Meet the guardian of South Africa’s seahorses

 
 
 

The Knysna seahorse is easy to miss. A mere 12 centimetres in length, the tiny brown creature bobs along in deep waters, blending in with the sandy floor bed. While the species often goes unseen in the murky waters, the role it plays in adding diversity to our marine life is vital. Which is why protecting their declining numbers is so critical. Endemic to three estuaries in the southern coast of South Africa – Keurbooms, Swartvlei, and Knysna – our rare marine treasure stands to be lost forever. Its limited range and the vulnerability of its habitat contribute to the threat of extinction, but Louw Claassens is doing her utmost best to counter that.

The marine biologist is the current director of the Knysna Basin Project, an NGO that has been protecting the Knysna Estuary for almost 20 years. While the estuary is managed by South African National Parks as part of the Garden Route National Park, Claassens’ contribution has been invaluable. In 2014, while studying towards her PhD at Rhodes University, she established the Knysna Seahorse Status project to monitor the seahorses and research the impact of humans on the species. Here, the development of houses and tourist spots on the water’s edge, as well as boating and human activity, affect the Knysna Estuary and contribute to a volatile, fluctuating habitat for the seahorses. The result is devastating. More than threatened, this is the first seahorse species to be classified by the IUCN as endangered. But Claassens remains positive. “Through ongoing research, monitoring, and education, I believe that we can save the Knysna seahorse,” she says.

Claassens’ work has a profound effect on the creature and its habitat. “The ocean plays a huge role in a healthy world for all of us,” she says. “By focusing on a charismatic species like that, you are able to conserve the whole ecosystem.” She isn’t alone in her efforts. “One of the reasons for the success of this project is the massive support and enthusiasm of the community,” Claassens says. While her academic interest in marine life has taken her around the country, she remains firmly anchored to Knysna’s waters. “It’s amazing being part of this marine science community and learning more and more about our beautiful ocean life,” she says. It’s in this small town, home to the lesser-known but fascinating Knysna seahorse, that Claassens is creating a legacy of conservation among locals and tourists.