Camp Fires: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Camp Fires: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Unless you have been living in an air-conditioned cave for the last week, you will undoubtedly have realised that Cape Town is currently experiencing a severe heat wave. For the Western Cape that guarantees one thing: fires. After our location for our new luxury eco villas, which will be built this year in the Scarborough region, burnt to the ground on Monday 11 January, the Jenman team decided to investigate the bushfire problem in Western Cape.

Most South Africans know that fire is good for fynbos. Bush fires occur naturally in the Cape every 10 – 15 years and are caused by lightning or intense heat. Fires are more common in fynbos than in other type of heathland. After a fire, some species regenerate by sprouting from the roots. Others germinate from seeds housed in the soil or plant themselves. Apart from forcing fynbos to regenerate, it also provides nutrients to the generally poor quality soil found in the Cape.

It is rare to find fynbos older than 20 years of age. When fire occurs too early, the slow maturing species do not have time to reach adulthood and germinate. When fire occurs too late, dominant, faster growing species overtake smaller plants. This causes weaker species to die. So, the balance of fire every certain number of years is crucial for Fynbos’s survival. Unfortunately the majority of Cape Fires this season came too early – mainly due to human interference. Cigarette butts, runaway braais and arson have contributed to major veld fires in the last years. While the cause of this fire is still unknown, we know that it destroyed 1000 hectares of vegetation in the Scarborough and Misty Cliffs region. Several homes in Ocean View were also burnt to the ground.

On Friday 15 January, some of the staff from African Jenman Safaris visited the site to look for injured animals – specifically tortoises – to take to the SPCA. The Western Cape is home to eight of South Africa’s 13 tortoise species whose numbers are limited and only found in specific regions. These animals suffer the most during fires; their slowness prevents them from escaping the flames. This was an emotional task for our staff. Many of us who, although have lived in Cape Town for years, have never the seen the true remnants of a fire up close. Liz Rampfshaw, animal conservationist and project manager at Jenman, had this to say:

“Fire in fynbos is far from a disaster, but rather a crucial trigger that resets the fynbos ‘successional clock’. In the short-term, however, there are of course major losses after a fire breakout. Each wildlife species has its own fire survival techniques: the mobile animals such as the Grysbokkie and Klipspringer run to safer ground, small animals and reptiles burrow underground or seek shelter under rocks, and birds can fly away. For animals like tortoises however there is not much hope, which was our main incentive to visit the site in search of these reclusive animals.

Driving up the valley the landscape was no longer the luscious vibrant beauty I had seen just one week previously. We were presented with a barren scarred moonscape, torched flora and numerous shells of unfortunate tortoises littered the land. It was heart-breaking to see so many tortoises had lost their lives, hiding in their shells, hoping the fire would pass. It was important for us to search for any survivors along with the SPCA to do our part in conserving these creatures and once healed returning them to the land. I hope that this land will one day will be as beautiful as it was before the fire raged through.”

After speaking to a Scarborough resident Ivan Harris, owner of Baskloof Private Fynbos Nature Reserve, we learnt that the last major fire was eight years ago. That means this fire came five years too early. It could take six years, or more, for the tortoise population to recover in the area. If another fires occurs in the region in the next 10 years, it could take decades for tortoises to make a comeback.

After several hours of trekking through the desolate looking landscape, we had found a few tortoises that had escaped the flames. Many had suffered serious burns. One tortoise, discovered by Jenman owner Garth, won the affection of the entire team and Garth’s kids. Bernie had suffered burns over the majority of her shell, but survived the fire by burying herself under a mound of sand.

The team immediately took a liking to her, and for days, the office gossip focused solely on Bernie and how she was doing. Once discovered, Bernie was taken to the SPCA for treatment. While initial signs were looking positive, as I began writing this blog, Bernie unfortunately succumbed to her wounds a few hours later; her injuries to great for her small body to recover.

We received this from Belinda Abraham Communications, Education & Resource Development Manager at the Goodhope SPCA breaking the sad news.

“Slow moving tortoises are exceptionally vulnerable to fires and their natural behaviour when threatened would be to retract into their shells. As a result of this, we often find tortoises that have essentially “cooked” in their shells.

The Cape of Good Hope SPCA admitted 5 tortoises from the Scarborough fire, to our Short Term Wildlife Unit. Of the 5 tortoises, 2 died overnight from injuries sustained in the fire and 3 had to be humanely euthanised as a result of infected burn wounds, which resulted in their visible skin simply sloughing off, exposing bone.” We should be aware of the benefits and necessity that fire is to the Cape. Should you ever plan on visiting an area affected by fire damaged to rescue animals, please read the valuable information we received from the SPCA.

“Displaced survivors of a fire can often be found walking on public roads placing them at risk of harm from passing cars. We would like to appeal to any members of the public who come across tortoises to please not take them home.

Wild tortoises should be left in their natural habitat where they belong. Uninjured tortoises found in areas where the vegetation has been badly burnt can be relocated to the closest plant rich area with very few complications. Should the public come across injured tortoises we would advise them to begin immediate rehydration by placing the tortoise in a shallow container of cool water and either bring the animal to the Cape of Good Hope SPCA or call us to collect on 0217004158/9 during office hours or 0833261604 after hours.”

“We would also sincerely appreciate it if communities in the areas closest to the fires could keep shallow dishes of water in their gardens to provide thirsty wild animals who have escaped the fires with some respite.”

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