Biodiversity Early Warning Systems

South African citizen scientists monitoring change


Climate change presents the global community with one of the biggest challenges of human history. If we cannot rise to this challenge, and use our skills to our advantage, our future could admittedly be bleak. Yet it does not have to be that way. Human foresight, human ingenuity, and clear-sighted leadership are all qualities which tend to appear in times of need. South Africa has shown the world that it is capable of all these things, from the peaceful transition to democracy in 1994, to our emergence as a world talent in science and social development, to the quality of our leadership and our vibrant democracy.

So as the nations of the world struggle with the means to transform society to a path of sustainability, and face the difficult times of increasing climate change, there are good reasons for us all to watch the horizon carefully. Knowing the future is never possible, but we can anticipate it by “watching the clouds” as sailors have always done. Indicators of environmental change are all around us – we need only recognize them, and track them proactively over time, to enable us to predict as much as possible what lies in store, and shift our course where necessary.

Fortunately, we in Africa and South Africa have some excellent environmental datasets at hand which can be fairly easily drawn together to help in this task. Built with our own and our partner country’s investments over some years, they equip us quite well for many of the tasks ahead. Since the environment underpins human development and the economy, at national and household levels, and in both rural and urban communities, we in South Africa are building “early warning systems” for biodiversity and ecosystems. We see these systems as every bit as important as early warning systems for drought, famine, disease outbreaks, desertification or economic crises, and indeed they will in time be integrated with these other systems. With climate change, the ability of ecosystems to buffer human society and biodiversity from the worst of its effects is a priceless global asset, but one with which we have been too careless. Ecosystems and biodiversity face serious challenges now, at the time we need them most. Ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change is the simplest, most cost-effective, and wisest approach to climate adaptation that any country can make. South Africa has embraced this challenge. Yet we need to know that our actions to protect and increase the resilience of ecosystems are actually working to safeguard ecological services and biodiversity. Early warning systems for biodiversity under rapid environmental change are a powerful and proactive tool to do this, and one in which South Africa is now making modest, but highly cost-effective investments in our future.

South Africa hosts three global biodiversity hot- spots, as well as other immensely rich and important ecosystems filled with unique endemic species. Some of these species are important for food, medicine or building materials; others such as locusts and queleas may imperil our food security. All are profoundly integral to our global and national heritage, and are part of complex ecosystems that deliver immeasurable benefits to our lives. We are delighted to say that South Africa has a wealth of talent in its civil society for identifying, monitoring and conserving our biodiversity. Our “citizen scientists” are justly becoming famous on the world stage for their participation in excellent species atlases, wildflower conservation schemes, and projects on Red Data species population trends. These species are our “canaries in the coal mine.” You can read about some of these wonderful initiatives, part of our emerging early warning system for biodiversity, in this booklet. We believe strongly that it is the active participation of the broad citizenry in engaging with biodiversity and the environment that will be the saviour of our natural assets. This booklet gives us a glimpse of this possibility. We hope that our experiences so far on this journey will inspire and encourage you.