Fluttering on the brink of extinction: the quest to save two endangered butterfly species

by CapeNature

by Louise Baldwin, Kedestes Butterfly Conservation Project

Cape Town is listed as a globally renowned biodiversity hotspot, and contains more than 50% of South Africa’s Critically Endangered veld types, one of which, Cape Flats Dune Strandveld, has come under increasing pressure from urban development, invasion by alien vegetation and increased wild fires. Not only is the flora under threat, but so too are the animals that call it their home.

Two such critters are small, brown, unassuming butterflies that are endemic to Cape Town and on the brink of extinction. The butterflies in question are the Critically Endangered Barber’s Cape Flats Ranger (Kedestes barberae bunta), which has an estimated abundance of just 50 individuals that occur at only one site and the False Bay Unique Ranger (Kedestes lenis lenis). The butterflies can be found flying around in patches of Sword grass (Imperata cylindrica), the only plant that their caterpillars are able to eat.

Once hatched the caterpillars exhibit an unusual behaviour, crawling to the top of a blade of grass where they create a little home by folding and stitching the grass leaf together with silk. Once built, they use their little home as a place to shelter from the heat of the day as well as from any predators that might be on the hunt nearby.

Unfortunately the butterflies’ habitat is under threat and their numbers are decreasing, with Barber’s Cape Flats Ranger at risk of becoming extinct within the next five years unless some conservation action is taken. As such the Kedestes Butterfly Conservation Project was born, a project run by the Cape Town Environmental Education Trust (CTEET) in partnership with the City of Cape Town. The project has been busy carrying out a range of habitat restoration and protection work, as well as conducting abundance surveys at the sites in which the butterflies are currently found.

Steps are taking place to reintroduce Barber’s Cape Flats Ranger to areas in which they historically occurred, but were lost due to urban development. A captive rearing and breeding programme is also being undertaken in an attempt to help boost numbers in the wild. Although in its infancy (the project was initiated in August 2017), the project has had an encouraging first year and hopes are high that the work being carried out will help secure the future of these two imperilled little butterflies.

The project has been fortunate enough to receive support from both local (the Brenton Blue Trust) and international (The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund) funders, which has enabled it to get off the ground. Ongoing fundraising efforts are being undertaken to ensure the long term implementation of this project and, ultimately, the recovery of these endangered species.

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