Why you should care
These animals have found a seemingly inhospitable place to survive.
“I just saw a cheetah.” It’s been almost 20 years since Sasol’s resident ecologist Daan Loock first heard these words uttered by the staff at his firm’s enormous synthetic fuel plant at Secunda in northeastern South Africa. At first, he didn’t pay the reports much heed — Loock knew there were no cheetahs at Secunda — but as the mysterious spotted cat sightings piled up, he knew he had to investigate.
Almost as soon as he’d set his first camera traps in 2010, Loock figured out that the cats glimpsed by factory workers on smoke breaks and during night shifts were servals: smaller, slenderer and shyer cousins of the cheetah. But it got better. Five years later, when he and his colleagues crunched the numbers, they were amazed to discover that serval density at Secunda is the highest ever recorded. Anywhere. Better still, Secunda’s serval saturation seems to help to repopulate the surrounding farmlands.
Quite something for a company that is responsible for more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than the entire nation of Portugal.
The population is “incredibly important,” explains Dr. Sam Williams (one of Loock’s co-authors on a paper about the conservation value of industrialized sites and postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Venda) because it “demonstrates how carnivores can coexist with human activities at the extremes of what was thought possible.”
This might be the understatement of the year.
The cats, which reside in grasslands and wetlands throughout sub-Saharan Africa, are about the same height and weight as a female whippet but they somehow manage to be slighter and more delicate — as their “near threatened” (in South Africa) status shows. Historically, the Highveld — the California-sized, high-altitude plateau where Secunda is located — was littered with wetlands. But mass agriculture (mainly maize and beef) has transformed the landscape and drastically reduced serval numbers.
With plenty to eat and no human, leopard, hyena or dog predators, serval numbers in the fenced area have mushroomed over the past three decades.
Luckily the animals found an unlikely place to grow and thrive: at the largest coal liquefaction (a process that turns coal into oil) plant in the world. Secunda was established in the 1970s, a period when economic sanctions and an international oil crisis forced South Africa’s apartheid regime to think out of the barrel. In the 1980s, it was bombed twice, with limited success, by Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military arm of the African National Congress. These days, Sasol — South Africa’s second-biggest emitter of GHG –- is once again a target of activists.
So what makes the area serval nirvana? The plant’s construction, explains Loock, unwittingly conserved an area crisscrossed by three significant “spruits” — river systems with wide wetland areas that teem with rodents, reptiles and frogs (aka serval food). With plenty to eat and no human, leopard, hyena or dog predators to worry about, serval numbers in the fenced area have mushroomed over the past three decades. Secunda is probably nearing serval saturation point, so it is especially heartwarming to note that significant numbers of the animals are getting through the fence and repopulating the surrounding areas.
Before you book your tickets to South Africa for a Secunda serval safari, however, be aware that not only is the plant off-limits to the public (unless you ask really nicely and well in advance), but also the animals are incredibly difficult to spot without camera traps, night vision goggles and the like. Luckily, seeing them in the flesh isn’t actually the important part.
The servals at Secunda, explains Williams, “give us hope that even heavily industrialized places can make real contributions toward biodiversity conservation.”