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Richtersveld's national park, which straddles the border with Namibia, is home to unusual succulents in South Africa. However, warming and plant poaching is threatening these cacti.

Pieter van Wyk, a 32-year-old self-taught botanist and head of the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld transfrontier park's nursery said that a 10mm rain in May 2020 fell at Sendelingsdrif Rest Camp after almost a decade. This has provided a temporary lease of life to the cacti which helped them grow flowers.

However, it is not enough to repopulate the distinctive Pearson's aloe (Aloe pearsonii), an endemic to Richtersveld, that has lost 85% of its population in the last five years. Van Wyk fears that Pearson's aloe along with other species of cacti might disappear in his lifetime because of the threats to its survival, especially climate change and cacti smuggling.

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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Quartz pebble patch in the area of Knersvlakte. Near the intersection of the Salt River (Soutrivier) and Route N7, north of Vanrhynsdorp, Namaqualand, Western Cape, South Africa.

Rare Succulents in South Africa Draws Poachers In

According to The Guardian, Richtersveld is in the Northern Cape, an intersection of three biomes that is home to the oldest mountains in the world. It is considered the botanist's paradise because it straddles winter and summer rainfall regions.

It is home to over 3,000 plant species, including 400 endemic plants in the region. Even though they only receive a small amount of rainfall, it still has more plant species than the Kruger national park.

More so, it is home to the most unusual succulents that draw poachers in South Africa. Many cactus species in Richtersveld are specialized in that they only grow in one valley or on one mountain slope or in some cases, they are confined in an area that is smaller than a football pitch.

Poachers mainly target endangered species because it has the highest price in the black market. Van Wyk said that poachers do not even hide what plants they are selling despite the strict rules classifying such plants as illegal.

Dwarf succulents of Richtersveld are at the top of the poachers' list, which is sold in Asia, Europe, and North America by crime syndicates who hire some South Africans.

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Climate Change Takes A Toll In Richtersveld Ecosystem

Aside from the smuggling of cacti and succulent, they are also vulnerable to climate change. With the climate becoming drier and windier, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that temperatures will increase between 3.4 degrees Celsius and 4.2 degrees Celsius in Richtersveld.

Cape Town-based botanical consultant Nick Helme said that the higher the temperature, the more water plants will need to live. But since rains seldom happen in the region, it means that there is less water in the soil.

The effects of climate change are seen in the densely populated Namaqualand, a botanical hotspot just a few hundred kilometers away in the south.

According to the website Agriculture, succulents and other types of cacti benefit from rainwater although they are known to be resilient in warm weather because they can store water in their stems to keep them from wilting.

Rainwater does not only helps clear any dust accumulated during the dry season but also improves plant growth. They grow best in areas that have less than 25mm rainfall annually.

But with climate change and global warming, Van Wyk said that the demise of an ecosystem that has been there for millions of years is awful to watch, especially when one expects to die first before the ecosystem perishes.

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