Past, present and future perspectives


Southern Africa has rich biological resources in a variety of ecosystems which range from moist tropical forests in Angola and Zambia to savannas, coastal forests and mangroves, deserts and semi-deserts, and to the extraordinary diversity of plants of the Cape Floral Region, in South Africa. The sub-region boasts an average of 57 mammalian species and 136 breeding bird species per 10 000 km2 (UNDP and others 2000). South Africa ranks as the third most biologically diverse country in the world, mainly because of the richness of its plant life-over 18 000 species of vascular plants of which over 80 per cent are endemic. In terms of numbers of endemic species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, South Africa is the fifth richest country in Africa and the twenty-fourth richest in the world (DEA&T 1997).


Southern Africa's rich biological resources play an important role in ensuring long-term food security. Access to genetic resources for crop and animal breeding purposes is also seen as a critical factor. Many species of plants and animals have medicinal properties and most of these are used in traditional healing, some are being investigated for commercial production. Approximately 10 per cent of Southern African plants (roughly 3 000 species) are used medicinally, and 10 per cent of these (about 350 species) are commonly and widely used (van Wyk, Van Oudtshoorn & Gericke 1997). They include Warburgia salutaris, a plant of which the root and bark are used to treat coughs, headaches and stomach problems, and which is fast disappearing in Southern Africa (Cunningham 1993). The locally known 'African Potato' (Hypoxis sp) is being researched for the extraction of hypoxicide, a sterol (plant acid) used traditionally to treat dizziness and bladder disorders and which has now been shown to inhibit the growth of tumour cells and also to have antiinflammatory properties (Drewes, Hall, Learmonth & Upfold 1984).


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Ivory and animal skins impounded in Dar-es Salaam, Tanzania

Sabine Vielmo/Still Pictures

As in other sub-regions of Africa, natural habitats in Southern Africa are coming under increasing pressure from expansion of agriculture and plantation forestry, human settlements, mining activities, and other commercial or subsistence activities, both inside and outside of protected areas. Individual species are threatened through habitat loss, selective harvesting, poaching, and through the spread of alien invasive organisms.

One of the greatest pressures on wild species is the trade in plant and animal products, such as ivory, horn, and skins. Over the past 30 years, trade restrictions, mainly through CITES, have been used at the global level as a tool to control trade and thus help conserve populations in the wild. Implementation of regulations has had varied levels of success in Southern Africa. For example, the listing of the Black Rhino in Appendix 1 (species threatened with extinction) of CITES during the 1970s has not helped revive the rhino population which is still too low for breeding and multiplication in the wild. Trade controls have resulted in higher prices being paid on the black market for rhino horn, which in turn encourages poaching of wild populations. As already mentioned, restrictions on the trade in ivory, and sound conservation practices have seen significant growth in national herds of elephant in Botswana and Zimbabwe, and these countries are now pushing for limited trade in ivory to provide economic incentives for continued conservation.

Sub-regional cooperation plays a significant role in the conservation of biological resources in Southern Africa, and the Southern African Convention for Wildlife Management has been successful in regional monitoring, assessment and management of wildlife resources. However, such conservation measures need continued resourcing and support, so that benefits continue to be derived from conservation of species in the wild.

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