Groups of people are wandering SA’s mountains, ‘hacking’ down alien trees for sport

Business Insider SA
Jay Caboz
Alien vegetation. Photo Jay Caboz
  • Groups of citizens are wandering South Africa’s mountains “hacking” down alien trees for sport.
  • They target invasive tree species, which are guzzling the country’s water and damaging local ecosystems.
  • Environmental agency CapeNature encourages hacking, but asks people to check in with them first.
  • For more stories, go to Business Insider South Africa.

In eight months, a three-person team “hacked” more than 2,000 invasive alien trees for fun. The sport, known as hacking, mixes hiking with a cardio and strength work-out. 

Donovan Kotze, who lives in the Western Cape and was part of the team, adventured in the Swartberg mountains to “hack” invasive pine and hakea trees. Armed with a hand saw and a backpack, he spends most Saturdays cutting down these trees.

Invasive trees are a large problem for semi-arid South Africa - they consume a lot of water and have been blamed for pushing indigenous plants to extinction. The country loses about R6.5-billion to invasive species and alien plants which threaten up to a third of the water supply in the Eastern and Western Cape, particularly in large cities such as Cape Town.

Jay Caboz
Alien vegetation. Photo Jay Caboz

A study published in Current Biology earlier this month found that 79 plant species in biodiversity hotspots, such as the Cape, have gone extinct in the last 300 years, substantially higher than the natural extinction rate, and the researchers found that invasive species are one of the culprits. 

“Hacking” is a way to fight back against invasive trees. “The idea is to have fun but to be systematic about it as well,” Kotze explains. “We’ve got an area of mountain that we’re systematically working through.”

There is a long tradition of tree hacking in the Cape, but more people are getting involved, says Mountain Club South Africa's John Watermeyer. Watermeyer, who is part of the Cape Town branch, says that new mountain club members are swelling the ranks of “hackers”. “The encouraging thing is that it makes a difference,” he says. “Many of these guys have been doing it for up to 30 years, and the change is unbelievable, dense pine forest [transformed into] fynbos.”

There are hacks every weekend in and around Cape Town, he says. But there are also hacks in other areas. The hacking group in Betty’s Bay, for example, has been around for more than 50 years, and had more than 600 hacks. Watermeyer suggests contacting the Mountain Club of South Africa to find nearby hacks.

CapeNature, the Western Cape conservation agency, says it knows about the practice. It encourages would-be hackers to join existing groups “in order to learn more about the appropriate techniques as well as identification of invasive species”, says spokesperson Loren Pavitt. 

“Fortunately, hakea and pines, which are major problems in our catchment areas, are well suited as targets as they do not require the application of poison to the cut stumps.”

These are Kotze’s main targets on a Saturday morning, and he hopes that the sport will continue to grow and perhaps one day become a popular outdoor sport like trail running.

This article was updated to refer to Donovan Kotze, not Dirk Coetzee as originally reported.

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