Deforestation is one of the biggest conservation issues facing the planet today. We zip-line over one of the last remaining indigenous forests in Mpumalanga in a bid to understand the disastrous effects of destroying our trees.
It’s 8.30am in the morning and the sun is already sky-high hot as we hike down a red earth track to the start of our adventure.
“Is that the first cable we’re going to slide down,” jokes the permanently smiling Hennie, pointing to a power cable running from its pylon into the treetops.
“Ja, we can use that one,” replies our guide, Reason, checking his watch. “We have load shedding at the moment.”
His quick-witted response has us all laughing hard. The sorry state of our country’s infrastructure – Eskom’s inability to provide the entire country with electricty, causing planned blackouts in waves across the country – unites our diverse party: Reason and Tebatso, our local Shangaan guides basking in the youthful prime of their lives; Justin and myself, both English speaking and in our early forties; and Hennie and Ané, an intrepid Afrikaans couple near retirement age.
We are about to conquer the longest aerial cableway in Mpumalanga, spanning 1.2km of thriving indigenous forest sloping down to the hippo-inhabited Sabie River. Earlier that morning, we meet at the Skyway Trail’s office where we’re strapped into our harnesses (a material and metal contraption which winds between your legs like a bondage-style nappy) and given a mini trial run on a practice cable on the grass outside. It was neither long, nor high, nor steep, which meant that I was not expecting what I saw when we arrived at the first platform. The first cable was all three. At 230m, it was the longest of the five we would be zip-lining down today, it soared high above the canopies below, and it sloped steeply down to a barely perceptible landing platform at the far end.
As Tebatso clinches each of our safety lines onto the wooden platform to prevent bodies from being bumped off erroneously, I peer over the edge at the acid-green canopy covering the slope below me. The fertile valley basin supports a number of endangered plant species, including a rare orchid, its very existence only recorded twice in Mpumalanga. The indigenous trees are home to countless birds from the Purple-crested Turaco with its punk-like electric-blue mohawk to the rare Narina Trogon, named by famed French ornithologist François Le Vaillant after his native Khoikhoi mistress. And the forest floor is alive with activity. Bush pigs, bushbuck and the elusive red duiker, hidden from the human eye, travel beneath troops of Vervet monkeys, foraging on fruit that slips from the primate’s near-human hands.
If this humming, hooting forest was to be cleared, these rare plants, exotic birds and forest animals would lose their homes… their food… their roots. Like a house of cards, when one species falls, the others that dependent on them for survival also come crashing down. This devastating chain of extinction occurs on a global scale. Forests contain more than half of the world’s plant and animal species, some of which have yet to be discovered, and some of which may have unknown medical benefits. Every minute, an area the size of 20 football fields of indigenous forest is cleared. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a staggering 7.3 million hectares is destroyed each year.
Justin mans up and goes first. He brakes too hard with his right arm and has to pull himself along the end of the upward-sloping wire, with the help of Reason, to reach the platform. As Tebatso attaches my harness to the cable, Hennie does his best to calm me with carefully considered words of encouragement. Little did he know that he was talking to a hardened adrenalin junkie. Determined not to get stuck, I decide not to brake at all, and hurtle down the cable at break-neck speed, relishing in the sheer, invigorating freedom of flying over the forest. I brake just before the platform, swinging easily onto the raised perch like a bird returning to its roost.
Blood pounding in my veins, I suck in the purified air from the forest below me as I wait for the others to descend. While humans inhale oxygen, trees breathe in CO² to grow. According to the World Resources Institute, deforestation is responsible for 12% to 17% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. Tropical forests, where deforestation is at its most prevalent, hold more than 210 gigatonnes of carbon. When these forests are cleared, and the trees are either burnt or decompose, this carbon is released as CO², causing more emissions than all the airplanes, trains and cars combined.
As CO² emissions are the biggest cause of global warming on the planet, deforestation is one of the major causes of the effects of climate change: melting polar caps, prolonged drought, freak storms and natural disasters of epic proportions.
Globally, agriculture is the biggest cause of deforestation, accounting for 60% of all forests destroyed (Porter and Brown). The next contributor is commercial logging (20% to 25%) followed by cattle ranching, cash crops like palm oil, and the construction of roads, dams and mines. In Africa, the offenders are quite different. An estimated 90% of the African population uses wood for fuel and cooking (Yvonne Agyei, African Technology Forum) and in Sub-Saharan countries, fuel wood is consumed up to 200% faster than the annual growth rate of trees. It is the gathering of firewood – and other informal destruction suach as domestic animals eating saplings – that contributes as much to the continent’s deforestation as commercial agriculture and subsistence farming.
The second cable is shorter. Reason took my camera and managed to take such a professional-looking video of his descent, Justin and I joke about hiring him as our cameraman. As Tebatso clinches the wheeled trolley on my harness to the zip-line, I see that Justin has let go both hands (the right, clad in a thick padded glove, is used for braking, the left holds your harness to stabilise yourself) for a second or two. Determined not to be outdone, I let go in the middle of the cable, both arms outstretched. After a second or two, I start to spin out of control. I reach up to grab the brake, realise my hand is in front of the moving trolley and push off before my glove is caught up in it, spinning myself forwards again. I catch sight of Reason and Justin on the platform, which I was now hurtling towards and, at the last moment, I manage to reach up and brake hard. Thwack! I smash through the plastic disk designed to break our speed and brace for impact. Without stressing, Reason pulls a rope which slows me significantly so that I land safely, but not overly gracefully, on the platform.
After the out-of-control craziness of the first two cables, I decide to calm down and take in the beautiful scenery below me. We’re sliding closer towards the trees, and between them, I see the tell-tale glint of water sliding over mossy rocks. When trees are uprooted, their roots no longer form a protective web over the earth’s surface. Rains wash away the top soil and silt up rivers, lakes and estuaries, causing damage to these sensitive water-based ecosystems. This soil erosion is one of the major causes of creeping desertification. Desertification is defined as land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas brought about by factors such as climatic variations and human activities (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, 1994).
Two thirds of the African continent consists of desert or drylands, which are fragile areas that can be farmed but are most at risk of desertification. An alarming 91% of South Africa falls within this category and almost three quarters of these areas are already degraded to some degree. Only an estimated 0.5% of South Africa’s surface is covered with indigenous forest. By contrast, 71% of Mpumalanga is covered in natural vegetation, comprising grasslands, thickets, woodlands and forests, with only 1.7% of these areas classified as degraded. Therefore, this lush belt of sub-tropical forest we’re zip-lining over is even more important to conserve as it’s all we have left.
The fourth cable actually disappears into the trees. We’ve already conquered the longest and the highest zip-line, so now it’s time to play around. Tebatso goes first, flipping himself upside down, trendy converse trainers in the air. Reason slows to a standstill and bounces himself off a nearby tree with controlled ease.
As I slide into the forest, I feel its humid breath on my neck. The forest is alive. Like a sentient, living organism, it performs vital functions: sucking up water, breathing in CO², exhaling oxygen.
These are not the only important functions the forest performs. In a process called transpiration, trees draw up groundwater through their roots and release it into the atmosphere. Over half the water circulating through the Amazonian ecosystem remains within the plants. Deforestation not only lowers the water table, but also results in a drier climate. The current drought crisis in sub-Saharan Africa has already seen livestock dying at an alarming rate and experts predict severe food shortages to come, with food with becoming completely unaffordable for the poorest. According to the Red Cross, an estimated 60 million people below the equatorial belt (around the population of the United Kingdom) are facing famine after El Nino weather patterns have wreaked havoc with crops. And the organisation predicts that the worst is still to come.
The last cable is the shortest. Knowing that Tebatso can break my ride, I put my camera in one hand and film my descent without breaking at all. The final platform has a distinct lack of steps and I discover that we’re abseiling to the ground. Again, Justin goes first and Tebatso instructs him to stretch out and pose for a photo, before suddenly releasing the rope. Justin tenses, bracing for impact, but Tebatso stops his fall with a cheeky smile. I’m highly entertained but I inform Tebatso that his life will be in serious danger if he does the same to me. After I launch myself off the edge of the platform, which is far less scary than I thought, I pose for a picture, and bam, I feel my heart drop. Tebatso repeats the same joke for all of us, leaving us on an adrenaline high comparable to the first decent. I loved every minute of my first zip-lining experience and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
On the journey home, Hennie’s expressive face is crinkled into a permanent smile as he jokes with us.
“So are you guys married or do you live in sin like us?” he asks, patting Ané’s hand.
“We also live in sin,” Justin replies. “A lot of sin,” he emphasises.
Again, our diverse party laughs hard.
Our society truly is in a sorry state if loving someone can be a sin, but we can unapologetically plunder the earth’s forests with greed as the main motivating factor. For me, true sin is destroying all the rare plants, exotic birds and endangered animals living in perfect harmony in these pristine ecosystems. If the current rate of deforestation continues, it will take less than a century to destroy all the rainforests left on the planet. It’s time to act now, before it’s too late.
TEN FACTS YOU NEED TO KNOW:
- Every minute, an area the size of 50 football fields is destroyed
- Every hour, 4,500 acres of forest is cleared
- Every year, we lose an area the size of Belgium and Cyprus
- If the rate of deforestation continues, in less than 100 years, we won’t have any rainforests left
- Forests are home to 8/10 known animal and plant species
- Up to 28,000 species are expected to facing extinction through deforestation in the next 25 years
- Up to 20% of the world’s oxygen is produced in the Amazon rainforest
- Over half of the world’s tropical forests have already been destroyed or degraded
- Indigenous forests store up to 70% more carbon than other forest types
- Deforestation causes 12% to 17% of annual greenhouse gas emissions and is one of the main causes of climate change