There are lots of things I like. Africa, travel, wildlife, food – hey, even some people. Then there are things I dislike, such as when people take half-baked ideas to the media without first checking their facts.
Let me give you an example.
Vandalism? Shock, horror. Marshall the troops to wipe out this terrorism! But is it true?
The halfmens (Pachypodium namaquanum) is a small, hardy plant that’s endemic to the lower Orange River Valley, across a range of some 15 000 square kilometres of Namibia and South Africa. You’ll find it on steep slopes of this area’s craggy mountains, where it grows very slowly but may live 300 years or more. It’s protected under both the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and domestic legislation in Namibia and South Africa.
Given that its restricted range makes the halfmens more vulnerable to extinction, it would certainly be worrying if vandalism was taking place. But is it?
On a visit to the Richtersveld at the end of July I asked park manager Brent Whittington about it. He told me the park’s plant specialist and nursery assistant Pieter van Wyk had investigated the allegation and found it to be untrue. Yes, there was damage – but it had nothing to do with human vandalism.
The truth was much more interesting.
After examining the sites mentioned in the letter, as well as other random populations, Pieter reported that they had self-amputated – something both the halfmens and kokerboom (Aloe dichotoma) are known to do when under threat.
The white line, circled in red, is where the plant created a protective layer to prevent further contamination, then sealed it off from the inside and amputated from that point. ‘This suggests no sign of human interaction but rather a natural phenomenon,’ he said.
‘We’re concerned about the rate at which this is happening and have brought it to the attention of the responsible departments,’ said Brent. Pieter has also contacted scientists to find out more about the larvae so they can identify the insect, discover whether it’s indigenous or alien, and find a way forward.
What bugs me is that everyone who read the letter in go! is upset about people who (to quote the letter) ‘go through the trouble of trekking into the veld only to defile it’. I would be too, if it were true. But a little digging revealed that it isn’t.
Instead of first checking his facts, the letter-writer rushed off to the media with his heartfelt but unsubstantiated assumptions. So here’s my question: why would people who ‘go through the trouble of trekking into the veld’ go off half-cocked without checking their facts, ‘only to defile’ the truth?
Perhaps I’ve spent too long interviewing and chatting with scientists, who are the first to admit that they don’t know something. Ask a scientist with a PhD a question about her area of expertise and you might be surprised when she replies, ‘I don’t really know.’ That’s because she’d need evidence, some dedicated research into that specific aspect, before she’d be happy to draw any conclusions.
It’s a lesson we could all learn from.
So I’ve shared what I know. Just to put the truth out there. For those who prefer fact to fiction.
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