Coastal forests in South Africa are in trouble. They have been plagued by anthropogenic disturbances that likely started with the arrival of Iron Age farmers in the early 1300’s. Since then subsistence farming, cattle grazing, unregulated burning, commercial logging, agricultural plantations, urban developments, and dune mining all contributed to an estimated forest loss of 82%. Remaining forest fragments now cover only about 620km² and are smaller, further apart and more “hemmed in” by human land-use types than what was the case in the past. Moreover, the extent of forest loss means that these forests likely harbour an extinction debt.

Such a catastrophic loss of habitat is particularly concerning given the high levels of biodiversity associated with these forests. Coastal forests form part of two critically endangered eco-regions, the Maputaland Coastal Forest Mosaic and the KwaZulu-Cape Coastal Forest Mosaic, and occur within the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany biodiversity hotspot and the Maputaland Centre of Plant Endemism. These regions support high levels of floristic endemism as well as several narrowly endemic species, including relict species. Bird, mammal, and invertebrate diversity also peaks within coastal forests – likely because tropical, temperate and savanna species co-occur here. Moreover, the Maputaland amphibian assemblage, which includes the low-lying coastal areas of KwaZulu-Natal, has more species than any other biographic area in South Africa. Forests along the east coast provide ideal habitat for amphibians and may explain why this region has been identified as a diversity hotspot and region of high endemism for amphibians. Coastal forests also provide immediate and future benefits to people. For example, tradition dictates that local people should use and benefit from forests, such as having access to medicinal plants and building materials. These forests also protect the hinterland from storms – with climate change predicted to increase storm events, the value of a barrier to protect human life and livelihood becomes even more apparent.

Efforts to regain forest losses and recovered an “unspoiled” past state may, however, not make sense, especially given that the region’s population are expected to increase and there are substantial pressures to accelerate economic development. However, although it may be impossible to recover the forests of the past, we can try to conserve the processes that drive forest ecosystems for the future. Conservation plans that focus on coastal forests should therefore be informed, but not controlled by past conditions, be flexible but goal orientated, and be futuristic but realistic. To achieve this, it is necessary to evaluate the prevailing status, as well as identifying the threats and opportunities related to the biological diversity of coastal forests. It is therefore the goal of this special session to provide a synthesis of the scientific insights obtained thus far from studies on coastal forests, with the objective that these insights can guide conservation and restoration efforts.

The session will be structured along the following themes:

  1. Understanding the problem: the influence of human activities on coastal forest biodiversity.
  2. Understanding the challenge: the spatial and temporal context of coastal forest biodiversity in a complex human-modified landscape.
  3. Understanding the opportunity: the contribution of science to restore and conserve coastal forest biodiversity in the human-modified coastal forest mosaic.

Contributions that address aspects of these themes will be welcomed. Submit your abstracts for consideration online and choose the Theme – Special Session: Coastal Forest Conservation.