Written by Callender’s Discovery, Alli’s Atlas and JessGS
The Knynsa fire affected more than just humans, and sometimes we get so caught up in our own little bubble that we forget the grave consequences that natural disasters can bring to animals within ecosystems. “In Knynsa the beauty is everywhere. You don’t have to pay money to enjoy your time here, all you have to spend is your time.” Gaby Serfontein says. She is right. From the forest to the waterfront, these natural wonders are home to many species that tourists come to enjoy.
From insects to large mammals, the fire has transformed the landscape and now it is a matter of survival of the fittest. In Knysna, the fire which spread for 100km had a huge impact on the habitats. Trees, soils and shrubs were annihilated meaning that food and shelter for creatures was no more. How did this fire manage to travel so far?
Berg winds are a hot, dry northerly wind blowing from the interior towards coastal districts. Typically, a cold front immediately follows these winds and often many people are unprepared having never suffered any issues. This June fire was not to follow the same path. Due to the lack of indigenous trees, the heat of the fires wrecked soils at about 2,000 degrees Celsius. After 800 degrees, there are no nutrients left in the soil. It turns into dust – the soil and plant life destroyed.
The city has endured much suffering due to the dire consequences of the inferno. Locals must now look at their surroundings whilst also rebuilding their homes, their jobs and their lives. Many have experienced tragedy in these fires and as Knysna rebuilds, the community must come together. The fire has impacted the people, the landscape and the wildlife.
When one thinks of natural wonders, one imagines the enthralling beauty of brightly colored flora and energetic fauna interacting with each other to produce a biodiverse landscape. Knynsa is no exception, with a plethora of mammals, insects and amphibians. With hectares of land destroyed, the repercussions have reduced Knynsa’s multifarious habitat.
Reptilia and Insects
Two of the species whose status are unknown at this point are the Brenton Blue Butterfly and the Dwarf Chameleon. The Dwarf Chameleon known as the Bradypodion thamnobates mainly inhabits the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal but is also an endemic species to Knynsa. These reptilia are highly restricted to the Midlands at elevations of 3000 – 4200 ft. Having an endangered status in Knynsa, their presence was already dwindling. Since the fire on June 9th only one has been found. One. The Cape Dwarf Chameleon experiences habitat loss and fragmentation through causes such as urbanization and agriculture. Populations are typically found living in the overgrowth of vegetation on road verges, riverine thickets, and some residential areas. It is known that most of the shrub land inhabited by these creatures are fire-prone and wildfires are known to be extremely detrimental to dwarf chameleon populations. With hardly any milkwood and yellowwood cover, these animals’ habitats disintegrated as there was no moist soil environment to protect the layer.
While there may be hope that this population still exists, there is dismal promise of the existence of one of the rarest butterflies in the world, the Brenton Blue Butterfly. Since the powerful destruction there has been no evidence of the butterfly’s presence. After much public effort to save the species from extinction, the area known as Brenton-on-Sea was procured by the South African Government and proclaimed a Special Nature Reserve in July 2003. With the species endemic to South Africa, one hopes that this species has not become extinct and will resurface over time as the vegetation begins to regenerate.
Many larger animals have also been affected. The unsolved mystery of the invisible wanderers seems never ending and increasingly complex. The Ghost Elephants of Knynsa are one of the most aloof and well-known wonders. The history of the settlement that happened on the outskirts of the Tsitsikamma forest and the impacts on the elephants through encroachment and poaching had already reduced numbers but now the mystery remains unsolved. Daring to get close to these creatures was seemingly difficult as these aloof mammals played hide and seek in the dense, almost impenetrable forest area. Now, verging on being stripped bare, it has remained difficult to trace the large land mammals.
Another native species to the area are the baboons. These tree inhabiting critters have become desperate for food. Whilst being regarded as terrors before, these monkeys have begun incessantly targeting residential areas, seeking food for their survival.
While speaking to Dave Katz, one of the founders of the NGO, Eden Be Needin’, he recalled how the fire has been able to bring people together as it has made locals realize they share the same susceptibility. However, animals are also vulnerable and unlike humans their resourcefulness can only lend so far. Eden Be Needin’ is a focused wildlife and habitat restoration project that prioritizes the rehabilitation of the wildlands. With monitored feeding schemes, a reforestation focus, erosion mitigation efforts and educational outreach, the project hopes that the forests and its creatures will regenerate and return to a thriving state. Without monetary support, the group and its volunteers fear that this decimation of territory will lead to a dramatic depletion of many animal species.
It is difficult to say which conservation method is the best and the most justified. Some conservationists believe that nature should run its course and survival of the fittest will determine who lives where. Others hope that once efforts are not intrusive, they can just make a small contribution in the least interactive way possible. It is the little creatures that start biodiversity and they are often the ones most forgotten. Perhaps it is our job to do small initiatives in the most responsible way.
The honeybee for example is responsible for pollinating about one-sixth of the flowering plant species worldwide and approximately 400 different agricultural types of plant. People are coming from other towns to take bees whose homes have been destroyed as pollination is such a big business. Eden Be Needin’ has been building bee boxes and bird feeders and discretely placing them in forested areas. Locations are never disclosed since bees are so valuable, but using a mixture of amino acids, essential oils and sugars, a nectar of sorts is produced.
Overall, there are many contentions surrounding the action plan for Knysna in the aftermath of the fire. These small efforts are a few of the ways the community is striving to save their environment. Some may say they should wait for the decision by municipalities or official Government reports, but there is no harm in making a small contribution to the rehabilitation of a once flourishing habitat.
Knysna is known for its rich landscape of rolling hills, shimmering lakes, remote Tsitsikamma rain forests, and fields of Fynbos flowers lining the coast. But last month, Knysna became a scenery of fire. The city is now blackened and smoky, but glimpses of the striking nature still shines through. How will Mother Nature react to this jarring catastrophe?
As the fire tore its way through the town and forests, there was an obvious line of defense. The lush, indigenous trees stood tall and proud against the raging inferno. Species like Milkwood and Yellowwood did not burn as easily as the invasive species leading up to them. Trees like ‘The Big Tree’, an estimated 800 year old giant stood strong. This is why forests of Pine, Blue Gum and Black Wattles are now blackened ash while the Tsitsikamma rain forest continues its legacy.
Many of the invasive plant species that have not been managed in Knysna were ticking time bombs for a wildfire. Invasive plants cluttered the area in dense thickets that were a perfect biomass fuel for the fire to burn. Invasive species burn quickly and then the fire can go into their roots and burn underground, wrecking the soil and causing erosion. The soil that was inhabited by the invasive species now looks like piles of grey ash and feels like stepping in flour. This is dangerous as well because the possibility of a landslide in some locations is imminent.
Gaby Serfontein, a volunteer during the fires, said that the number one thing Knysna needs right now is more indigenous plants. Some companies are handing out free seedlings for Knysna residents to regrow while organizations such as the Precious Tree Project plants bio-mimicked forests. This will not only lead to the regrowth of the natural beauty of Knysna, but will create a safe border of powerful tree protectors against any future fires.
South Africa’s national flower is the endemic Fynbos, a small yet rich floral kingdom found only on the coastal region. Not only is it a national treasure, it also plays a role in the beginning of humanity. It is thought that during the ice age, humans survived in the caves along the coast, eating Fynbos and oysters from the ocean. This nutritious diet is said to have caused the intelligence of our species. Archaeological remains were found in these caves from 164,000 years ago. Some historians believe that these humans could be the only ones to survive the ice age and carry on the species.
Knysna prides itself on the abundance of the flora on the coastline and the conservation of the species. This includes natural burning of the flower which helps with germination through the reside of seeds. Fire also gives essential minerals through the ash. The natural fire is extremely important to preserve the species, but if it occurs too often, it can kill off the regrowth. Research has shown that under normal conditions, the flower should burn naturally every ten years. Lately, there has been an increase of fires due to climate change. This means trouble for the fauna.
Now, with the Knysna fires wreaking havoc on the landscape, the Fynbos could be vulnerable again. Luckily, research shows that most of the fire hit in areas where the Fynbos were in dense thickets that needed the regenerative fires. However, the increase of fire still spells trouble for the Fynbos that are just beginning the process of regrowth.
The Fynbos saved the human species, survived the ice age, and continues to endure along the Western Cape. Although the fires were destructive, the species will persist, just as it has for 164,000 years. Knysna will channel the spirit of their Fynbos and rise again.
There is more hope for Knysna as it pulls itself from the ashes and rebuilds. Knysna’s executive mayor, Eleanore Bouw-Spies, told the Sunday Times about the steps the council plans to take in order to prevent this environmental disaster again. They will adopt climate change policies, take measures to get rid of invasive species, and schedule more prescribed burns. The future is hopeful for Knysna as the community comes together to repair their beautiful home.
The Knysna Fires have wreaked havoc and destruction across the town and the entire landscape. In times of great trouble, the community has shown an inner strength, and a desire to rebuild quickly and to the best of their ability. Whilst local jobs, homes and livelihoods have been lost, the community has stood together, reaching out to and receiving response from all corners of the world. Many travellers have fond memories of time spent here. There are locals who have moved away, such as popular YouTuber Caspar Lee. His appeal to his 4.59M twitter followers for aid earned a rough R244, 000 in local currency.
Whilst the fires have become known for the obliteration of Knynsa, they also stretched across the Garden Route, as far as Great Brak to Plettenberg Bay. In Knysna alone, 846 houses were annihilated, with 307 suffering a degree of damage. Knysna is a tourist haven, known for its beauty and the festivals that bring an influx of crowds. Now, the town needs support more than ever in their quest to re-build.
Next month will see the annual Oyster Festival, attracting thousands. An official release by the festival stated, ‘Following the devastating Knysna Fires, a decision has been made that the Pick n Pay Knysna Oyster Festival will go ahead. Knysna needs your support. Please come to Knysna and support the festival events and our local businesses so that we can start to rebuild our town. Knysna is open for business and the beauty of the region remains and the festival promises to be abuzz with fun, food, and drink for the full 10 days.’
Serfontein stated, “the Oyster Festival has always been a bit of a point of contention with the locals because they get a lot of outside traders instead of giving preference to the local traders. The locals that are still here and still producing crafty products are going to need that extra source of income.” Thinking of what the festival could do to help, Serfontein suggested, “They need to give them (the locals) the stalls for free or at an incredibly discounted price.”
Her main concern is with accommodation, much of which was burnt down in the fires. Outside guests tend to think a lot less of the water restrictions in place, showering often. Knysna’s dam has only a couple of weeks’ worth of water left. Serfontein concluded, “Most people aren’t even interested locally in the Oyster Festival. If they can raise funds for those who have lost their homes, then by all means, but it is putting pressure on the town.”
Social Media Support
She did however agree with the support flowing in from social media. Using the hashtag #KnysnaRises there are pledges of help streaming in from all over the world. Launched by the Knysna Tourist Board last Thursday, it has rapidly become a symbol of hope for the community. Luke Waltham, a South African blogger with a strong twitter following posted, “There is hope for Knysna! The people unite to rebuild and restore their town and community. #KnysnaRises like a Phoenix. Knysna will rise from the ashes.” He goes on to thank the Western Cape Government and the Knysna Municipality.
The company, Plascon have approached the Tourism Board with their own ‘message of hope.’ The company wanted to tell residents, especially those who had lost homes, that the fire was behind them and there was hope for a better, brighter future. Murals have been painted to instill this message, with bright primary colours and the Knysna Tourism’s hashtag #KnysnaRises.
To see the full support the town has, simply type the hashtag on twitter. Thousands of results appear within seconds. Social Cohesion Advocate, Yusuf Abramjee tweeted, “Let us all make Knysna rise! Let’s hold hands, work together and rise from the ashes. We will!” Paired with photos of the devastation left behind, the scores of those affected is an emotional read. What cannot be forgotten are those who lost lives, as well as homes and jobs. Seven fatalities were recorded including a small boy, a family of three and a 63-year-old man. Mayor Bouw-Spies was quoted to Eyewitness News as saying, “We will have to rise and rebuild this town to even better than it was before.”
The Municipality has introduced a new way to create awareness of the town’s regrowth by introducing Green Friday. Working through True Colours, the aim is help Knysna get its green back. Wearing green each Friday is designed to encourage re-growth and have people thinking about the ways they can help. Residents are working on keeping their wildlife safe. With fruit and water left on trees to encourage the animals back, it’s hoped that the greenery will return.
It’s clear from the messages on social media that the best way to support the Knysna families is to support activities that will raise money for residents. Speaking to Busi Sithole, of Khanyisile Arts and Crafts, she speaks of her fears that tourists will now stay away. A business such as hers depends on the tourism trade and whilst some locals don’t agree with the festivals, for Sithole they bring potential customers.
If a local business can be supported and rebuilt, then they can work on reconstructing homes, this time with an environmental plan in mind. As Knsyna’s entire disaster management plan is changed to improve for the future, this time the environment will be considered.
For the most part, the Tourism Board is determined to act “business as usual.” August will see the Forest Run, based in Mother Holly Tea Garden. The 26 estimated fires have destroyed some of Knysna’s forests. Catching afire quickly due to the drought, emergency services were praised for their effectiveness. Yet the clear up will take many months. 500 jobs have been created to help those who became unemployed, and have the aim to get the community moving forward. The Forest Run this year has promised to raise funds.
The image of a phoenix is a fitting one for Knysna. Burning in flames, it is re-born and will eventually show its exquisite beauty. Knysna is a jewel on the Garden Route and a well-known slice of paradise in South Africa. It is hoped that soon, that all inhabitants of Knysna will be able to place their troubles behind them through comprehensive and cohesive rebuilding of their environment.