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Appreciate and conserve nature in lockdown
Author: Dr Tony Rebelo & Dr Alanna Rebelo
Published: 28/07/2020

On Tuesday (28 July), we celebrate World Nature Conservation Day. In an opinion piece for News24, Drs Tony Rebelo (South African National Biodiversity Institute) and Alanna Rebelo (Department of Conservation Ecology & Entomology) write that we should continue to appreciate and conserve the plants and animals around us during the lockdown.

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Tony Rebelo & Alanna Rebelo*

This year, the height of Covid-19 lockdown in April coincided with the fifth iNaturalist City Nature Challenge. In this annual global nature hunt, the public are encouraged, as citizen scientists, to go and explore their cities and report on the animals and plants that share our world.

With everyone confined to their homes in many major cities around the world, with only some fortunate enough to have gardens or balconies, this posed a major challenge for a nature hunt.

Although just a few months have passed, it is already hard to remember that in South Africa we were only allowed out for medical emergencies and food. Which meant that nature interaction was confined to one's home.

Lockdown was, however, no excuse for passivity in a megadiverse country like South Africa. Many Capetonians discovered the wonders of a nectar feeder, or the power of a half apple and a handful of seeds left outside. Many birds and critters could be enticed to visit, when human visitors were forbidden.

Lockdown became a time for people to engage with the wildlife in their homes and gardens. You might ask how you can engage with nature? If you have gardens, you can, for example, look for and record the elusive Dwarf Chameleon, or have a garden party and record all the critters visiting the flowers, the plants, and your picnic.

If you are a night owl, why not hold a night expedition, and look for spiders and insects by their eyeshine, and the pale chameleons, and other denizens of the night, like praying mantises, crickets and frogs?

No garden is no excuse not to interact with nature. You can do bird surveys from your windows, or set up moth traps (sheets illuminated with a bright light at night) or insect hotels or nesting boxes. Inside our houses, the geckos, mosquitoes and other goggas can entertain and infuriate us.

If you are feeling lonely, isolated, and socially-distanced, you need only to peek into the corners and under the beds to find ants, house flies, or perhaps even cockroaches and bed bugs. But besides these obvious pests, there are also a great diversity of amazing moths, fishmoths, spiders and beetles.

As we celebrate World Nature Conversation Day on 28 July, it helps to maintain a perspective of the value of all life when one considers that each is visiting our dwellings for a very good reason, and many of them are actually cleaning up after us, or helping keep down pest numbers.

City Nature Challenge: Lockdown edition

At the end of April 2020, six cities in southern Africa took part in the City Nature Challenge 2020 lockdown edition, of the 244 worldwide: Cape Town, the Garden Route, Durban, Nelson Mandela Bay, Tswane and Gaberone.

Cape Town again – for the second year running – scored top spot in the world for number of nature observations (34 254).  Interestingly, almost a quarter of all Cape Town's observations were collected by the Scouts. Although the Garden Route only made position 10, it secured second spot for cities outside of the United States. 

Expressing her amazement at the results, Dr Eleanor Yeld Hutchings from the Biodiversity Management Branch of the City of Cape Town said: “For a country [that was in] hard lockdown I think it's unbelievable how much we managed to do."

Cape Town's top observer was Grade 11 learner Jeremy Gilmore, who racked up 834 observations. Several hundred observations from a garden is no mean feat. He is one of Cape Town's youth, who has a passion for learning about indigenous flora, as well as protecting what we have left. In his spare time, he joins the Friends of Tokai Park in hacking alien trees in Tokai Park to protect the Fynbos.

Our City Nature Challenge success is perhaps not surprising in a country like South Africa, where we have an estimated 67 000 animal species, and over 20 400 plant species described. We have around 7% of the world's vascular plant species, 5% of mammal, 7% of bird, 4% of reptile, 2% of amphibian, 1% of freshwater fish and 16% of shark, skate and ray species. And not only this, but around half to two-thirds of the species in each of these groups are found only in South Africa).

A tale of six cities in lockdown

And so continues the tale of the six cities. The City Nature Challenge turned out not to be just a one-off event, but the beginning of nature exploration and appreciation in and around our homes during hard lockdown. Many residents joined one of the six city lockdown projects on iNaturalist, and recorded the life around their homes.

We can learn a lot from what people found and shared. In the Fynbos, of course birds feature highly around peoples homes, but Cape Town's top position goes to the Dwarf Chameleon, Marble Leaftoe Gecko, the Honeybee and Brown Garden Snail (an invasive alien: you know the one), with the Redeye Dove making position five.

In the Garden Route, where Fynbos meets the forests, birds take all the honours: Cape Weaver, Greater Double-Collared Sunbird, Redeye Dove, Fiscal Shrike (Jannie) and the Speckled Mousebird.

At the interface of the Fynbos and thicket biomes, Nelson Mandela Bay features the Common Dwarf Gecko, Tropical House Gecko, Honeybee, Citrus Swallowtail and Common Blue in its top five.

Would you have guessed that the four most recorded animals in Durban are butterflies? – with the Common Bush Brown, Natal Pansy, Dark Blue Pansy and Citrus Swallowtail leading the pack, and a dragonfly, the Julia Skimmer, in spot number five. Staying with the grassland biome, the city of Tswane recorded Honeybee, Spiny Sugar Ant, Laughing Dove, Hadeda and Common Dwarf Gecko as the species most commonly found in gardens.

And Gaborone is off the charts, literally. Of the top five animals, only one moth – the Vestal – has a common name: the other Antlions, moths, bugs and beetles still need to become better known before they are baptized with vernaculars.

Who would have thought that the tale of six cities would be so different, so rich, and so exciting? We should take stock of the animals and plants that share our homes and gardens (for example using the free iNaturalist app).  Conservation and environmental awareness are fun, joining a global community is free, and you can begin at home.

*Dr Tony Rebelo is affiliated with the South African National Biodiversity Institute and Dr Alanna Rebelo is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Conservation Ecology & Entomology at Stellenbosch University.