Invasive species experts from CABI have been working in partnership with a range of international organisations, including more than 200 members of a local community and a musical band, to help get rid of the common pest pear Opuntia stricta from the Socotra Archipelago, Yemen.
A conversation with Dr Arne Witt
The recent outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa made headline news around the world. During the outbreak this fatal disease, endemic to parts of Central and West Africa, rapidly spread from Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia to other countries in the region such as Nigeria, Mali and Senegal and then further afield to the USA, UK and Spain, mainly through infected health workers. This prompted decisive action from governments around the world and led to the implementation of strict controls at most national points of entry – as a result of this action and increased awareness, the further spread of this disease was effectively halted. No new infections have been reported for a number of months now but the cost has been significant – more than 10,000 people lost their lives, mainly in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. However, it is highly probable that without significant interventions the costs could have been far higher. For example, the outbreak of bubonic plague or Black Death in Europe in the 17th century resulted in the death of 34 million people. The accidental introduction of potato blight, a crop disease which affects potatoes, from the Americas to Ireland in the mid-1800s contributed to the starvation of about 1 million people. Rinderpest, a disease affecting livestock was accidentally introduced to Africa from Asia in the late 19th century resulting in the deaths of, it is claimed, a third of the human population of what is now Ethiopia and two-thirds of the Maasai, an ethnic group of pastoralists in East Africa who are totally dependent on livestock. We may ask what Ebola, potato blight and rinderpest have in common – well obviously they have all have had a devastating impact on humanity but what binds them all together is that they are all INVASIVE ALIEN SPECIES (IAS). Fortunately, due to concerted efforts by a range of agencies rinderpest has been eradicated from the planet but as a result of increased trade, travel and tourism more and more species are being moved around the world and many are establishing and are continuing to have devastating impact on livelihoods. Continue reading
17th September 2014 – Last weekend I experienced first-hand the impacts that invasive species can have. While carrying out research on an infestation of Opuntia Stricta in Laikipia, I felt something lodge itself in my eye. The following day I visited a specialist, as efforts to wash the thorn out of my eye had been unsuccessful.
They found that one of the very fine thorns, which are found on the fruit of the cactus, had become trapped in my eyelid and was scraping along the cornea. According to the specialist, another two days with the thorn in my eye would have resulted in me developing a corneal ulcer; which could have cost me my sight in that eye.
The thorns of Opuntia Stricta fruit are incredibly fine. So fine that the specialist was only able to detect it using microscopy equipment and dye. As well as being an unpleasant experience, this incident highlights the serious implications for those who live in areas which are infested with Opuntia Stricta, where many people would be unable to afford to seek medical help should they experience the same thing.
Opuntia Stricta can also have a significant negative impact on livestock. If they get thorns in their eyes, there is no way for the owner to remove them. This could potentially result in loss of sight. Equally, it is not uncommon for goats to feed on the Opuntia fruit where the same thorns damage the goat’s stomach. This has been linked to the death of many animals in areas where this weed is prevalent as well as overgrazing in uninfected areas which is putting strain on pastoral land in these areas (Dodd, 1940).
While invasive species are often perceived as a biodiversity threat, they have a very real impact on the livelihoods and health of those who live in the areas in which they infest.
CABI, together with Tmax Productions, have produced a video called the ‘Green Invasion – Destroying Livelihoods in Africa.” The short film (approx. 7mins long) details how invasive weeds are impacting on the lives of rural communities in East Africa.
Although a large number of non-native species have become invasive in the region, this film focusses on four of the most problematic species namely Chromolaena odorata (Devil weed), Parthenium hysterophorus (famine weed), Prosopis juliflora (Mathenge) and Opuntia stricta (erect prickly pear). The excellent footage shows the extent of weed infestations with accounts from community members on how these invasive plants are destroying the natural resource base on which they depend. It is clear that invasive weeds are destroying traditions, cultures and a way of life for millions of people on the continent.
However, all is not lost. The film notes that if effective management programmes are implemented, including biological control, we can make a difference to many people’s lives.
Although of general interest, the film is intended to raise the profile of invasive species and their impacts on livelihoods amongst donors and governments. We need them to take action and provide support for initiatives to manage one of the biggest threats to economic development on the planet.
CABI Regional Coordinator, Invasives (Africa & Asia)