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Africa Geographic Travel

A hundred years ago our fynbos rivers pulsed with fish life: glowing redfins swarming among the cobbles, a speckled galaxias suspended weightless in the bubble line and a pack of mottled kurpers lurking silently in the shadows. Wiley eels grin in their cavernous lairs as night sets in and their hunt begins. Large cyprinids, like the Clanwilliam sandfish, migrate great distances upstream to their rocky spawning grounds as the winter floods subside. But sadly those days are now long gone

Breede River redfins swarming among cobbles
Breede River redfins swarming among cobbles

Low lying reaches have been degraded by human activities like agriculture, and fish populations have been decimated by predatory alien fish. Today our fynbos rivers are largely devoid of native fish species – a depressing realisation given that the majority of these species occur nowhere else on the planet. Our sensitive fynbos fishes are backed into a corner like a wounded boxer losing a fight. They have retracted deep into isolated mountain tributaries, which are now their last outposts within vast networks of uninhabitable riverscapes.

Smallmouth bass have eaten their way through our fragile native fish populations.
Smallmouth bass have eaten their way through our fragile native fish populations.

Nearly all of these species have made their way into the pages of the IUCN’s red list, and some are now so rare and isolated that they are literally swimming on the edge of extinction. Again, a depressing prospect, but there may yet be light at the end of this dark tunnel.

The author surveying fish populations in a mountain tributary. © Steve Benjamin
The author surveying fish populations in a mountain tributary © Steve Benjamin

In 2012/13, an ambitious conservation project conducted in the Rondegat River in the Cederberg demonstrated, under the disapproving eyes of its many sceptics, that sections of river can be rehabilitated and cleansed of alien fish. The project was spearheaded by the local conservation authority CapeNature, and monitoring by the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) revealed rapid recolonisation by native fishes and aquatic invertebrates from upstream following alien fish eradication. The project showed that a chemical called rotenone can completely eliminate alien fish, without detrimental long-term effects on the rest of the river ecosystem, and thereby give our native species back some room to survive – an aquatic miracle if ever there was one!

Feeding marks on a rock indicate the presence of Clanwilliam sandfish in a Cedarberg stream. © Riaan van der Walt
Feeding marks on a rock indicate the presence of Clanwilliam sandfish in a Cedarberg stream © Riaan van der Walt

Unfortunately though, miracles don’t come cheap. This project, that successfully eradicated alien bass from four kilometres of stream and rehabilitated riparian habitat, cost in excess of ZAR4 million. While several species are desperately in need of this type of intervention, future projects will rest on our ability to acquire the necessary funds – a tough challenge when working to save small, shy aquatic creatures that fall outside of the conservation spotlight.

A tiny galaxias in need of a helping hand. © Alexia Webster
A tiny galaxias in need of a helping hand © Alexia Webster

With my new film, Fins in the Fynbos, I hope to raise the profile of these unique but globally threatened fish, highlight their struggles and offer a way to invest in their future by supporting very much needed conservation interventions:

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I feel lucky to share this beautiful planet with such an insane diversity of wild and wonderful creatures. It troubles me deeply that we humans and our antics have devastated so much of our wondrous world over such a short time. I aam a freshwater conservation biologist living in Cape Town, South Africa. My passion is to unearth and communicate the hidden beauty and plight of our freshwater ecosystems and thereby give them a fighting chance to share planet earth with us long into the future.

Africa Geographic Travel