SABCA, launched in May 2007 and ended in April 2011, was a four-year conservation project aimed at determining the distribution and conservation priorities of all butterfly species in the Southern African region, especially those threatened with extinction.
Three leading institutions created a significant partnership to implement SABCA, namely the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), the Lepidopterists' Society of Africa (LepSoc) and the University of Cape Town's Animal Demography Unit (ADU; previously the Avian Demography Unit). Nature conservation authorities, universities, museums, amateur lepidopterists and members of the public were part of the planning and strategizing that have brought SABCA into being.
SABCA aimed to train and educate previously disadvantaged groups to promote butterfly conservation. The public also had opportunities to participate in this important project.
The project was co-funded by the Norwegian Ministry for the Environment and SANBI through their Environment Cooperation Programme. SANBI is a statutory body under the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism and is responsible for fulfilling the new Biodiversity Act mandate to monitor and report on the state of South Africa's threatened biodiversity. SABCA is the first major project on insects to be undertaken by SANBI.
SABCA was coordinated by the ADU, which is experienced in running atlas projects, having successfully coordinated the bird, frog and reptile atlas projects.
LepSoc is an amateur society that was formed 24 years ago to encourage the study and conservation of butterflies and moths in Africa. LepSoc was responsible for the collection of butterflies in the field, as well as providing expertise in identification of butterflies. LepSoc has already been involved in the proclamation of at least four conservation areas for specific butterfly species, including for the Critically Endangered Brenton Blue butterfly.
Butterflies belong to one of the most diverse orders of insects. South Africa has a total of 671 butterfly species, of which 6% (40 species) are listed in the latest Red Data Book (in prep.). Two species have already become Extinct, three are Critically Endangered, six are Endangered and 29 are Vulnerable. Clearly there is a need to monitor the conservation status of butterfly diversity in South Africa and ensure that the assessments are up to date.
Butterflies have been cited as a good indicator group of insects. One important criterion for choosing taxa for the assessment of biodiversity is the ease of identification, reflecting on the availability of specialists and field guides. Butterflies are the only insects well served by guides, they are easy to see and generally easy to identify with a little effort, and as such are good indicators of biodiversity. These same attributes suggest they have a great potential for tourism and related industries as well as in education.
Because butterflies tend to rely on particular host plant species for food, they are particularly vulnerable to the transformation of natural lands. The destruction of natural vegetation for agriculture, urbanization and infrastructure is the main cause of butterfly declines and extinctions. Butterflies are also known to be particularly sensitive to climatic changes as a result of global warming.
Butterflies in the Lycaenid family in South Africa are mostly endemic and do not occur anywhere else in the world. South Africa has one of the highest proportions of Lycaenid butterflies (48%) for any region in the world. Of the 38 threatened butterfly species included in the latest Red Data Book (in prep.), about 90% are Lycaenids. These butterflies have life cycles that are closely linked with specific plant and ant species and many only occur in very small, confined areas.
Insects are the most species-rich group of animals, and recently their conservation has assumed considerable importance following increased awareness of their diversity and their intricate and vital ecological roles. For example, the central role of insects (including butterflies) as pollinators of flowering plants is well known. For instance, the satyrine Aeropetes tulbaghia (Mountain Pride) is the only known pollinator of several plants with red flowers, including the red Disa orchid (Disa uniflora). Because of these intimate relationships with plants, insects are also monitors and indicators of ecosystem quality. Conservation of this diverse group is thus a necessary step in achieving the larger goals of preserving viable communities and ecosystem functioning.
The concept of a butterfly atlas project has been mooted by lepidopterists for years. The most important of the non-governmental stakeholders is the Lepidopterists' Society of Africa (LepSoc), which has worked with the ADU (University of Cape Town) in initiating a process of consultation and collaboration over a period of approximately two years, beginning in mid-2004. On 8 August 2005, a workshop attended by 22 delegates representing SANBI, UCT, LepSoc, nature conservation agencies, museums, and academic institutions, was hosted by SANBI in Pretoria. The meeting was successful in reaching consensus on the need for a project, its objectives, outputs, timeframe and base institution.
SABCA determined the distribution of all butterfly species in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland thereby providing information for the conservation of this group of insects, especially those that are endangered.
SABCA communicated with its participants and the public at large through this website.
The SABCA database was compiled from existing data (to be found mainly in museum collections and in private collections) as well as new data collected in the field. Experienced lepidopterists conducted the field surveys.
The project database was used to create distribution maps for every butterfly species. These maps were a vital tool in the conservation assessment process, which will culminate in the publication of a conservation assessment report for the region's butterflies. The report will have a distribution map and conservation assessment for each species, as well as a "conservation hotspot" analysis based on the whole database, and recommendations for future monitoring of butterfly populations.
A conservation assessment describes the likelihood of a species becoming extinct, and is the basis for Red Data lists. Species listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable (collectively referred to as "Threatened" species) are those that are assessed as having a high risk of extinction in the near future. Conservation assessments highlight species and areas of significant conservation importance, providing baseline information that is needed for conservation planning.
The first butterfly Red Data book was published in 1989. This book is currently being updated by a group of biologists who helped to found SABCA. However, large gaps still exist in our knowledge of butterflies, and these must be filled SABCA, so that the appropriate conservation management actions can be taken for the threatened species.