species are very high. We need to prioritize our efforts to secure the greatest returns on investment. An obvious example would be the pine trees from Europe, Asia and North America that are invading our mountain catchments, and could have unaffordable consequences for water security, as they use far more water than the indigenous plants they displace,” said Minister Molewa.
Preventing further introductions
The AIS Regulations are aimed at preventing the introduction of more species that may be potentially invasive into the country, as a first priority. This will entail monitoring of deliberate and accidental introduction of species through the airports, harbours, land borders and through the mail. Those wishing to bring species into the country will be required to have a risk assessment undertaken, to establish the potential harm from introducing the species into the country.
Invasive alien species are species that have been introduced into an area, and are able to out-compete and displace indigenous or useful alien species. They may be plants, animals or microbes, including diseases, and are widely regarded as among the biggest threats to the productive use of land and water, to the ecological functioning of natural systems, to health and to the economy.
One of the 559 invasive species listed in the Regulations is famine weed (Parthenium hysterophorus), which is an inconspicuous, daisy-like plant from South America that is spreading across northern KwaZulu-Natal. It has the potential to invade all but the driest parts of South Africa, and most of Africa. Fields of famine weed, as the name implies, will wreak economic, ecological and health havoc. Neither South Africa’s stock nor game species can survive in these invaded areas. Crop production will be unaffordable. Allergies and skin lesions in humans will abound, and respiratory diseases will worsen. It is truly a Frankenstein plant, an unwanted and relentless gatecrasher in our country.
South Africa has tens of thousands of alien species, most of which are not necessarily a problem. However, a relatively small percentage of these have become invasive. Nevertheless, the impact of these invasive species on the country’s economy is estimated in the hundreds of billions of Rands, and the impact is rapidly increasing.
The impact on biological diversity, whilst difficult to quantify in monetary terms, can be devastating. In one research study by Professor Michael Samways of Stellenbosch University, it was shown that the shading of water bodies by just one invasive alien plant, the black wattle (Acacia mearnsii), could cause the extinction of more than half of the dragonfly and damselfly species that are only found in South Africa.
The second major focus is on the early detection of and rapid response to emerging invasive species. These are in Category 1a, in terms of the Regulations, requiring immediate control, including by all landowners. An example would be the house crow. Their numbers could have reached in the millions of birds, with severe impacts on other birds and human health, but may be eradicated through the efforts of the Working for Water programme.
The third major focus is to address the established invasive species that are most destructive, which are in Category 1b. The need here is to ensure that coherent control programmes are run, and the gains are maintained. Famine weed, although still an emerging species in many parts of the country, is so invasive that it is already classified as Category 1b.
Biological control – the use of natural enemies of the invasive alien species – is a critical component in this fight against these unwanted weeds and pests, and South Africa has had exceptional success in the use of these agents. It is hoped that suitable biological control agents will be found to combat the threat of famine weed, for example.
Minister Molewa said that the most difficult category is the Category 2 species. These are species that have value, such as plantation trees and fish-farming species, and yet can invade with very negative consequences outside of where they are being utilized. The Department has taken an approach that seeks to optimize the economic benefits of these species, whilst minimizing the damage that they cause. Permits are granted for their utilization, but they must be controlled outside of what is allowed in terms of the permit.
Category 3 invasive species are those that have the potential to become serious invasives, and whose spread must be contained.
The Department has endeavoured to take a balanced approach for species that have value. For example, many invasive gum (Eucalyptus) species from Australia have a very negative impact on water, biological diversity and in terms of wild fires. But they are also an excellent source of wood, shade, beauty and food for bees. The Regulations make provision for optimizing their benefits, whilst curtailing their most negative impacts.
Another example would be the much-loved jacaranda tree (Jacaranda mimosifolia), from South America. Whilst invasive in parts of the country, the Department has accommodated public sentiment by not listing the species in urban areas, and allowing large specimens within 50 metres of farm homesteads. “In these urban areas, there will be no control required for the species. It will be as if we are treating urban areas as plantations, and the trees can continue to be grown as street trees and ornamental garden trees,” said Minister Molewa.
The AIS Regulations have been through extensive public consultation, and have secured agreement from various key industries, including the nursery industry, landscape industry, plantation industry, game ranchers industry, agricultural industry, pet-traders industry, bass and carp angling representatives and other key groups.
Other key national Departments and Provincial Authorities have been part of the development of the Regulations, and have supported their promulgation, including the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation, and the Department of Health.
Minister Molewa warned that invasive species rival climate change in terms of the potential consequences of their destructive tendencies. “This is not a battle that Government can win on its own. We need to work together with all stakeholders to combat the scourge of invasive species. These Regulations, coupled with the investments made through the Working for Water programme, have the potential to reverse the cancer of invasions in our country,” she said.