Our Burning Planet

WILDLIFE CONSERVATION

City of Cape Town taken to court over proposed road that threatens endangered toads

City of Cape Town taken to court over proposed road that threatens endangered toads
The Noordhoek Environmental Action Group (NEAG), local environmental group ToadNUT, Animal Survival International and Beauty Without Cruelty protest outside the Western Cape High Court on 8 November 2023 to stop the Homoud Phase 1 road through the Noordhoek wetland that has been on the cards since 2003. (Photo: Ziyanda Duba)

Shouts of ‘Don’t turn our wetland into a wasteland!’ were heard outside the high court in Cape Town on Wednesday ahead of a court action that spotlights the difficulties of balancing urban wildlife conservation with mobility and housing developments for a massively growing population.

The City of Cape Town and the MEC for local government, environmental affairs and development planning in the Western Cape, Anton Bredell, were taken to court on Wednesday by a small NPO, the Noordhoek Environmental Action Group (NEAG), over the proposed Phase 1 extension of Houmoed Avenue through the Noordhoek Wetlands.

The proposed road will join the existing Houmoed Avenue with Lekkerwater Road in Masiphumelele and is expected to alleviate the hours-long congestion of traffic on Kommetjie Road while making it easier for Masiphumelele residents to commute.

However, the road cuts through breeding ponds of the western leopard toad, categorised as “endangered in the wild” on the IUCN Red List, which affords this species significant protection.

Map indicating where the proposed road would be built. (Supplied)

The matter has been a hot topic in the southern suburb of Noordhoek since it was brought up in 2003, with the last application for the road being made in 2017, which NEAG and the environmental group ToadNUTs have been fighting, with Animal Survival International.

These groups believe that the proposed link road from Lekkerwater Road through to Noordhoek Main Road (referred to as Houmoed Avenue), in no way takes into account the preservation of western leopard toads.

road threat toads

Noordhoek resident Bronwen Wyllie outside the Western Cape High Court on 8 November 2023. (Photo: Ziyanda Duba)

“The road has been placed straight through the core buffer zone, inner buffer zone and breeding pond — where breeding toads spend the majority of their time during the breeding cycle. The placement of this road in the proposed location will eventually result in the local extinction of the [western leopard toad] and potentially other species. For this reason, ToadNUTS is extremely opposed to the road in its current location,” ToadNUTS said in a report.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Western leopard toads on the roads — critically endangered species gets helping hand from conservationists

Ahead of the court action on Wednesday, protesters gathered outside the Western Cape High Court  in support of NEAG, calling out “Yes to the toad, no to the road!”, “Don’t turn our wetland into a wasteland!”, and “Find another way, the wetland has to stay!” while a cardboard cutout of Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis’ face atop a cardboard excavator was moved through the crowd.

road threat toads

The Noordhoek Environmental Action Group (NEAG), local environmental group ToadNUT, Animal Survival International, and Beauty Without Cruelty protest outside the Western Cape High Court on 8 November 2023 to stop the Homoud Phase 1 road through the Noordhoek wetland that has been on the cards since 2003. (Photo: Ziyanda Duba)

Noordhoek resident Laina Jordan said, “There is more to this than just a road; our wetlands stand to be devastated. This wetland acts as a sponge for the entire valley and losing that sponge puts us at risk of flooding. We are calling on the City of Cape Town to consider long-term thinking patterns. We need solutions that are going to work for the city and the wetlands.”

road threat toads

Noordhoek resident Laina Jordan outside the Western Cape High Court on 8 November 2023. (Photo: Ziyanda Duba)

NEAG first appealed against the granting of the environmental authorisation to build the road, but the appeal was refused by Bredell. On Wednesday, NEAG’s attorney Murray Bridgman sought to review and set aside the appeal decision and the granting of the environmental authorisation.

‘Many irregularities’

Alison Faraday, the co-founder of ToadNUTS, said there were many irregularities during the public participation process and that the City of Cape Town had not carried out its due diligence.

“These are the irregularities in the public participation process: the EIA [environmental impact assessment] was withdrawn in 2018 and then reinstated in 2019 for reasons unknown; not all objections and interested and affected parties were carried through to the new application, causing objectors to fall away; the road has been approved based on unproven mitigations for an endangered species, which means that the ‘precautionary principle’ was not applied; no amphibian study or complete faunal study was conducted despite the presence of IUCN Red List species (western leopard toad and Cape platanna),” Faraday said.

“The City of Cape Town regularly flies the flag of conservation, while proposing a road through [an area] which is already under strain — it appears that the city may be suffering from a case of severe environmental confusion.”

In addition, the city had not employed an anuran expert to conduct a complete amphibian study.

road threat toads

Chairperson of Beauty Without Cruelty Toni Brockhoven outside the Western Cape High Court on 8 November 2023. (Photo: Ziyanda Duba)

The city’s mayoral committee member for urban mobility, Rob Quintas, said the city’s application regarding the proposed Houmoed Avenue construction in Noordhoek had been approved on appeal by Bredell after he gave “careful consideration to all the factors”.

It is that decision which NEAG challenged in court on Wednesday, with advocate Achmat Toefy defending Bredell’s decision on the appeal, which allows the City of Cape Town to construct the road under certain terms and conditions.

These terms and conditions include:

  • Mitigations relating to the rehabilitation of the wetlands and the planting and rehabilitation of the road verges with indigenous species.
  • Detailed design of the road to avoid small animals and amphibians crossing the road surface and to guide them to safe passage under the road by means of catch fences and culverts.
  • Implementation of a management plan.
  • Ongoing specialist monitoring of the efficacy of the mitigations.

Quintas said, “The city is of the view that these proposed  road extensions are necessary and reasonable, especially for the safety and convenience of residents of Masiphumelele and for the purposes of alleviating chronic congestion in the area, and that environmental mitigation measures can and will ensure a reasonable balance is achieved between the interests of residents in the area, and in particular the residents of Masiphumele who will most benefit from this road extension and the affected natural environment, including the indigenous toad species.”

road threat toads

The Noordhoek Environmental Action Group (NEAG), local environmental group ToadNUT, Animal Survival International and Beauty Without Cruelty protest outside the Western Cape High Court on 8 November 2023 to stop the Homoud Phase 1 road through the Noordhoek wetland that has been on the cards since 2003. (Photo: Ziyanda Duba)

The court heard arguments on the matter for five hours on Wednesday and Judge Karrisha Pillay reserved judgment for a date yet to be announced.

Loss of wildlife habitat is a major issue in urban areas

The court case brings to the fore the challenge of balancing conservation needs with that of SA’s rapidly expanding population and the resulting urban housing, mobility, water and sanitation developments to accommodate this expansion.

Urbanisation and wildlife expert Gabriella Leighton from the Urban Caracal Project told Daily Maverick the loss of wildlife habitat was a major issue in urban areas globally.

“Maintaining connectivity by linking important wildlife habitats is essential to effective, forward-thinking urban planning that is mindful of biodiversity conservation. I think an important part of this is not apathetically accepting losses due to anthropogenic activities as inevitable side effects,” she said.

What Leighton means by this is that local conservation managers need to actively mitigate threats to wildlife and implement infrastructure to keep areas connected.

The difficulty is providing housing and infrastructure for a massively growing population which is increasingly urbanised.

This places major pressure on natural habitats around cities, which are rapidly being modified and fragmented.

Leighton said, “In Cape Town, this is problematic because the city is situated in a global biodiversity hotspot where remaining habitat is crucial to conserve many endemic species. The same is true for many other South African cities, which are surrounded by high species and ecosystem diversity.

“Biodiversity conservation therefore needs to be a priority as cities around the country expand. Development is unavoidable but it needs to be undertaken with careful, conscientious urban planning. Importantly, development must balance the needs of people and the ecosystems on which they depend, and at the core of this is sound urban biodiversity planning.”

Wildlife deaths on roads

Cape of Good Hope SPCA spokesperson Belinda Abraham said a substantial amount of wildlife deaths in Cape Town were caused by road accidents.

“On an individual species basis, we can get a better idea through the data collected by specialist organisations that work primarily with those species. For example, the Urban Caracal Project estimates that as much as 70% of all recorded caracal mortalities on the peninsula are caused by motor vehicle collisions. This is incredibly high and at the same time incredibly sad,” she said.

Abraham said that motor vehicle accidents probably accounted for the majority of urban wildlife deaths. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ben Harper says:

    Seriously? They’re protesting a road which will be on the boundary of an already built up entry yet say absolutely NOTHING about the unchecked shack city that has already deep into the wetlands

    • Steven D says:

      If you think about it, building a road which improves the traffic situation in the area will simply encourage more people to move there, ergo more shacks. Then they’ll need to widen the road as a result. A disastrous cycle for the wildlife in the vicinity.

      • Ben Harper says:

        It’s more about the bigger problem Steven, these protesters are going hard against the road yet the informal settlements extend way beyond the land the road will occupy. Unchecked growth of the informal settlements is the big issue here, not the road

        • Mark Jacobson says:

          Actually, this NPO is doing something focused and constructive to “check” the problem, and if it wins this case it may set a precedent for further such cases in future. I think the NPO is doing something amazing for all of us with limited resources against a well-heeled city. Good luck to them and they have my full support and gratitude.

    • Rob Fisher says:

      Not to mention the constant flow of sewage into the “wetland”

  • John Smythe says:

    The CoCT bullies are at it again. Why do interest groups always have to take authorities to court. The CoCT bullies know that it has more resources (especially financial – using my taxes, thank yoy) at hand to fight ngo’s and interest groups who have to scramble to find pro bono representation or the money to pay for legal representation? Instead of authorities skipping proper inclusive EIAs and other considerations? Is it so difficult to properly consider their actions before implementing their own convenient interpretations?

    • Ben Harper says:

      Wait What? This initiative has been on the cards for 20 years already, it’s not like they started it yesterday. Are you just spouting anti COCT rhetoric or are you fully conversant with the processes followed and the challenges of that specific area? The shacks are already well into the wetlands and that area has massive issues

    • Bob Dubery says:

      That’s democracy. You may or may not agree with the NPO, but agree with their right to resort to the courts if they disagree with the City.

  • Moraig Peden says:

    Seriously- is Ben Harper a real person or is he a caricature designed to stir up emotions?

  • Gail Jennings Jennings says:

    The shack encroachment occurs in the area earmarked for Houmoed Ave Phase 2. NEAG agrees that this should be curtailed and this is why NEAG has NOT objected to the building of this part of the road.

  • Leslie van Minnen says:

    Site 5 has already done and continues to do great harm to the environment. Just ride past the entrance to this area to see the pollution. The wetlands are already degraded by sewerage , plastic and other forms of pollution. Now more of the wetlands are to be destroyed together with the Toads and other wildlife.

    Come on Cape Town, do not let this happen. To the City I say, go and build a road somewhere else and leave what’s left of the wetlands alone.

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    By Julie Mulonga and Kariuki Ndang’ang’a | 15 May 2023
    Migratory birds rely on water and habitats like wetlands for migration, breeding and resting. Although they only cover about 6% of the Earth’s land surface area, wetlands are critical ecosystems — about 40% of all plant and animal species live or breed in wetlands.

    Wetlands also play a crucial role in combating climate change by absorbing huge amounts of carbon and providing essential ecosystem services like flood control and water regulation, in addition to supporting the livelihoods of more than 1 billion people across the world.

    However, wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate. It is estimated that the world has lost about 35% of these critical ecosystems since the 1970s, negatively impacting species including birds.

    • Ben Harper says:

      Absolutely agree, however I believe the issue here is not the road, it’s the uncontained growth of the informal settlements into the wetlands

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