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Environment

Invaded

Our environment columnist Leonie Joubert has recently released her third book, Invaded: the biological invasion of South Africa. Here is an excerpt of her speech at the Cape Town Book Fair in June.

“There are many points on our timeline where this story could start, but they probably all converge on the evolution of a smart, soft-skinned, bipedal animal with forward looking eyes and a massive brain.

The journey starts about 150 000 years ago, when we packed a few meagre belongings and began that first journey out of Africa. From the Rift Valley, we crossed into the Middle East. Some of us headed west into Europe. Others headed East, across into Asia and down into Indonesia. Some of us began island hopping south, eventually finding Australia. Then about 18 000 years ago, Earth descended into another ice age. Massive ice sheets around the poles sucked up so much of Earth’s water, the sea level dropped, revealing a small finger of land where Siberia reaches out to touch the North American continent, the Bering Strait.

The story of invasive alien species is really the story of global travel. It seems we’re travellers by nature, but we’ve developed the technology to allow us to move faster and more efficiently. And wherever we’ve gone, we’ve taken plants and animals with us – for food, timber, fuel; as beasts of burden and pets; to beautify our gardens. Some we’ve taken with us deliberately, some have been unintended co-travellers such as pests and diseases.

Invaded: the biological invasion of South Africa introduces a few more culprits: the Mediterranean mussel, a stowaway that probably arrived in Saldanha Bay in the belly of a ship, and has overrun so much of the West Coast. The Japanese oyster, which may have been taken from the aquaculture beds of Knysna by tourists, and introduced accidentally into other estuaries along the coast.

Editorial

Invaded introduces you to the plague of cats and mice on Marion Island, deep in the sub-Antarctic. It unravels the eerie tale of how the triffid weed could be turning the crocodiles of St Lucia into females. There’s a story about pigs, and wasps, and Argentine ants. There’s even the issue of genetically modified crops. The book asks why we have the hadedah in Cape Town, and what a KZN painted reed frog is doing in a dam outside Stellenbosch – because even indigenous species can be aliens within their own country.

But this is not all bad news. The threat has been identified, the battle lines have been drawn. We’ll never be able to truly eradicate the invasive aliens, but we can slow their spread. That’s why invaded is ultimately a book of hope – because once we know what we’re up against, we can go about fixing the problem. We got ourselves into this mess. Now we must get ourselves out of it. And we might be able to. After all, we’re a clever little ape.”


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