Invaders Move on Africa's Biodiversity Gems

By Singy Hanyona

LUSAKA, Zambia, December 17, 2002 (ENS) - Alien invasive species are posing a threat to the indigenous biodiversity of 14 Member States of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The latest progress report by the regional Southern Africa Biodiversity Support Program, issued in late November, indicates that already thousands of hectares of land and water have been colonized by alien plant species such as water hyacinth (Eichhornia crasipes).

A new invasive, poisonous weed, Lantana (Lantana camara) has threatened the ecology of the Victoria Falls, a UNESCO World Heritage site shared by Zambia and Zimbabwe.

lantana

Quick-spreading Lantana is poisonous. (Photo courtesy Oklahoma State)
Highly ornamental in a pot, on the land lantana leads to decreased productivity in pastures and poisons cattle. It invades disturbed natural ecosystems, roadsides and creek banks.

The Program Implementation Unit of the Southern Africa Biodiversity Support Program (SABSP), based in Malawi, has called for urgent measures to uproot and deal with the lantana as a weed to protect Victoria Falls, the world's largest falls.

The SABSP report describes Southern Africa as an important treasure house of the remaining mega-fauna of the world. Yet there is no biodiversity protocol in the Southern African region, the report points out. Although many sectoral protocols do cover biodiversity, it says, there still remains a strong case for a cross-sectoral biodiversity protocol.

The report calls for a database on alien species with the extension of the Southern African Plant Invaders Atlas project to the entire Southern African Development Community region.

The 7th Regional Biodiversity Forum held in Lusaka November 29 launched a regional biodiversity strategy and action plan that aims to avert the growing loss of biological wealth in the region.

The draft strategy represents article 18 of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) operational strategy for biological diversity.

Biodiversity expert Dr. Marian Fuller says the SADC region has battled for the past 10 years against the threats posed by invasive alien species. Southern Africa must find a link between regional biodiversity and the New Partnership for Africa's Development, she urges.

Fuller stresses the need to agree on a plan of implementation to reduce loss of biological diversity in Southern Africa, in view of commitments made at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg this summer.

Marina Nsingo, Zambia's Minister of Tourism, Environment and Natural Resources has called for the translation of the international Convention on Biological Diversity into national laws for effective enforcement. "If the Convention is to have any practical impact, it needs to be implemented by members states," said Nsingo.

Nsingo urged scientists and researchers to promote traditional and indigenous knowledge in the protection of intellectual property rights and technology transfer.

The report indicates that progress has been made at the regional level in terms of establishing national biodiversity strategies and action plans.

For instance, Angola has established a Biodiversity National Steering Committee with a plan on plant conservation and enforcement of local legislation.

Botswana has undertaken community level biodiversity awareness with support from the GEF.

Mozambique is in the process of revising its national biodiversity strategies and action plans for the conservation of biological diversity that takes in issues of poverty alleviation.

Namibia and Zambia are two of the SADC member countries that have completed their national biodiversity strategies and action plans.

The benefits and importance of biodiversity to Southern Africa are numerous. A large proportion of the regional population is directly dependent upon biological resources for subsistence purposes.

The use of biological resources such as the gathering and harvesting of plants for food, fruits and seeds, vegetables, tubers, medicines, fuel, mushrooms, honey and fodder, is an important buffer against poverty and provides opportunities for self-employment in the informal sector.

Lakes Malawi and Chilwa, the Namib desert, the Okavango Delta, Bangweulu swamps and the Kafue flats, Lake Victoria - all are Ramsar and World Heritage Sites in Southern Africa, and all are at risk of invasive species.

Globally, Southern Africa has been recognized for its mountain ecosystems such as the Chimanimani of Mozambique and Zimbabwe, the Nyika of Zambia and Malawi and the Drakensberg-Maloti of South Africa and Lesotho.

weeds

Water hyacinth (Photo by D.F. Spencer courtesy U. California Cooperative Extension)
According to the regional baseline data on species diversity for Southern Africa, Zambia alone has 229 mammal species, 160 reptiles, 83 fish species, and 211 flowering plants that are endemic to the country.

Efforts have been made in the last decade to mobilize local communities in many SADC countries into community based natural resources management schemes with a certain degree of success.

The CAMPFIRE program in Zimbabwe and Zambia's Adminstrative Management Design (ADMADE) is often cited as a success story.

Conservation of biological diversity can be conducted outside of the natural habitat, and in this field the SADC Plant Genetic Resources Centre (SPGRC) has played the biggest role.

Situated east of Lusaka, the SPGRC is an important regional biodiversity conservation institution. Established in 1998 under the auspices of SADC, the center was set up to promote and coordinate a regional plant genetic resources management program.

The concept of trans-boundary natural resource management has gained wide support in the region. Many resources in Africa - fruit trees, wild animals, water and medicinal plants are transboundary resources.

The same applies to traditional knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities. This makes the determination of who should benefit from commercialization of a natural resources difficult.

For example, the Devils Claw plant (harpagophytum procumbens) occurs transboundary in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Angola. Healers in these countries have used it for medicinal purposes since time immemorial.

Devil's claw

(Photo courtesy Kooperation Phytopharmaka)
This plant is commonly used to treat arthritis, gastrointestinal problems, arteriosclerosis, diabetes, hepatitis and blood pressure ailments.

Although Devils Claw is so important as medicinal plant, the countries in which it occurs have received few financial benefits from the use of this plant. The lion's share of these benefits have gone to northern countries especially Germany, France and Switzerland, according to the latest issue of the Southern Africa Biodiversity Support Program News.

"Two patents on the extraction process are held in Germany and very little value addition is presently being done within the countries of source," the SABSP article says.

Some of the regional biodiversity initiatives include the Maputo Corridor Biodiversity Project with countries such as Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland participating.

Conservation International is supporting a project known as Every River Has Its People in which Botswana and Namibia are participating.

The SADC Wetlands project involving Botswana, Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe is another regional initiative being supported by the Norweigian Agency for International Development.