Menzi Nxumalo, who works for the SA National Biodiversity Institute, together with colleagues in the provincial government and academia are in the process of creating a list of invasive species in local languages.
“We’d go to communities and try to communicate with them about the effect of invasive species, but we failed to deliver the message because of the communication failure,” said Nxumalo.
According to a 2018 report, invasive species cost the economy more than R6.5bn a year and threaten to guzzle a third of available water. The government spends about R1.5bn annually to curb the spread of invasive species.
Invasive species are plants, animals and organisms that have been brought into the country either by accident or on purpose as pets, ornamental garden plants, or because they are agriculturally important, such as pine trees. But because they lack native predators, these invasive species can spread and overwhelm natural ecosystems.
“All the material is documented in English so it becomes difficult for people in rural areas to understand the message,” said Nxumalo.
“If I speak to a Zulu person, I speak to them in isiZulu, but when I speak about plants, I have to lapse into English.It creates the assumption that managing the environment is the responsibility of a select few,” added Bheka Nxele, Programme Manager for restoration ecology, environmental planning and climate protection in the eThekwini municipality.
When it comes to local names for plants and animals, the team found there was a great deal of confusion.“Because these species have been here for decades and decades, people tend to give them names, but [the naming] is not structured. They give them names of plants that are similar,” said Nxele.
“If it looks similar to an indigenous species, they’ll give it that name, so they might end up propagating the invasive species instead of a native species. If they want to use the local plant for medicine, they might use an invasive by accident.”
“We decided to bring together a group from northern and southern KwaZulu-Natal, the south coast and inland. They each came with their own Zulu comprehension, and we came up with the terms for some invasive species in isiZulu,” he said.
The next step was to see if isiZulu speakers in the province would accept the names that had been devised. After compiling a list of more than 110 species names, the team visited communities to trial the names and to see if there were any additions.
At a workshop in the Engonyameni area in uMlazi, Nxele realised the importance of traditional knowledge held by older members of the community. As far as the team was aware, there was no local name for water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes). This green, leafy aquatic plant, originally from South America, forms a dense mat on lakes and dams, blocking out all light and asphyxiating creatures living in the water.
“Nobody knew what it was called in isiZulu. Just as we were about to derive a name for it, a woman said, ‘Allow me to go back and check with my mother what this is because it looks familiar but I have forgotten the name. Her mother knew it as “indwane” said Nxele.
Last year, the team published a paper in the Journal of Biodiversity Management & Forestry, describing how they have been finding names for invasive alien species in KwaZulu-Natal. Despite the work they have done, the team members are all employed by different organisations and there is no dedicated budget to create or consolidate language for invasive species.
In their paper, they recommend the government prioritises the naming of invasive alien species in indigenous languages. “We’re also translating conservation terminology into indigenous languages,” said Nxele.