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The biological invasion of South Africa

Photography by Rodger Bosch

Overview map – 7
10: The invisible sounder – 153
Acknowledgements – 8
Eurasian wild pigs
Foreword by Kader Asmal – 10
11: The sweet-toothed predator in the winelands – 159
Introduction – 15
The European or yellow jacket wasp

1: Shrinking planet Earth – 23
C ap e nsi s calamity’ – 163
12: The ‘C
Travel and conquest on the road to globalisation
Cape and African honeybees and the painted reed frog

2: A little Europe in the Cape – 41
13: Our polluted waterways – 173
The Cape Floral Kingdom and its plant invaders
Predatory fish (trout, bass and sharptooth catfish) and
(mostly silky hakea, cluster pine and long-leaved wattle)
invasive plants (hydrilla and water hyacinth)

3: Stealing South Africa’s precious water – 63
14: A tale of cats and mice – 187
The threat of woody tree invaders (wattle, pine, euca-
Marion, Prince Edward and Gough Islands
lyptus, mesquite and lantana)
15: Blueprint of a well-nourished world – 203
4: Troublemakers in the big blue – 83
Genetically modified crops and global food security
Mussels, oysters and crabs
16: Staging a defence – 217
5: Armies from the New World – 97
Strategies to contain invasion
Argentine (sugar) ant
17: A biological diaspora – 231
6: Winged incursions – 107
South Africa’s weedy exports
Common starlings, common mynahs, house sparrows,
house crows, feral pigeons, the mallard duck and the
Appendices – 236
spread of indigenous species
Appendix 1: Summary of South Africa’s invaders – 236
Appendix 2: A four-river case study – 238
7: The devil weed and the dinosaur doppelgänger – 121
Appendix 3: Roll of dishonour – 239
Triffid weed and its impact on the Nile crocodile
Appendix 4: Consequences of alien plant invasions – 241

8: Flowers of the waysides and wastelands – 129
Notes and references – 244
Road and railway verges and power-line servitudes
Index – 260
9: Glades of grass – 141
Perennial and annual grass invaders

I met Prof Steven Chown by accident seven years ago. He was looking for a jour-
nalist to put through a Master’s programme and skill up in science communication;
I was looking for a career change. The shift in my focus as a writer as a result has been
nothing short of seismic. I am indebted to Steven for the many opportunities this col-
laboration has afforded me since then, working with Stellenbosch University’s Centre
for Invasion Biology (CIB) and the Capacity Building Programme for Climate Change
Research, the latter of which has since been put out to pasture.
Invaded is another instalment in this fruitful working relationship, one which I
think demonstrates that scientists and journalists can bridge the divide between the dis-
ciplines if they put their minds to it.
In 2004 the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Re-
search Foundation (NRF) launched the South African Centres of Excellence Pro-
gramme, creating a number of centres around the country with the mandate to
conduct research, development and training in their respective fields. The CIB is one
of these centres, based at Stellenbosch University. Without the vision of the CIB, or fi-
nancial backing from Stellenbosch University, DST and NRF, Invaded would never
have been written.
Sarah Davies, the CIB’s Deputy Director: Operations and resident frog fundi, is
one of the easiest people to work with. I’m deeply grateful to her for sharing her ex-
perience as a scientist, as well as for the logistical and moral support throughout.
Prof Dave Richardson is the CIB’s Deputy Director: Science Strategy and has prob-
ably written more about invasive species in southern Africa than anyone in the coun-
try. He tirelessly fielded questions and requests for journal articles through the course
of writing Invaded.
Photographer Rodger Bosch took a difficult brief and turned it into a collection of
fantastic pictures to document this story. It was a pleasure to work with him.
And, of course, there are many more people who assisted in various ways, partic-
ularly the CIB team: Anel Garthwaite, Lufuno Vhengani, Kirsten Mahood, Natasha
Kruger, Karen Esler, Sue Milton, Erika Nortje, Charles Griffiths, Melodie McGeoch,
Michael Samways, Brian van Wilgen, Theresa Wossler, Suzaan Kritzinger-Klopper,
Paul Skelton, Steven Lowe, John Terblanche, John Wilson, Serban , Proches, and Dian
Dave Pepler, guest at the CIB and roving naturalist, was my favourite source of
procrastination and is a walking enlightenment.
Outside of the CIB were many other scientists who were always willing to spare a
few moments: Res Altwegg, Ross Wanless, Marthán Bester, Deon Hignett, Anton

Wolfaardt, Ernst Baard and his colleagues Guy Palmer and Peter Lloyd, David Ehren-
feld, David Le Maitre, Adnan Awad, Niek Gremmen, Jim Cambray, Dean Impson
and John Hoffman.
Dr Guy Preston and Prof Kader Asmal contributed to the discussion on these
pages, but have also done extraordinary work in getting invasive alien plants onto the
national agenda.
My thanks, also, to the Wits University Press team, particularly Veronica Klipp
and Melanie Pequeux, for their unflagging support over the years; and to Andrea Nat-
trass, whose editor’s touch was light as a feather, but her eye eagle-sharp.
And, of course, a final bow of gratitude to Wayne de Villiers for his eternal kindness.

Invasive alien species: The spread of invasive alien species and disease
organisms continues to increase because of both deliberate translocations and
accidental introductions related to growing trade and travel, with significant harmful
consequences to native species and many ecosystem services.

Most of the direct drivers of change in ecosystems and biodiversity currently
remain constant or are growing in intensity in most ecosystems. The most important
direct drivers of change in ecosystems are habitat change (land use change and
physical modification of rivers or water withdrawal from rivers), overexploitation,
invasive alien species, pollution, and climate change.


I t was on a misty, drizzly day on Hogsback, in the Amatola Mountains of the East-
ern Cape, that it finally occurred to me why this was such a difficult book to write.
I was visiting the mountain for a December break, and my father and I were wan-
dering along a muddy path which our family and many like us have worn smooth
after decades of use. The dripping leaves of the silver birches, draped over the path,
slapped runlets of water along my cheeks if I didn’t duck in time. The brambles
snagged at the grey and dappled fetlocks of the Basotho ponies we rode.
‘A botanical slum,’ said my dad in passing, nodding contemplatively at the clogged
undergrowth on either side of us.
Even in the glorious, soft-focus light that cushions your view in this mist-belt when
the cloud is down, the ugliness was unavoidable. Matted brambles, snarled into thorny
knots of impenetrable green around the rotting stumps of long-felled pine trees; dense
stands of black wattles, growing tall and scrawny as they jostled one another for light
and room; even the silvery elegance of the birches took on a sinister mood as they
slumped, alone or in pairs, amidst this scruffy tangle of alien plants.
Pollution doesn’t make for easy sonnets or flowing, romantic narratives.
And that’s what this book is about – pollution. Not the everyday sort of pollution
that we recognise so easily, the type which piles up into stinking heaps of litter or that
clogs the sky with filthy smoke. No, this is a form of pollution which is so subtle and Opposite: Advances in
insidious that many people do not realise it is there. modern transportation have
Invaded is about biological pollution, the kind that comes in dense hedges of lush shrunk the globe, making it
greenery, blooming fields of heady petals or gracefully draped creepers. It may spread easier for people and cargo
incognito on the wings of a bird, tug on the end of an angler’s line or scurry unnoticed to move about, penetrating
through the undergrowth. even the most remote places.


Indigenous forest at Hanglip These pages explore plants and animals that have traversed the borders and bound-
on the Soutpansberg hiking aries of their natural habitats and made their way into South Africa over the past 300
trail, near Makhado years and more. Unhindered by the predators and diseases which once kept their pop-
(formerly Louis Trichardt) in ulations in check, many have come to outnumber and outcompete the species they en-
the Limpopo Province. counter in their adopted homes.
What is an alien invasive organism? It’s an organism that occurs outside of its nat-
ural ecosystem, having arrived in a place, an ‘adopted’ home, by intentional or unin-
tentional human involvement.1 Most of all, it’s one that has the potential to ‘cause harm
to the environment, economies, or human health’, according to the Global Invasive
Species Programme.
South Africans are most familiar with invasive alien plants such as pines, wattles,
gum trees, hakea and hyacinth. Not only do these plants dominate a landscape, but
their threat to our country’s scarce water resources has been highlighted by the gov-
ernment’s battle against them through the Working for Water programme.
But there are many other examples of species that either are invasive, or have the
potential to become invasive. This book is not a complete guide to invasive alien or-
ganisms in South Africa. Rather, it attempts to give an overview of the different kinds
of species that have arrived in our country over the past few centuries, the threats they
pose or their potential to become a threat.

Chapters 1 and 2 explain how we got to be in this situation in the first place. Tech-
nological advances in travel and communication have literally shrunk the globe, mak-
ing it faster and easier for people and cargo to move across continents and oceans in
days or hours. This high-octane travel bridges the very geological barriers, like oceans
or vast mountain ranges, which prevented species from moving outside of their home
ranges previously. During the years of European colonisation of Africa, many species
were deliberately introduced into this country in an attempt to recreate the gardens
and foods about which the new settlers felt so sentimental.
Water is the theme of Chapter 3, since South Africa’s fresh water supplies are nat-
urally scarce, and the country is prone to drought. The threat which alien plants pose
to our water security makes these plants a priority to clear and control, hence Chap-
ter 16.
And sandwiched in between these are glimpses into different invaders within a
variety of ecosystems in our country, or various issues surrounding invasions: marine
invaders along our coast; insects from countries afar; birds, both indigenous ones which
are shifting outside their natural South African ranges, and foreign birds.
Feral pigs and the European yellow jacket wasp may not technically be fully
fledged invaders yet, but their unique status means they still deserve a red flag, and
each gets a chapter of its own. Feral pigs are destructive aliens, and the ‘footprint’ of
their damage within the endangered renosterveld is so large, relative to the sensitiv-
ity of the plants and animals they threaten, that this creature got a chapter all of its own.
Similarly, the yellow jacket wasp appears to be on the decline in the Western Cape, but A vast man-made forest
its potency as an invader in other countries means it could be one small hop across the – Johannesburg.
Cape mountains away from being a sig-
nificant problem in southern Africa.
The devil weed threatening the Nile
crocodile breeding grounds in
KwaZulu-Natal; roadsides as refuges
for rare plants; the indigenous Cape
honeybee being shipped north; grasses
as the under-reported invader; the dis-
astrous invasion of Marion Island by
cats and mice; fish and plants in our
rivers; and the need for genetic diversity
to keep our global food supplies secure.
Each chapter tries to encapsulate a
unique angle on this vast theatre of in-
vasive alien species and how they fit into
South Africa’s unique landscapes.


And finally, Chapter 17 illustrates that South Africa has given
as much as the rest of them – exporting its own invaders in ex-
change for the ones that have come here.
Alien invasive species are the unintended fellow travellers
which accompany human migration around an increasingly glob-
alised planet. Today, the biological pollution associated with these
organisms is better understood and is now being taken seriously by
conservationists and governments.
Besides bringing about the extinction of many species in the en-
vironments which they invade, alien invasive species undermine
biological diversity and alter the ability of ecosystems to function
Top: The beautiful natural and sustain life. This has implications for people who depend on those environments
landscape of Mapelane dune in for resources such as food, shelter or water. A collapsed natural system is also less likely
KwaZulu-Natal. to function as a ‘sink’ to absorb sewage, biodegradable waste and other pollution as-
Above: The European shore sociated with human settlement. Alien invasive species also change natural fire
crab or green crab (Carcinus regimes, undermine agriculture and drink more than their fair share of water – all of
meanas) arrived in South African which have implications for the natural environment and for the people living in those
waters in 1983. It features in the landscapes.
Global Invasive Species The cost of invasive species to the global economy is about US$1.4 trillion every
Programme’s list of the world’s year – the equivalent of 5% of the global gross domestic product (GDP).
100 worst invaders (see Appen- I hope, through the pages of this book, to provide a glimpse of the many alien and
dix 3 starting on page 239). invasive species that have moved into South Africa and between its different habitats.

The stories in the book attempt to quantify how these species have changed systems,
disrupted the natural environment and threatened the future of the country’s many
unique plants, animals and habitats.
Of course, like any good plot line, this one is not without its controversy. So many
people in our society depend on some of the very species which have become invasive,
whether for domestic firewood or for jobs in the timber industry. Like it or not, in a
country that is naturally short of trees, alien trees provide a valuable resource. Like
them or loathe them, many species which are alien and sometimes even invasive, are Below: Advances in modern
the foundation of industries which this country would be economically poorer with- transportation have shrunk the
out: consider the role of woody trees grown by the forestry industry for the country’s globe, making it easier for
many timber and paper needs, or the considerable value of the pet and nursery plant people and cargo to move
trade, or agriculture and our need for food se- about, penetrating even the
curity. most remote places.
I hope that Invaded will be a book that sits Left: The Argentine ant (Linep-
close to the elbow of any nature enthusiast or ithema humile) was
environmentalist or policy maker, the kind of introduced accidentally, prob-
book that will be picked up from time to time ably in horse fodder brought
and a different chapter dipped into as a re- to the country to support the
minder of how serious this problem of inva- imperial war effort during the
sive alien organisms really is in our country. South African War.


short of trees, farming with Not everyone shares the commitment of governments, scientists and conservationists
alien species such as these who are set on controlling the spread of non-indigenous species. A handful of critics
gum trees is key to propping have emerged – sociologists, philosophers, historians and horticulturists – whose opin-
up one part of the economy. ion on the matter has been informed by contemporary ideological movements and
politics. And it seems that Nazism might be where this train of thought first started.
Under Nazi rule, non-indigenous plants in Germany became the focus of a vig-
orous ‘war of extermination’. In light of the Nazis’ ‘final solution’, which produced
genocide of the Jews in Germany, it is hardly surprising that social commentary traced
this biological ‘cleansing’ process back to racism and anti-Semitism. Many critics main-
tained that similar botanical initiatives, or proponents of the use of native plants in
horticulture elsewhere in the world, were steeped in the same racist intolerance.
During the Second World War the trend in Dutch landscaping was to favour in-
digenous species in recognition of the damage to natural systems by non-indigenous
species. Daniel Simberloff writes that during the occupation of the Netherlands by
Nazi forces, concern grew amongst Dutch landscapers that their conservation-mind-
edness was being loaded with ideology by the Nazis and metamorphosed into some-
thing far less savoury.2

In a global context nationalist zeal sometimes took a darker turn and became the
undercurrent of xenophobia, racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. Likewise, social
critique emerged which maintained that a propensity for favouring native species or
wanting to eradicate non-native species was akin to racist and nationalist sentiments
where ‘locals’ feared ‘outsiders’ or ‘locals’ were somehow better than or more aesthet-
ically pleasing than ‘outsiders’. Attempts to eradicate non-indigenous plants became
analogous with ‘ethnic cleansing’.
The need to keep ecosystems indigenous and unpolluted by aliens should not be
anthropomorphised in this way. Neither should this process be confused with the
loaded agendas of socio-political ideology, which ultimately are pseudoscientific and
detract from the issue at hand, namely, that alien and invasive species are docu-
mented to produce significant and sometimes catastrophic consequences to indige-
nous species and systems, often leading to extinctions. In many cases, these invasions
can be quantified by their significant economic and health costs for people and en-
Before industrialisation and globalisation, the detrimental consequences of human
development were usually localised. Pollution seldom affected communities far from
the source. That all changed with industrialisation when large-scale atmospheric pol-
lution brought acid rain and global climate change to countries, communities and pop-
ulations who, in many cases, were not responsible for that pollution at all. Could you
not argue that invasive alien species are a similar form of global pollution and should
be viewed as such, rather than afforded the protection of a thin veneer of ideological
Invaded was on its way to be edited at the time that the xenophobic violence broke
out in many parts of South Africa in May 2008. This distressing set of events was a
stark reminder of what can happen in a society when ‘the other’ is perceived as a threat
or as different from ‘us’.
At a genetic level, every human being is so closely related that we are brothers and
sisters, regardless of what part of the globe we come from, what colour our skin, what
language we speak, or food we eat. We are all part of a broader family that originated
in Africa and migrated outwards over the past 100 000 years, and has continued mi-
grating since then.
When we view our presence on Earth from the perspective of the geological time-
line, every single one of us is a migrant, and an immigrant at some level, even though
our family might settle somewhere for a few generations, giving the place the status
of ‘country’ and calling it our own. National boundaries are arbitrary constructs of
this modern thing called the ‘nation state’ and an attempt to apply thinking around
alien invasive species to the migration of human beings is pseudoscientific and intel-
lectually dishonest.


Travel and conquest on the road to globalisation

C onsider the sewing needle: a thin shard of metal, sharpened at one end, with a
small hole at the other to receive a thread of cotton or twine. Its purpose is as ut-
terly mundane as the chore of mending holey socks.
The humble sewing needle may not appear to be the most formidable piece of en-
gineering in a technological age, in a world where astronauts on the International
Space Station watch our Sun rising over Earth every 90 minutes and scientists have
mapped out the human genome. But the sewing needle’s role in human occupation of
this world was, at one time, as important to the conquest of the Americas as NASA’s
Apollo missions were to landing a man on the moon. Without the sewing needle, hu-
mans would not have reached the Americas when they did.
This is because the sewing needle was part of humanity’s conquest of cold – the
final hurdle to our ancestors reaching the last unclaimed continents about 18 000 years
ago. As far as the road to modernisation goes, it symbolises the technological ad-
vancements our kind have made that have allowed us to spread our reach around so
much of the globe. And the story of invasive and alien species is really about just this
– travel and conquest on the road to globalisation.
Archaeological records show that none of our hominid relatives, neither Homo
erectus nor the Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis), was able to live higher than 53° Opposite: The need to
North.1 By about 28 000 years ago both these lineages had become extinct, leaving only beautify gardens and water-
the ‘Wise Man’, Homo sapiens, to continue its migration around the globe. ways has helped to spread
After first evolving in East Africa about 150 000 years ago, modern humans moved many alien species around the
out of Africa and up into south-west Asia about 100 000 years ago,2 quite likely fol- globe. This water hyacinth
lowing the similar routes taken by Homo erectus who departed the cradle of hu- (Eichhornia crassipes) hails
mankind much earlier. Nevertheless, Homo sapiens probably lived ‘alongside from the Amazon River.


Neanderthals and other older human types’ for tens of thousands of years3 before the
other hominid forms finally died out.
From south-west Asia, some groups of Homo sapiens trekked south-east of that
continent, reaching it by 65 000 years ago while others trekked west and settled across
Europe by 41 000 years ago. The east-bound migrations probably accounted for par-
ties which, using rudimentary boat building, were able to island-hop down from the
coast of Indonesia to settle in Australia by about 30 000 years ago.
But it was only with the conquest of cold that the first modern humans could trek
up into the high Arctic tundra and approach what could be their only possible route
into the New World.
By 18 000 years ago, planet Earth was in the midst of an ice age and anywhere ap-
proaching the Arctic Circle would have been a miserable and frozen place – much
worse than it is today. But massive ice sheets, trapping so much of the planet’s water,
meant that the sea level had dropped, slipping back to reveal a small finger of land
where north-eastern Siberia reaches out to touch a protrusion of North America: the
Bering Strait.4
Between 20 000 and 12 000 years ago, writes Peter Watson, historian at Cambridge
University’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, a thin bridge of land
covered with steppe-tundra would have been exposed by the retreating sea, allowing
small groups to migrate across into the New World, probably following the migration
of the big herbivores.
People would have needed very specific technology to enable them to survive the
frigid hell of an ice age Arctic. By about 18 000 years ago, these groups had learned to
erect shelter using the bones of mammoths, covered with hides and vegetation, which
provided much better shelter than their previous resting places, mere depressions in
the ground. Those early stone knives and spearheads meant they could kill the mas-
sive herbivores of the tundra, woolly mammoths. But it was the needle that enabled
them to fashion garments against the persistent cold.
So humans were able to make use of that slim window provided by the ice age to
slip across from Siberia into Alaska. Then, as the ice age gave way to a warmer inter-
glacial warm spell, the ice sheets retreated again, releasing their water. The sea rose
again to reclaim the land bridge, trapping those first true Americans on their new
The year was about 13 000 before present (BP).
Without belabouring the point, the needle is something of a caricature of the
broader process that allowed humans to colonise so many corners of the globe. Other
animals wanting to adopt the Arctic as their home would have had to evolve physical
adaptations, at a genetic level, to allow them to move into the new environment. A
thicker pelt would have been needed, or a different jaw and tooth structure to ac-

commodate the strange foods in this new environment.5 This takes many generations
to complete. Humans could make the adaptive changes much faster – not by chang-
ing their physiology, but rather by simply developing the technology to take the hide
of a woolly mammoth and fashion it into warm clothes and tents. The physical adap-
tation to allow for this had already been made millennia earlier – by evolving a big-
ger brain, in part because of our switch to include meat in our diets.
It is this capacity to adapt the world around us, rather than having to adapt to the
world, that enabled us to move and settle further and faster than ever before.
The story of invasive species starts, simply, with the story of global travel. Whether
it was a sewing needle, a mild-mannered herbivore such as a horse or a bridle to fit it,
a wheel, an ox cart, a steam-powered train, a car with an internal combustion engine,
a jet airplane or a lunar rocket: these were all quibbling details in the broader con-
quest of the globe. Travel has shrunk the globe – and the faster we have been able to
travel, the smaller the world has become.

For the greater part of the emergence of Homo sapiens as a dominant generalist species
on the planet, its movements were on foot. When a community migrated, it packed its
belongings and simply walked. But human ingenuity learned quickly that there were
ways to lighten the load and speed up the journey. The wheel was the first big tech-
nological jump forward, allowing the load bearer to shed the weight of shouldered
bundles or pulled sleds. Harnessing the strength of the most available tame herbivore
was another stroke of genius. It took a few hundred years for communities to develop
the most efficient harness techniques to the different body shapes of the animals at
their disposal, but eventually they had draught animals carrying loads, pulling plough
shears and moving carts.
Those societies which were able to capture the significant power of the horse
through a simple arrangement of leather halter or bridle were set apart; the saddle
and foot-stirrup secured their position atop their mounts just as it asserted their place
within the social hierarchy; nailing a band of iron to the underside of the hoof wall
made the animals more hardy and able to cover greater distances over tougher ter-
Horses led the charge: they shrank distances between villages and capitals, sped up
travel and fuelled a faster and more efficient trade. Horse-drawn chariots and
mounted soldiers pushed geo-political boundaries wider and elevated warfare. When
Spaniards arrived in South America, their mounted soldiers were a terror to the in-
digenous people who had never encountered such formidable beasts, let alone seen
people mounted on them.


The camel – the single-humped native to the Arabian peninsula and North Africa,
and the double-humped Bactrian of the Gobi Desert – did for trade routes what
wheeled vehicles could not. The simple development of the camel saddle brought these
tough desert animals into the fold of beasts of burden. By allowing weight to be dis-
tributed over the animal’s ribs rather than its hump, the device opened up the trans-
Sahara trade routes. Arab merchants led their thousands-strong strings of camels
through the Sahara, laden with salt to trade with West Africans for gold and slaves.
Iran and Africa were suddenly linked. The silk route thrived between China and im-
perial Rome. Vast amounts of wealth and traffic flowed to and fro on the backs of the
newly tamed ruminants.
These technologies may appear simple and archaic, but in a pre-industrial society
they overcame geological barriers, levelled mountains, opened up plains, bridged
deserts and shrank the great expanses of continents.
Another unconquered barrier remained open to exploration: the expanse of the
ocean. After all, oceans do account for two-thirds of the Earth’s surface and were a
formidable obstacle. The first elementary ships allowed for near-shore travel. But even-
tually the Chinese ‘junk’ gave this nation a formidable trade presence in the oceans
off India, Borneo and Java, and as far as the Red Sea long before European commu-
nities had made much naval headway. Advances in shipping later opened up the New
World, Africa and Australia to colonisation by modern travellers, and linked Europe
with the established and wealthy Asian trade routes, including the highly prized spice
The next step was to make travel and communications faster and more efficient.
That’s where the Industrial Revolution came in. The steam engine put a new kind of
muscle behind the movement of people and goods between places. Advances in iron-
ore refinement allowed stronger railway tracks to spread the footprint of imperial na-
tions deeper into their colonies. The emerging industrial economy needed new markets
in which to peddle its wares and needed access to cheap natural resources in growing
quantities. Rail transport became the most efficient way to extract mineral reserves,
rubber, ivory, hides, fuel, livestock, labour, sugar, coffee and anything else insatiable im-
perialist countries desired.
Historian Clive Ponting writes:

One of the most important of all developments in the nineteenth century
was a revolution in the speed of communications. Internally railways al-
lowed people to travel across most countries within a day but even more
important for the development of European control were the changes in
sailing times. Until the 1830s the Europeans, like their predecessors in
the sixteenth century and the Arab and Roman sailors two millennia

earlier, were dependent on the monsoon winds for communications with
Asia, particularly India. A message from Britain to India took about
five to eight months to arrive, depending on the time of year. Because
of the monsoons a response would not arrive back in Britain until al-
most two years had elapsed. Railways and steamships shortened this
time dramatically.6

The journey from London to Bombay via Cairo by then took only 30 days, a tenth of
the time taken before steam power, writes Ponting. Previously, where communica-
tion depended on runners and horsemen – requiring lengthy return journeys between
destinations to deliver information, dispatch cargo and finally take delivery of what-
ever goods had been ordered – electricity, the telegraph and Morse code did away with
half the journey. Now a message could be sent back to the imperial capital almost in-
stantly and the goods dispatched on the next ship out.
The internal combustion engine put motor vehicles onto a growing network of
roads which criss-crossed continents and linked cities. Then the Wright brothers pro-
pelled the first machine into the air and before long a single leap across the Atlantic
was an everyday affair.
Faster airplanes, more efficient road travel, bulk cargo carriers, refrigerated con-
tainers, radio and television, digital and satellite communications have all taken a mas-
sive globe and shrunk it to a metaphorical village. A burgeoning human population
(which had grown from the pre-Industrial 610 million to today’s 6.5 billion), growing
global wealth, cheap oil, war mongering and tourists’ hunger to explore new places are
only giving people more reason to move along the transport networks crafted by the
hands of these clever apes. Trade and travel routes now link even the furthest reaches
of the globe like a network of veins and arteries along which people, goods, language,
science, political discourse, religions, novel foods as well as strange animals and plants
can travel to places which previously had been insular and isolated. The first journey
from the Rift Valley in Africa, across Asia and the Bering Strait, across North Amer-
ica and down to South America took Homo sapiens 150 000 years to complete. Today
a trip between Johannesburg and Buenos Aires takes less than 24 hours.

The process which started with a horse-and-cart trip to the next village to trade
vegetables and milk has escalated into something almost unrecognisable: globali-
The shrinking of the globe through international commerce, transport and com-
munication has meshed cultures, merged languages and threatens to paint cultures
with the same homogenous brush. When Marco Polo entered the Kublai Khan’s China


in the 1200s he’d have encountered language and clothing unlike anything he’d known
in Europe. Today an international traveller arriving in Beijing will find most of the lo-
cals dressed in the international uniform of the West – Nike, Levi’s, Adidas, Armani
and their various knock-offs – and should have little trouble finding someone fluent
Wheat fields in the in an international language such as English, Spanish, French or Mandarin.
Swartland, Western Cape. Today the local supermarket is an identity crisis of foods. Consider these culturally
As globalisation continues to specific foods: there are chillies that are ubiquitous to Indian cuisine, tomatoes for the
shrink the planet, more and quintessential Italian meal, potatoes which for decades were the staple food for the
more food varieties are Irish and mealie meal which still bulks up the plates of most southern Africans. The
being adopted by farmers fresh-produce section is bulging with sweet potatoes, beans, pumpkins, papaya, avo-
around the world, spreading cado and pineapple. Then there are all the variations on the addictive themes of cacao
potentially invasive plants and tobacco. Every one of these plants is indigenous to the New World and yet has
and any pests and diseases been assimilated seamlessly by other cultures since the Americas were opened up by
they might carry with them. Christopher Columbus 500 years ago.

Traditionalists globally are lamenting the loss of language and culture in the face
of globalisation. Ecologists are documenting the damage to indigenous environments
through very similar processes. Humans have settled into all but the most inhospitable
places on the planet, taking with them the favoured few – the cereals, roots, fruits and
nuts which favour their palate and diet, and the animals which complement their lives
and carry their loads. Imperialist nations throughout history have taken along with
them, on their conquests, their own equivalents of the English country garden and
the menagerie of family pets. Wherever dominant cultures have settled, they have cre-
ated home away from home. Tagging along, too, were the unintended companions
on this mass migration: diseases, weeds and pests.
Many of these tame species have remained obediently inside the white picket fences
of domestication. But a few have broken through and become feral. Of those, some
have slotted into their newly adopted ecosystems without too much interruption to
natural systems. Others have run rampant, their numbers growing unchecked by pred-
ators or climate. Ecosystems which did not have the means to fend off invasions were
overrun, in places, by these new arrivals. Having escaped the confines of domestica-
tion, these new global travellers did not respect the artificial geo-political boundaries
created by nations but were opportunistic enough to hitch a ride through border posts
and over boundary lines. They have since moved into and colonised many indigenous
systems, upsetting the natural order. Some drink more than their fair share of water;
many push out certain native species and give unfair advantage to others; they switch
the recycling on nutrients and turn away the pollinators; they overshadow and un-
dermine as they advance. These are what science labels ‘invasive species’ and they are
among the greatest threats to biological diversity on the planet today.
A tense co-dependence now exists between humans and the ‘alien’ species which
they have transported around the globe because, in many cases, humans are depend-
ent on these species for food, shelter, ecosystem services and medicine. A handful of
crops – wheat, maize, rice, potato, barley, cassava, soybean, sugar cane and oats –
account for over 70% of global food supply, while
three genera of trees – pine, eucalyptus and teak – ac-
count for 85% of the planet’s large-scale forestry. The loss of species and genetic diversity decreases the resilience
The unwanted consequences of supplying a 6.5- of ecosystems, which is the level of disturbance that an ecosys-
billion-strong population with goods and services, is tem can undergo without crossing a threshold to a different struc-
the homogenisation of natural systems around the ture or functioning. In addition, growing pressures from drivers
globe. Alien species are aiding this process as the rate such as over-harvesting, climate change, invasive species, and
of invasion by non-indigenous species continues to nutrient loading push ecosystems toward thresholds that they
escalate with globalisation. A widely used example might otherwise not encounter.
holds that in the San Francisco Bay area, an average MILLENNIUM ECOSYSTEM ASSESSMENT (2005)
of one new species established itself every fifty-five


Top right: European settlers
sought to recreate the country
gardens in their new
colonies. The horticulture
trade grew out of this.

Centre right: Cecil John
Rhodes introduced the
common starling (Sturnus
vulgaris) and the grey squirrel
(Sciurus carolinensis) to Cape
Town to ‘improve’ the
amenities of the peninsula.

Bottom right: The need to
beautify gardens and
waterways has helped to
spread many alien species
around the globe. This water
hyacinth (Eichhornia
crassipes) hails from the
Amazon River.

weeks during the period 1851–1960. This accelerated to one
new species every fourteen weeks during the period 1961–95.
This increased rate of spread poses a threat to biodiversity
which is second only to habitat change. Revered British ecolo-
gist and author, Charles Elton, put it rather succinctly when he
said of invasive species globally: ‘We must make no mistake: we
are seeing one of the great historical convulsions in the world’s
fauna and flora.’7
The main pathways which have allowed alien and invasive
plants into South Africa are forestry, agriculture and horticulture.
Birds and mammals found their way here mostly through the
trade in pets, as well as through novelty and ornamental species
for private collections, hunting and game viewing. Others were
through self-introduction. Most freshwater fish were brought in
for game fishing, the aquarium trade and aquaculture.

SOUTH AFRICA INVADED Japanese oysters (Crassostrea
Predictably, the invasion into southern Africa followed the paths of European settle- gigas) were first introduced to
ment and colonisation. It started at the coast and slowly became entrenched further in- the Knysna Estuary nearly
land. During the past three and a half centuries, 8 750 different exotic plants have been 60 years ago.
introduced for the purposes of beautifying gardens, as well as for providing timber
and fuel, fodder and food. Others were brought to these shores for their dune-bind-
ing potential and their bark tannins. Most of these remained in the confines of their
domestication. But some, just 180 plant species in all, found conditions in their adopted
home ideal. Without diseases or predators, these species have invaded, their range
spreading steadily over 8% of the country’s land surface – 10 million ha in all – and are
continuing to spread further.
Meanwhile, waters in and around the country are now host to 58 different alien
plants, animals, parasites and diseases; 25 different alien molluscs now call South
Africa their adopted home, while the Mediterranean mussel is by far the most pow-
erful invader.
In the class of insects, only one wasp, the European yellow jacket wasp (Vespula ger-
manica) has been introduced and it teeters close to the brink of becoming a possible in-
vader, although this remains contentious.
One mite has naturalised while 24 alien spiders can be found around South African
homes. Two reptiles are naturalised but they remain below the radar of concern to in-
vasion biology scientists.
As far as mammals are concerned, none has formally been elevated to the ranks of
invaders in this country – most, such as rats, are still only regarded as pests. But one


mammal, the feral pig, features in the pages of this book as needing recon-
sideration as an invader. This is not because of the extent of its range or its
boundless population growth, but rather because of the significant impact its
presence has on one of South Africa’s most critically endangered habitats,
renosterveld. Forty-eight alien bird species have found their way into South
Africa’s borders, but only four have become invasive.8 Some indigenous
birds have also begun to shift outside of their natural ranges and into new
It is the invasive plants that have attracted the most attention, possibly
because the impressive and highly visible nature of many species makes
them easy to recognise and study. These trees change water cycles and in-
crease the intensity of fires; they erode the existing natural diversity and can
drive indigenous species to extinction; they change the way nutrients are re-
cycled; they change soil quality and cause erosion; and they reduce river
flow as they drink up excessive water.
Other environmental changes play into the hand of invasive species and
their destructiveness. The South Africa Country Study, published in 2005 as
Top: The rain-kissed part of the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, estimates that today 25%
leaves of the silver wattle of South Africa has been transformed from its natural state. The culprits are:
(Acacia dealbata).
extensive ranching of cattle, sheep and goats. Development in
Above: A hedge of the form of crops, plantations, mines, settlements, roads, dams,
rooikrans (Acacia cyclops) – ports and industries…
this is one of several wattle Land degradation, clearing of indigenous vegetation, invasion of
species introduced from land by alien species and climate change all interlink to create
Australia and is one of the synergies that exacerbate and compound the impact on biodi-
most serious invaders of the versity, leading in turn to further degradation and loss.9
Cape Floral Kingdom where
it was brought to bind the
province’s shifting dunes. Trees grown commercially for timber, pulp and paper are exotic species such as
Eucalyptus, Pinus and Acacia species from Australia, North America and the
Mediterranean. Many of these have become serious invaders. While plantations
cover about 1.5 million ha, gums are scattered widely across an estimated
2.4 million ha, pines have invaded 3 million ha of mountain catchments, forest
fringes, grasslands and fynbos. Black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) grown commercially
primarily for tannin, has invaded over 2.5 million ha and is regarded as one of
South Africa’s most serious invader species.

South Africa doesn’t have much natural forest, so
agroforestry has met the country’s need for timber,
paper and other wood products. Pine, wattle and
eucalyptus forests now cover over 1.3 million ha of
the South African landscape where they are grown
as monocultures.

Top: Pine plantation at Graskop, Mpumalanga.

Centre left: Eucalyptus trees at the foot of Table
Mountain in Cape Town.

Bottom left: Black wattle (Acacia mearnsii),
outside Paarl.


Problem species are found in most places where humans have transformed the landscape, from the dandelions popping
up all over the lawn and the scale insect sucking the life out of a prize bonsai, to marauding locust swarms or the stran-
gling creeper taking over a coastal reserve.
Problem plant species have received the greatest attention from the scientific community because they’re rooted to the
ground and won’t scurry off while they’re being counted and mapped. The geographic range or extent of problem ani-
mals is usually much more difficult to quantify because they may be able to move or hide more easily. The invasive spread
of micro-organisms such as viruses, bacteria, fungi, algae, arthropods and plankton are much more difficult to find unless
an outbreak of disease results in a visible manifestation of their presence.
Environmentalist Aldo Leopold summarised it nicely. A thing is right, he said, when it tends to preserve the integrity,
stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong if it tends to do otherwise.
Here are some useful terms to help qualify what’s what in the world of invasion biology:
• Native species: This was a term used to describe species which are indigenous to an area, having evolved there or
migrated to the area in a time before the human species rose up to dominate systems and alter natural movement of
species. However, it is a politically loaded term because of the derogatory connotations of the word in South Africa’s
historical context.
• Alien species: Exotic or non-indigenous species, one which occurs in an area outside of its natural or native ecosys-
tem, having arrived in South Africa through intentional or unintentional human involvement (this does not include species
that have moved outside of their normal range because of a response to other human-initiated environmental change
such as climate change). Species can be alien to continents, islands, bioregions and ecoregions, but can also be alien
within man-made political entities such as states and provinces. The Global Invasive Species Programme calls invasive
alien species ‘non-native organisms that cause, or have the potential to cause, harm to the environment, economies, or
human health’.
• Naturalised species: Established alien species that sustain a self-replacing population for at least ten years without
direct human intervention and are capable of maintaining their population on their own, but are not necessarily inva-
sive within an ecosystem.
• Invasive species: Naturalised species that produce reproductive offspring, often in very large numbers, with the po-
tential to spread over a large area.
• Transformer species: Invasive species that change the character, condition, form or nature of an ecosystem over a
substantial area. These either use resources excessively (such as water, light and oxygen), or are donors of limiting re-
sources (nitrogen), promote or suppress fires, stabilise sand, promote erosion, colonise intertidal mudflats or stabilise sed-
iment or accumulate litter, amongst other things.
• Weed and pest species: These are anthropogenic terms as they are measured in terms of disruption to systems
which are congruent with human objectives. However, they refer to problem species which occur in sufficiently great num-
bers in areas or sites where they are not wanted and have a measurable economic or environmental impact.

The National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act (NEMBA), which was signed
into law in 2004, describes an ‘alien species’ as
a) a species that is not an indigenous species; or
b) an indigenous species translocated or intended to be translocated to a place outside its
natural distribution range in nature, but not an indigenous species that has extended its
natural distribution range by natural means of migration or dispersal without human in-
NEMBA describes an invasive species as ‘any species whose establishment and spread
outside of its natural distribution range
a) threaten ecosystems, habitats or other species or have demonstrable potential; or
b) may result in economic or environmental harm or harm to human health’.
The painted reed frog, for instance, is indigenous to the east of South Africa, but has
found its way into dams around the town of Stellenbosch after being accidentally trans-
ported there in fruit crates or nursery stock. It is regarded as an alien to the Western Cape,
but scientists have not yet studied the animal enough in its new habitat to decide whether
or not it is invasive.

The relocation of indigenous species
into neighbouring ecosystems is one
area of invasion biology that has not
received much public attention.
This beautiful painted reed frog
(Hyperolius marmoratus), photo-
graphed between Strand and
Somerset West, is indigenous to the
east of the country but is just as
much an alien in the Western Cape,
where it is now found, as the
Australian wattle species. Whether
or not it will become invasive
remains to be seen.


An urban legend has it that Johannesburg is the largest man-made forest in the
world. While this is quite unlikely – since it is doubtful that extensive plantings of
such dispersed tree species could possibly function as a forest ecosystem – it is nev-
ertheless a highly transformed landscape with little of the original flora and fauna
existing in an undisturbed state.

Biological diversity – the sheer variety of life present in natural ecosystems – delivers
the services which ecosystems provide the human species. These include the recycling
of a breathable atmosphere and potable water, genetic material for crops as well as the
land in which to grow them, materials for building and the recycling of nutrients.
These services also provide sinks for the less pleasant aspects of modern civilisation:
pollution in the form of sewage, household and other waste, and soot and noxious
chemicals shunted up into the skies. Within reason, natural processes are able to ab-
sorb these and scrub systems clean again. Healthy, naturally diverse environments
help to buffer against shocks to the system such as disease outbreaks or floods. Any-
thing that undermines these systems will compromise the environment’s ability to sus-
tain our needs and absorb our effluent.
Increasing human populations and their associated pressure on the natural envi-
ronment have, during the past few decades, begun to place unreasonable demands on
ecosystems for their various services. Invasive species, spread about in this newly mod-
ernised world, become one more form of environmental change which is compro-
mising the ability of our natural environments to sustain us. For this reason, invasive
species have attracted the attention of scientists, conservationists and even the national
government (see Appendix 1: ‘Summary of South Africa’s invaders’), who all realise
the need to understand and map the extent of these species within South Africa, to
draw up a strategy to manage or eradicate them and, where possible, to prevent new


I personally think that a Mars full of Martians is much more interest-
ing than Mars full of Earthlings.
Chris McKay, NASA scientist12

Earth’s growing human population, and our considerable ecological footprint on a
planet with finite resources, has given science-fiction writers all the material they need
for a good yarn.
Biologist Edward O. Wilson maintains in his book The Future of Life, if our 6.5-
billion-strong population all consumed at the rate of the average United States Amer-
ican with today’s technology, four more planet Earths would be needed to meet the
demand for resources.13 So why not hop on the next interplanetary shuttle and head
for Mars? Besides making for a terrific science-fiction plot, it does raise some inter-
esting philosophical points which could inform how we treat those few remaining
wilderness places left on Earth.


Firstly, there’s the not-so-small matter of a 55.6 million km vacuum of space be-
tween here and there. But then history shows us that it may only be a matter of time
before humanity has the technology to shrink that distance to something that even
Christopher Columbus would regard as a grand day out.
Once there, we’d have to ‘terraform’ Mars – literally change the planet to be more
like Earth – which would require manipulation on a planetary scale. In this case, of the
atmosphere. It may hint to a touch of grandiose madness, but NASA thinks it is within
the scope of foreseeable technology.
Mars is small and further from the Sun than Earth, but it is similar to Earth in
speed of rotation, gravity and tilt of the axis. It also has all the raw materials for a
workable atmosphere: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen. Since the planet has
only the thinnest carbon dioxide (CO2) atmosphere to veil the planet from the frigid
reaches of space, it has only a fraction of the air pressure of Earth. Water and CO2,
which once formed part of an ancient atmosphere, are probably now locked up at the
frozen poles or in underground aquifers.
Releasing these back into a rudimentary atmospheric system would require heat-
ing the planet, something with which Earthlings are already quite familiar. The idea
of pointing orbital mirrors at the frozen Martian South Pole has been bandied about,
in order to melt the CO2 and water trapped there. Pumping the atmosphere with
other more potent greenhouse gases such as methane, CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) or
ammonia could also help to trigger an accelerated global-warming effect which would
bulk up the atmosphere, increase air pressure and push up the temperature to some-
thing far more liveable than the current conditions, which fluctuate between 25 °C
and minus 120 °C.
Once this is up and running, plant life could be introduced which would convert
much of that CO2 into oxygen. It would take millennia, but eventually something
more closely resembling Earth’s mix (of 78% nitrogen to 21% oxygen) might emerge.
An ozone layer would also need to be manufactured to protect future colonisers
from the DNA-ravaging effect of ultraviolet light, but once the atmosphere has oxy-
gen, sunlight does the rest.
NASA has a team of astrobiologists applying their minds to the matter and while
this generation will not see habitation on Mars coming to pass, it might be feasible in
the future.
The question that remains, though, is this: what are the ethical implications of
sending teams of scientists and settlers off to pioneer this pristine Martian ‘wilderness’,
especially since humanity has not exactly proven itself as the most responsible custo-
dian with its home world?
Debating amongst themselves about the morality of conquering Mars, ethicists
argue that if anything in the universe has ‘formed integrity’ and is worthy of a proper

name, it should be respected for its intrinsic value. There’s also the interdependent
connectedness of systems which justifies placing value on even the smallest parts which
make up the whole, considering that every single thing – whether crafted by nature
or by the hand of a person – is made of the same stuff. All matter and energy which
erupted outward with the Big Bang became the universal fabric from which every-
thing in this solar system and beyond was created.
The discovery of ‘extremophiles’ on Earth – microscopic life surviving in envi-
ronment extremes such as those living around super-heated vents on ocean beds – sug-
gests that there are life forms which might be able to survive in environments as harsh
as those currently experienced on Mars. NASA’s Mark Lupisella argues that while
there is surely no life on the surface of Mars, there could be bacterial life hibernating
below the surface. If this were the case, then sending manned missions to Mars could
contaminate such life. It may already have happened, since Earthlings have already
landed their robots on Mars.
Countering this debate, though, is the following ethical argument: if life of this
kind does exist on Mars, would killing or damaging it be any different from the en
masse killing we do every single day on Earth, through dispensing of the arsenal of an-
tibiotics prescribed by doctors?
Whichever way you debate it, if Earthlings embarked on greening up the red
planet, it would simply be a continuation of the processes of colonisation, exploration
and conquest that has marked the history of this species for 150 000 years. Some even
say the colonisation of Mars is inevitable because of the self-interested human condi-
tion which drives such exploits. As history has shown, the species has not concerned
itself much with the consequences of its exploits on other indigenous species and
ecosystems on this planet.
To quote the late astronomer and author Carl Sagan, ‘if there is life on Mars … we
should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if they are only