Tiny plant joins mining battle

PEEPING THROUGH THE CRACKS: The succulent, possibly a brand new species, discovered on Kariegesfontein near Aberdeen Picture: PHILIP MCNAUGHTON

World excitement over Karoo discovery of possible new species

With the dust starting to fly in earnest over proposed uranium mining near the Eastern Cape Karoo town of Aberdeen, a tiny succulent has surfaced as a possible new role player.

The plant was discovered by Phillip McNaughton and his wife, Joan, on their farm Kariegesfontein, 45km west of Aberdeen, and subsequently on neighbour Chris Hayward’s farm.

McNaughton’s posting on Ispot Nature sparked immediate interest from international experts who said it could be a new species.

McNaughton is hoping their discovery could flag the ecological diversity of the area and the huge and multi-layered costs that could be incurred if the uranium mining goes ahead. While Kariegesfontein is just outside Tasman South Africa’s proposed 35 000ha Kareepoort mining bloc and Hayward’s farm is inside the bloc, the wind is the key, he said yesterday.

“We have big winds around here and, with the prevailing one being northwest, we are directly downwind of the proposed mine,” McNaughton said.

“We are concerned that uranium mining could generate radioactive dust which could threaten not only us and our workers, our livestock, our meat and our mohair but also the natural environment, including this possibly unique plant.”

McNaughton and his wife were carrying out a grazing management assessment on their sheep and angora goat farm in late July and were walking across a silt plain, a flat hot area with a mosaic of cracked ground, when she spotted the plant.

“It was pushing up through one of these cracks shielded by a bush. We knew right away we had never seen it before. I wanted to know what the experts thought so I posted my photographs on Ispot,” McNaughton said.

UK-based succulent expert Derek Tribble quickly responded, confirming McNaughton’s view that it was a succulent of the Nananthus genus and pointing out that its discovery in lowland habitat was in itself fascinating.

“This is the first [Nananthus] from below the escarpment, which makes it important,” he said.

California-based botanist and succulent specialist Steve Hammer, said: “Fabulous! That is certainly a Nananthus and moreover it is possibly new.”

McNaughton said their discovery of the plant only now after farming Kariegesfontein for 20 years was not surprising.

“It seems like it pokes its head out during wet weather but as soon as it gets hot and dry it retreats back into the soil. “It has beautiful little yellow flowers with a red vein, but they are the size of a shirt button so are very easy to miss.”

McNaughton said if the plant was verified as a new species it should be taken seriously by the authorities considering the long-term contamination risk posed by uranium pollution.

“If they make a mistake it will be a mistake for thousands of years,” he said.

“When you drive down our long straight roads the Karoo looks monochrome but when you walk into it you see the diversity.

“We want the costs of uranium mining to be thoroughly studied before any decision is made.”

A specimen of the Nananthus has been collected by Grahamstown’s Schonland Herbarium and will be checked to see if it is indeed a new species.

HeraldLIVE / Tiso Black Star Group

Guy Rogers.

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