Inspiring hearts and minds in the Succulent Karoo | WWF South Africa

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Inspiring hearts and minds in the Little Karoo

For the past five years, Dr Marienne de Villiers has been working for CapeNature, initially talking to landowners in the Little Karoo about signing stewardship agreements to conserve the many botanical treasures to be found in the Succulent Karoo and now as an animal ecologist. She shares key lessons she has learnt about how to open the hearts and minds of landowners to conservation.

Dr Marienne de Villiers in a field of flowering Glottiphylum cruciatum, a rare member of the vygie family found only in the Little Karoo
© Marienne de Villiers
Dr Marienne de Villiers in a field of flowering Glottiphylum cruciatum, a rare member of the vygie family found only in the Little Karoo.

What in your view makes the Succulent Karoo so special?

It’s a harsh, semi-desert environment which experiences huge extremes. Temperatures ranging from over 40 degrees to below zero, with years of drought, and extreme flooding. Yet there are plants and animals that can live here; that are supremely well-adapted to survive all of this. Water scorpions that live in dams or rock pools where they breathe through special “snorkels,” but become airborne when their homes dry up and they need to search for new water sources. Locusts that are beautifully camouflaged and nearly invisible in quartz patches. Plants that shrink back into the ground when it’s dry, only to swell, pop out and flower magnificently when there is a bit of rain. Searching for succulents is like a treasure hunt, and there is such a variety of shapes, colours and sizes. The Afrikaans names for some of these are wonderful – gansmis, haaibekkies, botterboom and perdetande (goose poop, sharks’ jaws, butter tree and horses’ teeth).

During drought, plants like these Gibbaeum nuciforme almost disappear from view as they wait for the rains to arrive.
© Marienne de Villiers
During drought, plants like these Gibbaeum nuciforme almost disappear from view as they wait for the rains to arrive.

Tell us about the stewardship work with the Leslie Hill Succulent Karoo Trust?

Initially, I was a handlanger (side kick) to Alan Wheeler who was managing this project. Previously, a panel of experts identified a number of sites as priorities for Succulent Karoo conservation. We worked with the owners of these, as well as a number of other properties that we became aware of while working in the Little Karoo. In the end, we managed to sign up around 20 sites (nine of these around Anysberg Nature Reserve). Some contained threatened vegetation types or special populations of a particular succulent plant species. Others were important from a landscape conservation perspective to form potential corridors in a network of protected areas. In some cases we were successful in getting landowners to sign up; in others not.

How much time did you spend on the road while working on the agreements?

I was usually in the field one or two days a week. There was quite a bit of preparation before a field trip. I’d have to make arrangements with landowners, do desktop studies, and do research on the habitats and important plants in the area. After a field trip, I would give feedback to the landowner; this is good manners but also really important to keep them informed and enthusiastic about conservation. Then there were also management plans and stewardship agreements to draft, site assessments to prepare for the stewardship review committee, reports to write, and a budget to manage.

Aside from their biodiversity, unspoilt vistas are part of the allure of these semi-desert landscapes.
© Marienne de Villiers
Aside from their biodiversity, unspoilt vistas are part of the allure of these semi-desert landscapes.

So were there some tough nuts to crack?

We had a range of responses but we never dealt with anybody who was unfriendly or unwilling to speak to us. Some landowners were wary of getting involved with a government organisation (CapeNature) while others were simply wary of signing a contract. In one instance, we dealt with an owner of a piece of land who was keen on conservation but unwilling to sign a legal contract because he’d been burnt previously. In that instance, WWF eventually acquired the land.

I learnt that if the first thing the person asked was “What’s in it for me?” they would probably never sign a stewardship agreement. While there are some tangible benefits for landowners (such as possible tax breaks, technical assistance and access to expert advice), there has to be an intrinsic interest in and commitment to conservation for stewardship to work.

You need to understand that the property belongs to somebody else and what their vision is. You can’t impose plans on a private landowner. It’s got to come from them.

Marienne de Villiers

How do you spark that interest?

One really good memory for me was when one of the landowners told us that he and his family had never been particularly excited about their farm in the Little Karoo until we began talking to them about it, and explained how important it is in the bigger conservation picture and showed them photographs of some of the amazing plants we had found in the veld. Communicating these things to landowners can really spark their interest and enthusiasm, and open the door to a conversation about stewardship.

Is it easier as a woman? What sort of personality traits do you need?

It really depends on who you’re talking to – some landowners are more comfortable speaking to a woman, but others open up more easily to a man. There are a couple of characteristics that make it easier but you can learn some skills as well – they don’t need to be inherent.
 
People skills are definitely important – including the ability to listen. You need to understand that the property belongs to somebody else and what their vision is. You can’t impose plans on a private landowner. It’s got to come from them.
 
It’s also important to know your stuff from a conservation perspective. You should never try to bluster your way through. If you don’t know the answer to a question – just say so and then go and find out. Don’t make false promises, and if you say you are going to do something, make sure that you deliver. If you don’t take this approach, then the conversation will break down there and then.
 
Finally, respect is absolutely critical. Something I learnt from Alan early on was never to go on to a property without asking for permission and letting the landowner know. It’s not your property so don’t treat it as if it is.

Marienne, left, with her colleague Alan Wheeler and the owner of Destiny Nature Reserve during the stewardship negotiations.
© Marienne de Villiers
Marienne, left, with her colleague Alan Wheeler and the owner of Destiny Nature Reserve during the stewardship negotiations.

Are there any sites you are particularly fond of?

I am really attached to all of the sites we worked on but I have a particularly soft spot for the Destiny Nature Reserve, which lies south of Anysberg. It is a very special property and the Destiny team does great work raising awareness and hosting camps for disadvantaged children.

Is plant poaching a big issue?

It certainly has become an issue over the last couple of years. At the moment there is a big demand for Conophytums (also known as toontjies or “little toes”) which have become very sought after in Asia. There was an arrest of plant poachers in Ashton last year, and another in Citrusdal earlier this year, where poachers were found in possession of threatened plants and rhino horn. One of our landowners set up camera traps on his property and was able to identify a potential plant poacher from the photos. It’s tricky in remote areas where there are not many residents to spot suspicious activity, but around reserves such as Anysberg, the rangers are active and keep a lookout.
 
We recommend to landowners not to share pictures of highly threatened plants on social media or public websites, especially if there is geo-locality information embedded in the photographs (if your cell phone location is turned on) or some kind of landmark in the background (like a koppie or mountain) that can be identified. It’s a pity because, on the one hand you want to raise awareness and excite people’s interest but you also have to be extra careful about sharing this information.

What does your work involve now?

I am now part of a team of ecologists working on animals such as the Cape mountain zebra and riverine rabbit, which is actually where my qualifications lie (Marienne did a PhD in wild dog behaviour – Ed.). Whatever I learnt about the plants, I learnt on the job – and it was an exciting and steep learning curve.

Marienne in the field during one of the stewardship site assessments.
© Marienne de Villiers
Marienne in the field during one of the stewardship site assessments.
Marienne de Villiers Photo
Marienne de Villiers , Faunal ecologist

Marienne says the Little Karoo is like a shy person – if you take time and effort to get to know her, you’ll find many hidden gems under the reserved and slightly intimidating exterior!

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