South Africa is one of only 17 megadiverse countries on earth, meaning it’s home to a large number of species and harbours a high number of endemic species too.

Yet a significant number of South African species face dire threats from a variety of sources putting their very survival at risk and jeopardising South Africa’s rich and priceless natural heritage.

This was a key takeout of the Reverse the Red World Species Congress satellite event that saw speakers from a broad range of national conservation and biodiversity organisations, NPOS, public-sector and special interest groups come together to take stock of the status of species conservation in South Africa; work that’s being done to save species (some of which are on the very brink of extinction), and address species conservation challenges that remain unmet.

The South African satellite event took place in the context of the White Paper on Conservation and Sustainable Use. This Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) document gives four goals for conservation in South Africa: sustainable use; access; benefit sharing; and transformation.

“These goals demand that we think creatively and do things differently,” says senior DFFE environmental consultant, Mukondi Matshusa. “We need to reimagine conservation in South Africa to ensure that conservation efforts serve communities. For our most noble and urgent conservation work needs community support if it is to succeed.”

In setting the scene at the online event, threatened species programme manager at the SA National Biodiversity Institute, Domitilla Raimondo, noted that South Africa has committed to a biodiversity convention to prevent species extinction.

This commitment includes applying action for recovery and conserving species that are near to extinction; maintaining and restoring genetic diversity within populations; and effectively managing interaction between people and wildlife to minimise conflict and maximise co-existence.

“It amounts to a commitment to restore what we have lost – and conserve what we have,” Raimondo told delegates.

“South Africa has made great strides in species conservation,” she adds. “We have the expertise, the track record, and the scientific and biodiversity proficiency to effectively halt rapid decline of species toward extinction. We have done well and, in many respects, set best practice standards that other regions and nations follow. However, much remains to be done.

“South Africans cannot be complacent. Guarding against extinction is a time-consuming process that demands much. It demands collaboration and partnerships. It demands intimate understanding of the relationship between species and human beings so that interactions are respectful of people, their communities, and respectful of species and of biodiversity too.

“South Africa is well equipped in these areas,” says Raimondo. “However, we need to significantly scale up the national material investment in species conservation if we are to meet our biodiversity convention commitments.”

South Africa has conducted red list assessments for 12 taxonomic groups. These assessments are aligned to International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List guidelines for regional assessment of species. Findings give a clear indication of just how threatened South Africa’s biodiversity is.

Thirty five of our freshwater fish species are either endangered or critically endangered. This amounts to little under a third of fish species in South Africa’s fresh waters. To reverse this, Raimondo says, South Africa must significantly scale up its investment. In the last five years R18,6-million has been invested in conserving freshwater fish species. It’s estimated that this investment must grow nine-fold to effectively take each endangered or critically endangered species off of those lists.

Similarly, she says, 11 amphibian species are in desperate need of protection. To give them that protection, investment assigned to conservation measures will need to be scaled up four-fold from R22,3-million invested since 2019 to an investment of R92,5-million over the next five years.

It’s going to take about R965-million to save the 16 South African bird species in urgent need of recovery intervention – and more than R2-billion to ensure survival of the black rhino, wild dog, and riverine rabbit.

More than 100 plant species are in urgent need of recovery action. Work is underway right now to save only 14% of those (15 different plant species).

The estimated average cost to save plant species is significantly more accessible than saving animal species: estimated at around R2,8-million per plant species over a five year period as opposed to an average of R13,2-million per mammal species and R44,2-million per bird species.

Raimondo says that South Africa has people – professionals and citizen scientists alike – who work passionately to save species. “Ours was the first country to quantify and catalogue which of its species required recovery intervention,” she says. “South Africa was also the first country to systematically identify species that qualify for recovery in each of the taxonomic groups.”

Reverse the Red is a global movement for strategic cooperation and action to ensure the survival of wild species and ecosystems and reverse the negative trend of biodiversity loss. The movement provides the tools and expertise to empower governments, partners, and local communities to set and reach biodiversity conservation targets and celebrates and amplifies successful achievements for species.