Once a shady and dense forest of pine trees (Pinus radiata), the Tokai section of the Table Mountain National Park is being described as a conservation success story. Since most of the pines here have been harvested, the systematic restoration of the area, with the help of the Tokai Seedbank Project, has given new life to a critically endangered vegetation type. By Arnold Ras

“The Tokai section is actually very special,” explains Nosipho Tyagana, Junior Scientist: Restoration Ecology at SANParks’ Cape Research Centre in Tokai. “It first came to attention back in 1998 when there was an accidental fire at Lower Tokai next to Orpen Road and the area burnt down. Some plant enthusiasts went to have a look and found endangered species. Upon further investigation they realised it was the critically endangered vegetation type, Cape Flats Sand Fynbos.”

When SANParks took over management of the Tokai Forest from Cape Pine in 2007, they decided to transform the area with one very important goal in mind: to restore this endangered veld type. Only 11% of Cape Flats Sand Fynbos is left, but the biggest challenge? Less than 1% of this vegetation type is protected.

Cape Pine’s decision to remove the pines led to a public outcry from cyclists, horse riders, hikers and nature lovers, who flock to Tokai to enjoy the shade. What the public didn’t realise is that pines hide a destructive secret …

Underneath pine trees

Nosipho, with the assistance of fellow researchers Carly Cowell and Nicola van Wilgen, spearheads the Tokai Seedbank Project. Their research aim? To discover what seeds are present in the soil that has been dominated by pines since the 1800s. “Under pines you’ll find very poor diversity in terms of animals and plants. The shade the pines produce encourage little growth – the area is basically dead. And the dense litter of the pine’s needles do not allow for anything to grow in [the trees’] proximity. No other plants mean no insects, no insects mean nothing that will prey on the insects, and very few bird species.”

When Nosipho took me on a tour to see the transformation for myself, I was stunned. Looking at Tokai Forest’s picnic area, still covered in pines, and restored vegetation a few metres away, the difference is marked. The restored sections are alive with the sounds of bees and other insects pollinating plants and finding food. We even spotted a black-headed heron, and Nosipho says there are visitor reports of duikers.

Flora lovers can now marvel at the 108 threatened Cape Flats Sand Fynbos plant species, of which 16 are found nowhere else on earth. Unfortunately, six species of Cape Flats Sand Fynbos are already extinct in the wild.

The pine harvesting process was supposed to stretch over a 20 to 25 year period, but SANParks’ timeline got unexpectedly overturned in March 2015 when wildfires destroyed most of the remaining pines. “The wildfires swept through almost everything, completely razing the upper section of the Tokai Forest. The timeline was shortened to six months. This is indeed a very interesting time for this precious area and its fynbos.”

Tokai Seedbank Project

To do research on the soil beneath the pines was a time- and labour-intensive process. Nosipho and a team of researchers collected 60 random soil samples – between five and ten centimetres deep – using a soil core. The soil was placed in paper bags so as not to suffocate any seeds and transported to the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). There the soil samples were cleared of woody debris and transferred into planting trays that had a layer of sterilised bark and silica. They were then placed in a greenhouse, watered on regular basis and monitored for a year.

Tokai Seedbank Project-TMNP-soil samples-Nicola van WIilgen

Picture by Nicola van Wilgen

Tokai Seedbank Project-TMNP-Fynbos-demarkating-Nicola van Wilgen

Picture by Nicola van Wilgen

Tokai Seedbank Project-TMNP-green house-Zishan Ebrahim

Nosipho monitoring the soil samples for plant growth. Once the plants reached a certain size, the researchers were able to identify family groups. Picture by Zishan Ebrahim

“Taking a look at the seedbanks gives you a good indication of what the future holds. Thanks to the seedbank project we were able to establish the number of indigenous and alien species the area will deliver in the future. We found alien species to be dominating, with some indigenous succulents and geophytes indicating the need for active restoration, especially the reintroduction of the Proteaceae component. Now we can make informed decisions on the plants we can introduce,” says Nosipho.

Did you know?

Fires stimulate fynbos growth. Once fynbos starts flourishing after a fire, it takes approximately eight years for the seeds to be returned to the soil.