LOYISO Dunga researches SA’s kelp forests, ‘the most productive ecosystem on earth’. Pictures: L Adams; C Foster
Johannesburg - When he first snorkelled in the kelp forests of the Cape Peninsula, Loyiso Dunga felt “shocked” by an explosion of feelings: fear, fascination - and extreme cold. But in the midst of this, he was overwhelmed by a sense of belonging.

“Although this was my first encounter of these magnificent forests, they were too familiar, the only difference being the ‘blue blanket’ sea covering them. I’ve gone back countless times, hence I am ‘the child of the forest’,” says Dunga.

He was one of 480 scientists who contributed to the National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA), a comprehensive scientific undertaking, led by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi), together with Nelson Mandela University and the CSIR, on the state of the country’s biodiversity.

Dunga grew up in the mountainous region of the Wild Coast in Nqabarha, understanding a forest as “a place on land dominated by trees, with various types of plants and animals of all sizes”.

His family moved to Khayelitsha when he was 4, but his interest in nature remained - he studied environmental and water science at the University of the Western Cape.

While working as a research assistant intern at Sanbi in 2016, he managed a database of undersea images.

Those capturing the beauty of the underwater forests stole his heart, he wrote in a World Wide Fund for Nature-SA article in June on the “jungle beneath the ocean”.

Dunga is a WWF-SA research fellow. The photographs fuelled his curiosity “to find out about the distribution of kelp in South Africa and around the world, its purpose in nature and how abundant it is”.

He enrolled for a Master’s degree in biological sciences at the University of Cape Town.

“In every way we all understand forests; kelp forests are equally important and perhaps even more as a result of the habitat they provide to a plethora of species from the most cryptic to the most conspicuous,” he told the Saturday Star this week.

“They protect the shores/coast from extreme storms, prevent coastal erosion and as ecosystems, they have a well-established economic value to South Africa that amounts to about R5.8 billion a year.”

For his work on the NBA, he mapped and assessed the ecosystem threat status of the country’s kelp forests. The NBA’s synthesis report describes how kelp forests cover a small portion of the marine realm, but play a role in climate regulation and buffering coastal communities from storms and tsunamis; their rich resources also provide food, essential minerals and fertiliser.

“They are one of the most productive ecosystems on earth, providing food and fertiliser. They also shelter the shore from wave action,” the report says.

“The fact that we do not see them is one reason why we do not know about them and, therefore, end up taking them for granted,” says Dunga.

“With the global climate situation we are in, more than ever, we need to protect ecosystem engineering species like kelp forests.

“Compared to many other parts of the world, South Africa has marine ecosystems including kelp forest ecosystems that are relatively intact.

“If we act now, by educating mostly the young, we stand a far better chance of maintaining the plethora of benefits we derive from them,” he says.

Saturday Star