Go back

Fire-ravaged Garden Route becomes UN biosphere reserve

The indigenous forests of the Garden Route near Knysna in South Africa were awarded United Nations biosphere reserve status this week, just days after a firestorm devastated the area.

The Man and the Biosphere programme of the UN education, science and culture agency, Unesco, added the Garden Route Biosphere Reserve to its list of reserves during its annual meeting in Paris.

The announcement was made on 14 June even as the town of Knysna, where over 400 buildings were destroyed in the flames, still smouldered. The blaze broke out on 7 June when underbrush left drier than usual by drought ignited the indigenous forest, buffeted by strong winds.

So far the fire has killed seven people, two of them firefighters. The area was declared a disaster zone, with the provincial government setting aside R75 million (US$6m) on 14 June for recovery efforts.

Brian van Wilgen, a professor in invasion ecology at Stellenbosch university, says that the fires were a social and ecological disaster.

“They will result in further spread of alien plants, exacerbating past neglect and subsequent mismanagement,” he says.

The alien vegetation in the forest should also take some blame for the fire, he adds. “The aliens made the fires worse, and now the fires will make the aliens worse.”

Six other African biosphere reserves—in Benin, Ethiopia, Niger, Sudan and Togo—also made the UN list.

Unesco said that MAB-designated reserves are “learning places for sustainable development whose aim is to reconcile biodiversity conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources”.

African women reap prizes

Three African women were among the winners of MAB’s young scientist prizes, announced during the same meeting.

Isma Merad from Algeria, Stella Marlène Sokpon from Benin, and Marie Florence Sandrine Ngo Ngwe from Cameroon each won US$5,000.

Merad is a researcher at the Badji Mokhtar-Annaba University where she examines the impact of humans on Lake El Mellah in El Kala through a mollusc sentinel species.

Ngo Ngwe is a PhD graduate from the University of Montreal and currently works at the Institute of Agricultural Research for Development in Yaoundé. Her work centres on the genetics and biochemistry of forests in the Dja Biosphere Reserve.

Sokpon is based at the University of Parakou. She examines the potential of ecotourism with input from local communities in protecting the Pendjari biosphere.

Applications for the 2017 prizes are open and will close on 31 October. Applicants must be younger than 40 and do research in an MAB-designated reserve, of which there were 70 in 28 African countries before the latest additions. Applications can be in French or English.