The landscapes around the southwestern cape of South Africa are some of the most stunning I have ever seen. The jagged coastlines, the mountain ranges, and the thick foliage all come together to create postcard shots from any angle.
When it comes to the flora here, though, it’s not just about the appearance. This is also one of the most biologically diverse parts of the world with species that appear nowhere else. Although I have seen plenty of plants during my recent trip to this prt of South Africa, it was at the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve that I was able to get an indepth explanation about how everything fits together in nature.
Botanist Sean Privett has been working here for years and has even discovered almost ten species of plants that were previously unknown to mankind. He has a fascinating insight into the environment here and the threats that it is facing.
You can listen to my interview with him using the audio below or read the transcript beneath it.
Time Travel Turtle: I want to ask you, first of all, what’s so special about this area. I know about the number of plants and so on but from your perspective as someone who’s spent so many years here, what’s special, what’s so important?
Sean Privett: Well I suppose it’s the combination of the diversity, so the high number of plants and the uniqueness. So it’s not only that there are so many plants but two thirds of them are found nowhere else in the world, when you’re talking in the Cape Flora in this area. And then, more than that, is the threats, so we’re very fortunate that we’re in a country where there’s still a lot of open space, a lot of nature, but as populations grow and as human pressures grow, there’s more and more threat to the flora. We live in a country and in time when you can’t just conserve for the sake of conserving – you have to look at people and look at people’s needs, so it’s all about getting that balance and that’s really the challenge. The challenge is how we can conserve, and how we can look after communities, the people in the area, so there is also value for people. And I think the other thing with the flora is just the amazing number of rare plants, so plants where every little piece you go to is different. I grew up in Cape Town and I got to know the flora near Cape Point really well and I thought I knew the vegetation and then I went 60 kilometres north to another area and I knew nothing, you start all over again. And then I did a big study in that area and I came here thinking I knew the flora and I knew nothing. So it’s just amazing, short distances, just the distance from here we are now to 20 km across the bay is completely different, new species, lots of rare and threatened plants. So I think that’s what makes it exciting, especially if you’re interested in plants. It’s just an amazing diversity over very short distances.
Time Travel Turtle: And as a bit of an idiot, I look at plants and say “that one’s pretty” or “that one’s not pretty”. As a botanist, do you look at a plant that’s not pretty by my standards and think “wow, I love that one”?
Sean Privett: Exactly! We’ve found plants here that are completely new and that’s always exciting. So seven species that were previously unknown to humanity – and some of them are really insignificant and look like weeds but the fact that they only occur in one little place or you only see them in the first year after a fire, it’s really exciting. So I often get the most enthusiastic about the less significant things. And then it’s also the interactions. You realise that in nature everything has a purpose. So you see a little flower and realise there’s a single pollinator – there’s just one wasp or bee that’s able to do the pollinating of that and you make that match and you realise that little thing is just as important and if that little insect goes extinct or gets sprayed with pesticides, then that plant is going to go extinct. So the more you learn and the more you experience and understand the ecology, the more fascinating it becomes. And I think we still only know a tiny bit of what is going on out there so that’s really the fascination – the stories behind it all.
Time Travel Turtle: You mentioned fire and I’m sure if I asked you about the role of fire here there would be quite a long and complicated answer but, in a very simple sense, it’s critical to this whole region isn’t it?
Sean Privett: Yeah, almost all the plants in this area require fire for regeneration. So what we see when we see a fire is death, we see ash, we see this moonlike landscape, but in reality that’s the beginning of new life. And all the plants have clever little strategies to make sure that their seeds are adapted to come up protected, stored, carried underground by ants – all sorts of things in order that after a fire they are able to come back again.
Time Travel Turtle: And in terms of protection, at the moment this particular area is protected, along the coast there are other areas that are protected. But is it something that you’re concerned about going into the future or do you think it’s pretty safe now?
Sean Privett: What’s interesting is the mountains are typically safe because you can’t do much on a mountain. You can’t farm a mountain, you can’t grow pine trees on a mountain, so the mountain is safe. But what we call the lowlands, the areas near the coast, the flatlands – those areas where it’s easy to plough, the coastal areas is where everyone wants to live there, they want a holiday house, they want to see the sea, so some habitats are well protected but some other habitats are really very endangered – critically endangered – and if we don’t do work very quickly and very cleverly we’re going to lose vast habitats and we’re going to lose species.
Time Travel Turtle: And from a non-botanist point of view, maybe from a tourist point of view, what would visitors get out of coming down here and spending a few days and exploring the nature and the plants in this area?
Sean Privett: What we try to do is open people’s eyes to the science and the technical side of things but in a really easy understandable way. People can come here and they can go away and go back home, wherever they come from, and whenever they walk in a forest, or a woodland, or a park, they can relate what we’re telling them here to understand that in nature, everything fits together and there’s a role for everything. That irritating fly or that ant that comes in and eats from your sugar bowl, in nature they have a role and have a place. So I think that’s what we’re trying really get out of this – for people to understand the complexities of nature are also the fascinations of nature.