Unique species in ‘the world’s most biodiverse desert’ are at risk from a warming planet and the lucrative plant poaching trade
In May 2020, 10mm of rain fell at Sendelingsdrif Rest Camp in South Africa’s most north-westerly corner. It may not have been good news for visitors to the Richtersveld’s national park, which straddles the border with Namibia, but the rain, including 200mm on the nearby mountains, was a welcome respite for the world heritage site’s flora and fauna. After nine years of almost no rain, Pieter van Wyk, a 32-year-old self-taught botanist and head of the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld transfrontier park’s nursery, was elated to see several plant species flower for the first time in almost a decade.
His joy, however, was short-lived. While the rain gave a temporary lease of life to some annuals and bulbs, it did little to alter the fact that scores of species, especially large succulent plants such as aloes, are in peril. A study to be published by Van Wyk and others shows that 85% of the population of the distinctive Pearson’s aloe (Aloe pearsonii) – endemic to the Richtersveld – has been lost in the past five years, having been a stable presence for the previous four decades.