EnvironmentFauna and Flora

In terms of its Environmental Management Plan, Swakop Uranium commits to caring for all species of fauna and flora found near, or within, its exploration and mining areas. No matter how big or seemingly insignificant such plants, animals, reptiles or insects may be, we believe they all deserve to be treated with respect.

The Swakop Uranium Exclusive Prospecting Licence (EPL) area is also home to over 52 000 counted extraordinary plants called Welwitschia mirabilis, thought to be among some of the oldest living plants on planet Earth.

Removing protected and endemic species

Before the first blast took place in 2010 at the box cut site identified for bulk sampling, Swakop Uranium consulted an independent botanist to identify and rescue all protected flora that had the potential to be affected by the required blasting activities and which could successfully be relocated. Coleen Mannheimer found two such species, namely Aloe asperifolia and the Namib Desert endemic species Commiphora saxicola. These plants warranted rescue from the site. With the work she does to assist the National Botanical Research Institute (NBRI) in upgrading their seedbank stores, as well as her active role in numerous environmental impact assessments, Coleen was the perfect choice to help Swakop Uranium rescue valuable plant life from the box cut area. In addition, Coleen’s botanical input to the biodiversity assessment resulted in amendments being made to the site layout to ensure that infrastructure stayed off areas of high and/or sensitive biodiversity.

A number of precious Commiphora saxicola plants were therefore also rescued from the Husab mine and plant site with the majority relocated on site in the EPL area. Some plants were, however, donated to the NBRI and to the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry for propagation trials. In this way, should any mines in the area need endemic plants for restoration work, the National Botanical Gardens (NBG) will be able to supply them. These plants are also popular with gardeners, and part of the work of the NBRI is to popularise indigenous plants among landscapers, gardeners and the general public. Some plants were also given to the embryonic Namib Botanical Gardens (NaBG) near Swakopmund for replanting.

Although most of the site infrastructure has been placed off the more sensitive areas through careful planning, some areas are unfortunately affected by the infrastructure. Lithops gracilidelineata (“living stones”) were another vulnerable and endemic plant species affected by Husab’s mining activities and Swakop Uranium was granted permission by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) to remove the affected plants to safer ground. Of the 70 plants, 60 were assigned for relocation trials on site, five were donated to the live plant collections of the NBG in Windhoek and five others to the NaBG. The relocated plants were initially watered for a period, and are now being regularly monitored to determine the success rate of the relocation.

Studying the oldest plants in the world

Welwitschia mirabilis are the Methuselahs of the plant kingdom, with carbon dating revealing that medium-sized plants can be as old as 1 000 years. Very little is known about these extraordinary plants, despite the fact that they are among the oldest living plants on planet Earth. This, coupled with the fact that Welwitschias occur in abundance on the Swakop Uranium Exclusive Prospecting Licence (EPL) area, prompted the company to get to know them better.

It started in 2009 with a pioneering census of the Welwitschia plants within Swakop Uranium’s EPL. Over 52 000 of the plants have been counted in the Welwitschia Flats area over the past four years. This field is now being studied with an unprecedented intensity in order to grasp what makes a Welwitschia population tick and what it requires to keep on ticking.

Swakop Uranium’s Welwitschia census, which documented the plant’s position, its relative state of health and size, its gender, and position in the landscape will be a vital addition to many other research papers that have been conducted in the past. Despite more than 300 research papers having been published on this tenacious plant, several mysteries remain – among which are “what does the root system of the Welwitschia look like, and how does it access water?” The plant census gives botanists an indication as to where the Welwitschias occur and enables them to surmise a bit more as to what the root system needs to look like for it to utilise ground or other water sources in the desert soils.

When a few Welwitschia plants were affected by the upgrading of the temporary access road in 2011, Swakop Uranium obtained a permit from the MET to excavate the plants and maximise the scientific work that could be done as a result. The Namib Ecological Restoration and Monitoring Unit (NERMU) at Gobabeb was asked to coordinate and manage the excavations of the five affected Welwitschias and help map the root system, measure soil moisture, collect samples of roots and soil, and log the soil profiles. The permit conditions required that the excavated plants be relocated, if possible, and thus the excavated plants were replanted nearby or at the Namib Botanical Gardens near Swakopmund. We are not expecting them to survive as the excavation process was focussed on mapping the root structure, not preserving it.

Removing the plants provided a unique opportunity to improve knowledge of the root system and possible source of water, and to measure a host of other biophysical characteristics, including some of the other micro organisms associated with the plant.

Running rings around climate change

Swakop Uranium will operate within the Namib Naukluft National Park and is taking considerable care to preserve the fragile ecosystem that exists on the Husab site and along the infrastructure routes to site. The drought-tolerant Camelthorns (Vachellia erioloba) and Welwitschias are potentially useful long-term records of changes in the desert climate. Although reading the growth rings of old trees (dendochronology) can give much information regarding climate and climatic trends during a time when these were not yet scientifically recorded, this is not as easy to do on the soft-stemmed Welwitschia as on the extremely hard-wooded Camelthorn.

Swakop Uranium supported a study to analyse the oldest part of the Camelthorns, the centre or heartwood, to have the material carbon-dated. Radiocarbon or carbon 14 dating of dead plant tissue is an excellent way to measure their age. The Namibian MET approved the project and issued a research permit and core samples were sent to a radiocarbon dating laboratory in the United States. Each sampled tree was carefully documented and the drilled holes filled with polyurethane foam before being sealed with silicone. The results were unexpected and very interesting and scientific papers on the findings are to be published in due course.

Carbon dating of the enigmatic Welwitschia will now also be undertaken, to correlate the findings of the abovementioned exercise, and to try to determine when the relatively dense population of Welwitschia found in one area of the Welwitschia Flats may have been recruited. In other words, we would like to understand the climatic conditions that are conducive to the germination of these slow-growing plants.

Sand Lizard teaches us a lesson

The Husab Sand Lizard (Pedioplanis husabensis), an endemic species thought to have a world range of less than 5 000 km2 surrounding the Husab Mountain, is being studied in more detail after Swakop Uranium’s environmental impact assessment flagged it as potentially being at risk of decimation.

Although the study on the species range was motivated by Swakop Uranium’s need to discover exactly how severe an impact the mine may have on the species, its findings will contribute to an understanding of the Namib ecology in general, and will allow young Namibians to be trained in better environmental stewardship.

Preliminary findings agree with earlier observations that the Husab Sand Lizard is highly specialised. Contrary to its name, the lizard seems to be exclusively associated with rocky substrate and rough terrain, specifically marble ridges surrounded by other bare rock types. Scarce, patchy habitat implies greater threat to a specialist species’ continued existence in a region, as its survival is so closely linked to the amount of habitat available, and its degree of fragmentation and connectivity.

Future research will investigate the natural history, basic ecology and habitat requirements of the Husab Sand Lizard. This research will be enlarged to ultimately include the genetic research findings in a species management plan. Monitoring of the genetic structure of the Husab Sand Lizard will inform wildlife management about a population’s status and trends, which will allow early detection of declines in dispersal rates and sub-population size.

Students set the baseline

For three young Namibian scientists, 2013 will be a year to remember as they spent five months participating in the esteemed Desert Science and Research Training (DeSeRT) Programme hosted by the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre and proudly sponsored by the Nedbank Go Green Fund and Swakop Uranium.

The programme, one of the few of its kind in Namibia, closely mentors students in their scientific investigations. It allows selected students to work under the guidance of Gobabeb researchers and other scientific staff to conduct independent research into projects that contribute to Namibia’s ability to manage and restore degraded ecosystems.

The students, all from various parts of Namibia, were asked to provide a baseline for monitoring potential impacts of construction and mining activities. Data was obtained on the Husab Sand Lizard, methodologies for the rehabilitation and restoration of the environment post-mine closure and the potential impacts of mine-related dust on sensitive vegetation.