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9 April 2019
Class Of 2019: James Ayuk On The Future Of Fynbos In A Drier Cape

(Published - 9 April 2019)

The Cape Floristic Region - one of six of the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspots - is home to more than 9 000 vascular plant species, including five of South Africa’s 12 endemic plant families. It’s also an area that’s notoriously vulnerable to climate change and prone to drought. With climate change pressing on, what will the fate of the Cape’s wetlands fynbos be?

Conservation biologist James Ayuk explored that question in a thesis on Water regime requirements and possible climate change effects on Fynbos Biome Restionaceae - earning him a PhD from the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

“The concern is that in the future our biodiversity might suffer because of changes in the available essential resources that they require to thrive,” Dr Ayuk explains. “I was interested in knowing how changes in moisture availability, probably due to climate change, would affect fynbos plants in the future.”

Wetland plants of the world famous fynbos not only face threats from climate change, but also from groundwater extraction to meet the needs of a growing population. Dr Ayuk intensively studied eight wetlands on a fine scale, from lowland to high mountain locations. The arrangement of Cape reeds (Restionaceae) in these wetlands is based on water availability, and he was able to determine the hydrological requirements of each of his 54 species. He modelled the results of potential climate change on each of these sites and species, and how it could affect the future distribution of these species which only occur in the Fynbos.

“I found out that climate change is going to cause a drop in average moisture supply to plants in this ecosystem - and most of the Restionaceae species investigated are going to be affected in some way,” he notes.

“Some species will lose their habitats, because strange conditions are introduced. The introduction of new conditions also allowed for some species to expand their distribution range, moving into new habitats because the conditions favour them there. And naturally some species will remain stable - probably due to adaptation or resilience.”

Management plans need to facilitate the retention of essential wetlands - and with Dr Ayuk’s help, they just might be able to do it.

A Fascination With Fynbos - And The Future

Dr Ayuk left his native Cameroon to pursue his interest in South Africa, earning his BSc (Geology) and Honours (in Quaternary Science) from the University of Cape Town, before joining the University of the Western Cape for his MSc (in Water and Environmental Science).

“I really feel at home at UWC,” says Dr Ayuk, who graduated last week. “And I like studying the environment, and the love for environment goes hand in hand with preserving nature. Where else could this be done as effectively as at the BCB department?”

While studying, Dr Ayuk hardly indulged in any extras. He did, however, do some lecturing as well as work-study jobs, and is a leader in his church.

“It feels really good to graduate. I can say that my first feeling was a normal one, of just being satisfied that it is over. But as the days went by, the euphoria around and the constant reminder from friends and family about my achievements made things sink in. So I feel proud but humbled too - and I plan to celebrate it with friends and family in a proper party form.”

Post-PhD, he has no plans to stop learning about - or protecting - nature.

“I think I would want to be in consultancy,” he says. “To work in preserving nature and the environment. Who knows? Maybe with one of the big international organisations that do such.”

In the end, it’s all about preserving a slice of wonder for future generations.

“South Africa is a wonderful biodiversity hotspot, and fynbos are “a gem” unique to South Africa in many respects,” James says. “Our children, and our children’s children, deserve the chance to live in a world with fynbos in it.”