Category Archives: Environmental news: South Africa & Africa

South Africa’s elephants face uncertain future

The African continent has always been susceptible to cruel and brutal scenes – but brutality at the hands of humanity has never been more pronounced than in the past years’ unrelenting poaching scenes.  Across the African continent, between 35,000 and 38,000 elephants are killed at the hand of poachers per year.  This figure for 2013 is higher than ever before.  There are definite warnings that South Africa’s elephants can be the next big poaching target, causing a severe situation as currently faced by the rhino.  Central Africa’s elephant population is already at the point of exhaustion.  Yet, these brutal scenes can draw man and the animal kingdom closer to each other.  And this is exactly what happens if young orphaned elephants are placed in foster human care, and meticulously trained to soften human hearts.

This then describes the tale of three young elephants: Bulelo, Jabari and Malaika.  Hailing from the Kruger National Park, these three young Savannah elephants were left orphaned by a poaching onslaught eleven years ago. Young elephants can hardly survive without the support structure of a community – hence why these youngsters were placed in an elephant sanctuary. But their purpose was much greater than merely living their days in foster care.  A decade of intense training followed and today these three are the pride of Buffelsdrift Game Lodge where they interact with man, while in the comfort of a protected natural environment.

Trained to perform various tasks and even playful gestures, these three youngsters are something special.  It is on the back of these young gentle giants that their true nature soars.  At a slow but steady pace, these three youngsters take visitors on a tour through the park, stopping leisurely for water drinking and perhaps a quick bite on a thorn bush or two.  Elephants are animals of habit and routine, and nothing escapes their memory.  Taking visitors out and about, the youngsters are always in the same order, the matriarch Malaika in the centre, flanked by the two bulls Bulelo and Jabari.  Along the ride,  small herds of springbok and other small mammals pass by, including the park’s hippo family.

Riding trained elephants such as Bulelo, Jabari and Malaika allows the opportunity of coming intensely close with nature and its greatest icons.  It also highlights the serious threat Africa’s giants are facing.  Touching, listening and feeling, the elephant ride ends too soon.  But it urges everyone who experiences this, to tell others about the need for elephant protection.  On the trainer’s cue, they greet with heartwarming final trumpeter, although it leaves you far from convinced of a safe future for these giants.



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The Sharksafe: keeping the sharks at bay, safe and alive

Shark nets stretching over hundreds of metres, lining the surf and anchored a couple of metres below the water’s surface, are commonly used to keep sharks away from beaches and bathers.  But these shark nets have two major flaws: they are not entirely effective in keeping sharks at bay, rather only reducing the number of sharks in beach areas, and secondly, there is a major untold story of how shark nets are killing and tragically drowning large numbers of sharks while bathers happily enjoy the surf.  Enter the biology department of the Stellenbosch University.  Scientists are now testing an eco-friendly shark net along the waters of Cape Town and the early news in is that it is a brilliant alternative!


While the concept of attempting to physically separate humans and sharks is a solution to the problem of shark attacks, the sad reality is that shark nets are killing hundreds and hundreds of sharks, as well as other non-target marine species.  The Stellenbosch University reports that shark nets have a significant impact on the world’s shark populations and estimates are that our global shark population decreased by 90% over the past two decades.  This is a major setback for the species – the  Great White Shark population numbers are getting dangerously low.

The grossly unsustainable practice of shark nets, although still widely used, led to the development of the Sharksafe.  By careful marine environment observations, scientists realised that the Great White Shark does not swim into   dense kelp areas.  Something about the kelp is deterring the great whites.  The Zambezi sharks in turn kept clear from electromagnetic fields.  These seemingly simple discoveries are in fact telling plenty: sharks are avoiding certain circumstances in their natural environment.  Through mimicking such circumstances, effective, sustainable and ecological acceptable barriers can be created.  And this is exactly what the Sharksafe design is hoping to achieve.

The Sharksafe consists of a pipe network with magnets creating a magnetic field between the permanently upright and pipes.  Placed in the water, it resembles floating kelp.  Anchoring the pipe network to the seabed keeps it in place.  The “kelp” is of little disturbance to other marine species, allowing free movement of larger species such as dolphin.  Interestingly, even bait prompting did not convince the sharks to swim through the man-made kelp network.

With testing underway, the City of Cape Town will soon be approached for formal approval once the final pilot runs are concluded.  With the marine environment in desperate need of better protection, whilst allowing for optimal human enjoyment, the Sharksafe may very well be the solution that we have been waiting for!


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Photo credits: some rights reserved by criminalatt via and

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One for the rhinos

Vietnam announced their national ban on rhino specimen trade, import and export earlier this week.  Finally, one for the rhinos! With 2013 still in its early days, a total of 32 rhinos fell prey to illegal poaching in South Africa’s deadly bushveld rhino war.  This is one conservation war that will not be won without international help.  Vietnam’s recent directive banning the trade of any rhino specimen or rhino products, is a sure step towards victory.

ID-100118Vietnam’s ban on trading of rhino specimens or rhino products is confirmed fifteen months after the critically endangered Javan rhino has officially been declared extinct in Vietnam.  The last Javan rhino was quietly taken out by poachers; only to be declared the last Javan rhino in Vietnam three months later.  It is quite obvious how  a sharp increase in Black and White rhino poaching in South Africa followed Vietnam’s rhino extinction.  The intensity and magnitude of rhino poaching in South Africa remains unstoppable.  Conservationists fear; know: Africa’s rhino faces extinction, just like the Javan rhino.  Unless we see drastic changes implemented.  Implemented without delay.

Vietnam’s ban on rhino trading also follows turning point discussions between South Africa and Vietnam: South Africa cannot fight this battle without Asia, the biggest trade market’s support.  With the 2013 rhino poaching figures climbing steadily, Vietnam’s directive is a boost for rhino conservation efforts.  Species extinction, whether plant or animal, is a global crises.  Authorities and conservationists globally are therefore urged to pull forces together in the battle against species extinction.

Photo credits: Some rights reserved by James Barker via

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Will Vietnam help stop the rhino horn piper?

Some Vietnamese pockets are overflowing – powdered rhino horn is reaching excessive prices.  Why?  Asia, and specifically Vietnam, believe that rhino horn is the ultimate medicinal cure and customers keep arriving in their thousands.  The latest trend across Asia’s affluent population is the habitual consumption of powdered rhino horn as super potent detox.  It is said that the current price of rhino horn powder is sky-high.  And with a secured demand, the poachers return to South Africa for more rhino horn, again and again. Despite conservation protection and anti-poaching measures feverishly implemented across South Africa, the number of rhino poaching continues to climb weekly.  Now, South Africa’s government is turning to the rhino horn market – Asia – and more specificially Vietnam, in an attempt to overcome the illegal rhino horn trade and resulting threat to South Africa’s rhino population.

This year’s rhino poaching already exceeds the number of rhinos killed during 2011.  Media images of bloody, hornless rhinos are flooding the South African media as the poaching tally continues to climb for 2012.  But local media are now critically expanded to international grounds.  And the government is following: the Minister of Water & Environmental Affairs will visit Vietnam during December to continue negotiating Vietnam’s support in combatting illegal rhino hunting.  South Africa’s talks with Vietnam commenced earlier this year, with the involvement of various departments (including the Department of Trade and Industry and Department of Justice).

Home to 90% of Africa’s rhino population, and added that the South African government has been slow in curbing rhino poaching, the country is a perfect target for rhino poaching and illegal horn trade.  But a Memorandum of Understanding on the issue is said to be signed between South Africa and Vietnam early December – conservationists remain hopeful that Vietnam can take on some responsibility in curbing the demand for illegal horn trade.

In the meantime, media, conservationists and NGOs are urged to campaign the  rhino horn medicinal value hoax – and the brutal harm to Africa’s rhino.

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Sources: TheGuardian; AllAfrica; Bloomberg and BBC News

Photo credits: some rights reserved by johnmuk


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Shell/BP pollution in Durban suburb undetected for more than a decade

Wentworth, Durban.  This low-income community in South Durban are all too familiar with pollution.  But a decade of pollution gone undetected is a severe human and environmental threat.  It all started with an unfamiliar, noxious smell creeping along the streets, into the humble Wentworth homes.

Wentworth’s pollution hazard is South Africa’s largest crude oil refinery, Sapref, located a stone throw away from Wentworth. This joint venture between Shell SA Refining and BP Southern Africa, processes 240,000 tons of crude oil daily.  The refinery has a 160,000 km underground pipeline network crisscrossing across Durban and the rest of South Africa.  But sections of this pipeline network close to the refinery plant and surrounding suburbs, are old, rusty, and defunct.  And it is through these defunct pipeline sections that more than a million litres of petroleum leaked, polluting suburbs.  The leakages caused soil, groundwater, and stormwater pollution.  Finally, after more than a decade of constant pollution, air quality tests confirmed that some homes in Wentworth were exposed to excessively high levels of petrochemicals, including benzene.  Benzene is a confirmed human carcinogen and long-term exposure to benzene air pollution can cause leukemia, and other potentially fatal health conditions.

Sapref’s planned action to rectify

Following the pollution that has choked the community for more than a decade and forcing families to abandon their homes, Shell/BP finally removed a total of 1,45 million litres of fuel from the soil and a staggering 190 million litres from groundwater resources.  The fuel was removed by either burning or sucking up of the fuel.  The refinery’s plans for further action include a multi-million fuel recovery and environmental remediation project, specifically for collecting leaked fuels.  According to the refinery, remediation will be completed by the end of 2013, and monitoring will continue  for at least another ten to fifteen years.

Environmental racism

Community concern about the refinery’s pollution remains flammable high.  The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance campaign that Sapref’s practice in the South Durban area is consistent with the continued environmental and health concerns caused by Shell and BP internationally.  The community’s concern also lies with the age of the refineries.  Originally built during the 1950s and 60s, the environmental and health impacts of the refineries are huge, and difficult to control.  South Durban residents are adamant that the refineries must close down.  Continued operation of old industries, even though still operating on a large-scale, and within the boundaries of a low-income suburb, is a case of environmental racism that cannot be overlooked.  The call to action? Community members are urged to continue reporting pollution and concerns to authorities and demanding independent review of pollution impacts to avoid the situation where pollution remains undetected.

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Photo credits: josullivan.59 and O.F.E via flickr

Sources: Newsletter of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (2003), Vol 1;  iolnews

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South Africa’s electricity supply: flashing red (soon to be dark?)

Energy, and anger, waves surged through the country as Eskom, South Africa’s sole electricity generator, proposed massive planned electricity price increases earlier this week.  An annual increase of 16% is proposed for the next five years.  Which brings us to a cost increase from the current 61cents per kWh to 128cents per kWh by 2017/18.  During 2011, Eskom implemented a national 25% price increase.  Needless to say, the country is seeing red lights.

Environmental activists including groundWork, Earthlife Africa and Greenpeace responded to the recent Eskom announcements with protests at Eskom’s headquarters in Johannesburg, Megawatt Park.  Demanding a decisive change in coal-fired power stations, groundWork added that Eskom has failed South Africa’s population.  South Africa is fast approaching a situation where intermittent electricity supply is a very common, often daily, occurrence.  Protests further pounded on the injustice of the proposed price increases, health risks associated with the country’s coal-fired power stations as well as the irresponsible water usage associated with coal-fired power stations – water usage that South Africa as a water-stressed country, cannot afford.

Eskom’s CEO, Brian Dames announced that Eskom needs to keep the country’s lights burning, and continued electricity supply can only be provided with the proposed price increases.  What is causing a further uproar is that only 3% of the proposed 16% increase will be allocated to developing the country’s renewable energy systems, with Eskom receiving the remaining 13%.  Since the first announcements, Eskom has refused further formal discussion and comment, passing this responsibility to the National Energy Regulator of SA (Nersa).  Nersa will be responsible for reviewing Eskom’s proposed increases and their decision is expected by the end of February 2013.  However, Nersa is promising intensive consultation and public hearings to inform their decision.

Meanwhile, the media continues to report on how the proposed annual 16% increase can cause job losses, food and fuel price increases.   But apart from all the financial talk involved, Eskom still has to solve the country’s energy insecurity.  Renewable energy is well-supported by the public, yet it remains questionable whether renewable energy is high on Eskom’s priority list…Eskom is after all only willing to allocate minimal amounts to renewable, clean energy.

Photo credits: some rights reserve by muora via flickr

Sources: IOL News and DailyNews

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Horn of Africa: drought update

Somalia’s Gu, the typical rainy season between April and June, and even the recent August rainfall of between 11mm – 199mm, brought very little relief for this drought-striken country in the Horn of Africa.  The country and its inhabitants are particularly worried as the Gu season accounts for up to six months of cereal supply for the country.  But with the Somalian rainy season staying dry, aid organisations are predicting that 3.4 million fragile Somalis will be in dire need of food and other supplies for at least another six months.  The country’s main ports are critical for Somalis.  Not only is aid received via the country’s ports, but authorities can increase food imports which also lowers commodity prices.   But a battle of a different kind is being fought along Somali’s coast and harbour cities as militant groups fight for national control.  Peaceful living in Somalia has been an unknown situation since 1991 and relief agencies are increasingly prevented from delivering aid to needy communities.


The statistics for the recent Horn of Africa drought is dreadful – the estimated death toll is between 50,000 and 100,000.  Sadly, more than half of this figure was children under the fragile age of five.  A further 13 million people needed humanitarian assistance to survive the onset of the drought.  In 2011, the drought was described as Africa’s worst drought of the past six decades and in Somalia, an official state of famine was declared. And yet it is still far from over…and with climate change predictions for the near future, there is even less hope for an improved Horn of Africa.

Environmental & political refugees

Forced to flee from their country, Somalis left in thousands during the drought climax in mid-2011.  This left neighbouring Kenya with an extra 160,000 environmental refugees.  Sheltered in Dabaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, some basic daily needs are met, however, Dabaab is now running out of resources to support its 465,000 refugees.  Various aid organisations are acknowledging, despite the desperate need for basic resources, that continued aid is not a solution to the distressed situation particularly as the camp continues to expand due to civil unrest and conflict threatening the lives of ordinary civilians.  Parts of Dabaab are now affected by a cholera outbreak.  This highly contagious disease is stretching medical staff and resources to control the outbreak.

Emergency situation continues

There is slightly good news in that official state of famine is no longer declared for Somali, but an emergency situation continues.  It is however expected that the drought will continue well into 2013 as the next upcoming Gu can only be expected from April 2013 onwards.

Aid organisations such as the International Rescue Committee continue to work uninterrupted to firstly save lives but also to re-establish displaced communities.  IRC and other organisations are furthermore developing and implementing planning for the skills training, youth development and the empowerment of women to help the Horn of Africa’s communities cope with vulnerable situations.

Photo credits: some rights reserved by prozac1 via



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Whale watching: now and in the future


South Africa’s whale season runs between June and November, bringing annual excitement to the country’s  coastal towns.  The Southern Right whale migrates to the country’s southern coast for a few months of calving and the nursing of their offspring.  Two further whale species, the Hump and Bryde’s, also pass the coast in the second half of every year.

But behind this beauty and serenity lies an age-old struggle – mammal against man.  And it is this battle which has resulted in whales being listed as one of the most endangered marine species.

The most prominent causes of whale mortality include collisions with large vessels and entangling with commercial fishing gear.  The migratory patterns of these gigantic marine mammals intensifies the mortality rate as vessel collisions and entanglement are more likely to happen at near shore locations – which at the same time serve as the best grounds for calving and nursing thus continuing to attract whales.

A recent study (Julie van der Hoop, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts) confirmed that human activities were still the main reason for current day whale mortality.  A total of 1,762 mortality cases were investigated over a period of four decades, of which 67% proved to be human related.  Death due to entangling with fishing gear took the greatest toll, claiming 323 whales.  Even more distressing, the study confirmed that conservation efforts over the past four decades were unsuccessful in bringing notable change to whale mortality rates.  Official conservation measures, including vessel restrictions and speed control in identified whale hotspots, brought no relief to the increasing mortality rates.  Four decades of no to little improvement in whale conservation while these majestic giants of the oceans are already rated as endangered.

Statistics bluer than the whale environment.  Yet whale watching seasons offers an excellent opportunity for whale mortality awareness and fund-raising for continued research.  Take your whale watching outing a step further this season and visit your nearest marine research institution to learn how to become involved in whale conservation.  For continued whale watching, now and in the future.

Sources:, and

Photographs: some rights reserved by marragem and Bodhi Surf School via flickr

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Call for better protection of SA’s estuaries

South Africa recently celebrated National Marine Week.  Estuaries, due to their saline and freshwater properties, was a prominent focus of the national campaign.  It is particularly the intricate nature of estuaries, coastal waterbodies permanently or periodically open to the ocean, that is calling for better protection.  South Africa has a total of 259 estuaries with estuary locations relating directly to river locations.

Great Brak Estuary, Southern Cape, South Africa

As seen in the above photograph, an estuary system is found where freshwater from a river, runs into the ocean.  Yet the nature of estuaries differs and this point of opening up to the ocean  can either be closed, periodically or permanently open, allowing a variety of exchanges between marine and freshwater.  These unique ecosystems are critically important for marine and freshwater habitats, including fish, invertebrates, bird and plant species.  The southern African coastline stretching between Mozambique to Angola, has very few sheltered environments available for sensitive coastal and freshwater habitats to exist.  A number of marine and fish species occupy estuaries for the nursing of their offspring.

Our estuaries therefore offer valuable protection, not only for marine species, but also for a high diversity of animal and plant species.  The ecological importance of South Africa’s estuaries is thus captured in the ability of these systems to support resident and migratory species, supporting a range of ecological processes.  As a result, these ecosystems are usually highly productive.

River mouth outlet to ocean, Great Brak Estuary, Southern Cape, South Africa

South Africa’s estuaries are however threatened by social and economic activities traditionally associated with these ecosystems.  According to the South African National Biodiversity Institute, the estimated monetary value of commercial fishing from estuaries, equals R923 million (about US$ 115 million) annually.  On the social front, estuaries with their highly attractive views and pleasant environment, is sought after areas for residential and even commercial and tourism development.  Recreational activities follow, including birding, fishing and bait collection, swimming, and boating.  On a more subsistence level, estuaries are the livelihood for many communities depending on estuary harvesting including prawns, bait and worms as the sole source of income.   The Eastern Cape’s prominent Swartkops estuary is one of the country’s most prominent estuaries in economic terms.  This estuary has an estimated ecological value of R38.2 million (about US$4.75 million) and annually generates R50 million (about US$6.25 million) from tourism.

With the above in mind, the Minister of Environmental Affairs publicly confirmed during the National Marine Week: our estuaries the need better, increased and more stringent protection.  Anthropogenic or human induced pollution, including untreated wastewater and industrial effluent, are two major pollution sources threatening the well-being and functioning of the country’s estuaries.

South Africa’s estuaries are thus in great need of the development and implementation of holistic management plans, such as developed by the CAPE Estuaries Programme.  Following rigorous management research and extensive stakeholder involvement, the final management plans for the country’s major estuaries  were developed and are in the early stages of implementation.  Ultimately, the goal is to expand estuary management to all 295 estuaries across the country’s coastline, offering better protection for these valuable ecosystems and ensuring long-term sustainability.

Sources:; South African Biodiversity Institute and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

Photographs: some rights reserved by jimmedia via flickr (Cover Photo); and all rights reserved by Word from the Savanna (Article Photos).

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Winter in South Africa: Staying warm the eco-friendly way

The last week brought a sudden and severe burst of winter for South Africa. Icy winds, heavy rainfalls and snow in quite some volumes swept over the country.  With heavy snowfalls, authorities were forced to close a number of major roads, leaving travelers and commuters stranded in icy weather.  Life in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Lesotho, Free State and even some parts of the arid Northern Cape were disrupted by snowfall.

More cold weather and low temperatures are predicted, thus consider these tips for staying warm the sustainable way:

Sustainable heating

Fireplace and wood:

Be sure to use only exotic wood for your fireplace or stove and not any indigenous or protected trees.   Check with your supplier where they source their wood from, and whether it complies with sustainable practices.  Be wary of artificial logs or petroleum-based products which may negatively impact on your health and the health of your family.

Warm the green way:

Opt for low-energy ways of staying warm such as low-energy consumption electrical blankets or hot water bottles.  Only switch on heating and or electrical blankets when they are needed.  Avoid heating your entire residence and rather only warm up the rooms that you use regularly.


Insulate geysers and water pipes to prevent heat loss and save energy.  Insulating geysers and water pipes also mean that water will be conserved as the time of running the tap for hot water will reduced.

A fairly simple way to keep warm air indoors is to close all unnecessary windows and doors.  By limiting the incoming cold air the need for artificial heating of indoor environments will be reduced.

Face the sun

South Africa is blessed with sunshine – thus, beat the winter chills by making the most of sunny winter days.  Shift your living and working spaces to allow maximum warming from the sun.  Not only will your heating bill be lower, but lighting levels will also be improved.

Solar heaters is another excellent option for South African homes. Consider  installing a small unit that will cover your household needs.

Wholesome soups

Support your local farmer’s market or other local produce, buy local vegetables and stew up wholesome soups.  Buying local produce often means less packaging material and reduced waste, reduced long distance product transport and a fresher and healthier product for the consumer.

Get some exercise

Walk instead of driving for errands in your immediate surroundings, or walking your dog in the morning or evenings will have you feeling warmer and less inclined to switch on the electronic heaters.

With these tips, your household environment will be warmer and you will be contributing to a more sustainable environment.

Photo credits: some rights reserved by tomylees, steve took it and dbz885 via flickr.

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