Silver and Gold

All Leonie Joubert wants for Christmas is a few more Silver Trees. That way, we'd stave off the prospect of losing not only one of our most precious indigenous plants but with it, tons of cash through a decline in tourism and the loss of a possible cure for future diseases.

When the first European ships dropped anchor near the foot of Table Mountain, their crews would have seen a band of silver flashing across its flanks like fish scales in the water as the prevailing winds tripled across the ancient rock's lower slopes. This was a forest of silver tree conebush proteas (Leucadendron argenteum) which, other than down the east-facing shoulder of the mountain, don't occur naturally anywhere else on the planet.

Half of all international visitors to South Africa include the Cape on their itinerary, partly for its natural environment.

Today, only two small forests of silver trees remain.

Now before you think I'm getting soft and green on you, let me point out that there's more to worrying about the extinction of this pretty little tree than the sentiment of it being gone. Notwithstanding its inherent right to life or the fact that it's our distant cousin (all life on Earth shares a common ancestor, a single-celled organism that lived about three billion years ago and looked a bit like the poisonous blue-green algae of today), there's also its contribution to the wider gene pool and the possibility that it might hold in its cells some cure for an as yet unnamed or undiscovered disease.

Then, inevitably, there is the money factor. The silver tree protea is part of a broader community of the Western Cape's natural splendour which attracts almost as much money to the regional economy as the wine industry: roughly R10 billion every year to the wine industry's R11.4 billion.

So the plant community - the so-called Cape Floral Kingdom - is a big earner, with tourism at the top of the pile: half of all international visitors to South Africa include the Cape on their itinerary, partly for its natural environment. Ecotourism - birding, whale-watching, adventuring or just lolling about - brings in R6 406 million to the province each year.

All those pretty cut flowers or thatch for the odd Bishop's Court home - that's part of an industry that earns another R78 million. Your average seafood platter comes from a R1 300 million-strong marine industry. The little old Cape honeybee is a massive earner for its tiny size. Indigenous to the region, it pollinates R1.8 billion worth of berries, fruit, seeds, nuts and veggies every year. Beekeepers make another R8.64 million yearly through hiring out hives to farmers.

And then the little critters still deliver a boat-load of honey to their handlers - R13.9 million worth of it, in fact. Without the natural vegetation to forage off throughout winter, Cape honeybee hives would collapse and the agricultural sector would follow suit.

If that reasoning isn't enough to sway you, maybe a bit of one-upmanship will. The silver tree protea - with its furry, metallic-sheen leaves which were once picked by colonial artists as substitute paint brushes - typifies the rare botanical variety found on the Cape peninsula. Smaller than the city of London, this outcrop of land has more naturally-occurring flowering plants than the entire British Isles. Not bad going, for a little chunk of rock.

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