Conservationist Rebecca Dames appreciates the beauty of Grootbos: Green Route

‘Nature did not come to a standstill in lockdown,’ says Rebecca Dames, 25, Conservation Manager for Grootbos Private Nature Reserve

By Rebecca Dames

I was incredibly fortunate to have been in lockdown at Grootbos for the last two months, while many were confined to their homes, I’m grateful for the freedom I had to move outside. The sense of community on the reserve during this lockdown has been overwhelming. Nature did not come to standstill during this period, and the flowers continued to bloom. With time to walk and explore the reserve which I have worked on for the last four and half years, I haven’t ever paid such close attention to the changing of the seasons and the flowers. Over this period, a further 32 plant species have been recorded on the reserve.

My days consisted of volunteering on the organic farm onsite, since no staff were allowed onsite and the farm was dependent on the staff which were on the reserve to keep things alive. Fynbos walks and runs were essential parts of my day, and the conservation team got involved in clearing aliens from the reserve and doing night patrols. While it feels like I have been camping for the last two months, living out of a bag – it makes one realise how little you actually need in life.

Often in life we are so caught up that we neglect spending time doing the simple things. Lockdown provided ample opportunity for fynbos strolls, baking sourdough, playing cards by the fire, reading books and getting dirty in nature. As the world slowly shifts back to this new ‘normal’, I think it is vital to find the balance going forward to make sure that these simple things become more integrated in one’s daily life.  

The conservation team has been able to continue their work within the landscape by conducting biodiversity surveys and continue with research projects all under strict permits and health and safety protocols. 

Fortunately I have been able to exercise and hike for the last two months freely, and trail running has become a part of my daily routine. Although I have run the same route almost daily now, each time I do so – I find something new along the way. Discovering populations of plant species which I had not previously known about, encountering wildlife along the way, watching the sun rise and the stars fade, and noticing how the colour palette of the fynbos changes almost daily has been incredible. 

I studied a National Diploma in Nature Conservation at Nelson Mandela University in George from 2013.  Growing up on a farm in the Garden Route, I became fascinated with nature from a very young age, always interested in finding little critters and picking flowers in the mountains. I don’t remember a pinnacle point in my life where I became eco-aware, but as far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to be outside in nature, and finding a way to save what was left.

During my years in high school, where there is so much pressure on what to study and what to be when you ‘grow up’, it was always clear to me that my path was within an environmental career. I always had a little vegetable garden, and used to spend hours on end exploring mountains and rivers on my horse growing up. I was extremely privileged to have such an up bringing where I could be eco-aware. In South Africa, where inequality and poverty is still so prevalent, I feel that conservation is a privilege. It’s very hard to think of ways to save the environment, when you are uncertain of where your next meal comes from. 

I first joined the Grootbos Foundation in 2016 as an intern. As part of my Conservation Diploma, you are required to do one year of practical experiential training. While most of my peers went to game reserves, I knew that I wanted to be involved in plant conservation, as habitat preservation is essential for the conservation of all species, and my passion lay with plant diversity. I found out about Grootbos online, where I read a beautiful blog about the incredible diversity and community conservation work that they do, and was determined to get involved. After my year as an intern, I was offered a full time contract – and here I am four years later as the Conservation Manager for the Grootbos Foundation. 

There are various ways in which I promote eco-conscious living in both my professional and personal capacity. I believe once you have become aware of the global crisis we are facing and the environmental issues around us, it is very hard to turn a blind eye to them. In my personal capacity, I live a plant based lifestyle, and try to obtain as much of my food as possible from sustainable food sources. After the industrial revolution, when humans mechanised a lot of their living, it was seen as a huge accomplishment to convert vasts tracts of lands into monoculture agriculture. In the 21st century, we are facing the consequences with ‘dead’ land, the use of herbicides and pesticides running into our water courses and the horrible images we see circulating the web of snared animals and injured birds. While we can’t expect our massive population to survive ‘off the land’, it is vital we try and find the balance between agriculture and conservation. Along with this, I do all the generic things like recycle at home, ensure that all the products I use in my household are environmentally friendly, as well as try and educate those around me about simple ways they can reduce their footprint on the environment. As Jane Goodall puts it “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

In my professional capacity, I am actively trying to conserve critically endangered ecosystems and secure land for conservation in the long-term through being involved in establishing a recognized protected environment, and securing land in conservation servitudes. A large part of my job is about creating awareness about our unique floral biodiversity of the Cape Floral Kingdom, as well as the importance of these natural areas as buffers to alleviate the effects of floods, to provide habitat for insects which are natural pest control and important corridors for fauna which act as important pollinators.

Future Forecast: What are your 20:20 predictions for the future – where do you see SA in the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years?

We can’t turn a blind eye to the global pressure of becoming more eco-aware. Companies are being pressured into being aware of their carbon footprint and finding ways to reduce their impact on the environment. South Africa should be incredibly proud of the diversity that they are home to. We are one of the few countries where you can still see the Big 5, climb mountains, and the only country with the incredible diversity of the Cape Floral Kingdom. We should be selling ourselves based on our natural diversity, and not be trying to exploit our resources to the international market. Conservation cannot happen in isolation, so I would like to see more conservation organisations taking hands and teaming up to create a more environmentally friendly South Africa where nature can thrive. We are all essentially fighting for the same things, and we should not be fighting against each other, as together we are more impactful. 

I think the environmental industry is really only starting to bloom, and I believe in the next 20 years we will be even more bombarded with ‘green news’. This ideally will create more awareness and a mindset shift in our nation. I believe there is some incredible work being done in cities and rural areas around the country, which will only blossom as the years go on. 

While South Africa is always in the news for all the stuff which is going wrong in our country, there is a lot of incredible work being done by NGO’s and conservation organisations across the country. This should be in the spotlight. 

2020 Green Vision: What’s your green vision? Where would you like to see SA? What’s the way forward for a greener, cleaner more eco-aware SA? 

Conservation is a privilege. While South Africa is making leaps and strides in conservation, I feel that we need to solve the social inequality in our country before we make any serious impact. That is why I feel so strongly about the work that the Grootbos Foundation does, empowering local communities, providing ecotourism training and making an impact on the ground. That is essentially where conservation starts. 

I believe that conservation starts at home, and I would like to see more environmental programs being implemented in schools across South Africa. The youth are so powerful, and have a huge impact on their households. To see the change in the youth is to watch a change happen in local communities. 

The environment needs to take a bigger spotlight in South Africa, including in court. People need to start being persecuted for their crimes against nature, because if we keep allowing the illegal ploughing/poaching/hunting to continue without repercussions, we won’t see a reduction in these crimes against nature. 

I am incredibly happy to see corporates jumping on the bandwagon for more eco-conscious living, with the reduction of single use straws being available, and paper bags being sold at most shops these days. Personally I don’t feel that it is enough, but an incredible start. 

I hold my breath, and look forward to what unfolds in the coming years with South Africa, as we are on the tipping point of either something great, or losing it all. 

Grootbos Foundation

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Published by Melanie Farrell

Founder of Green Route ZA - the path to eco-conscious living. I live in Cape Town, South Africa.

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