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South Africa: The Conservation Record | Insight Guides Blog

South Africa: The Conservation Record

A recent survey of overseas visitors to South Africa revealed that nine out of 10 came primarily to experience its wildlife and unspoiled natural areas. With such a wide variety of wild plants, animals and ecosystems on offer, this statistic is not at all surprising
Lion cubs cuddling
Lion cubs cuddling

Although wildlife is extremely significant as a cornerstone of the rapidly growing tourist industry, the importance of conserving it does not rest on this consideration alone

Why conserve?

South Africa is listed as the world’s third most biodiverse country. Covering about 2% of the world’s land area, it is estimated it harbours some 10% of the world’s plant species and 7% of its terrestrial vertebrates. Not only is it exceptionally diverse in species, but it is a rich centre of endemicity – endemics being species that occur nowhere else in the world. About 80% of South Africa’s plant species are endemic, as are 30% of its reptiles, 15% of its mammals and 6% of the 600 bird species that breed there.

The plants that inhabit the southernmost tip of the continent are so different from those found anywhere else that the area has been defined as one of the six floral kingdoms of the world – the Cape Kingdom. This tiny area, only 46,000 sq km (18,000 sq miles) in extent, is thus considered equivalent, for example, to the Boreal Kingdom which includes all of Europe, North America and northern Asia, an area of more than 53 million sq km (20 million sq miles).

This high concentration of unique wild species places South Africa on a par with the much-discussed tropical rainforest areas, such as those of the Amazon Basin, as an area of international significance for conservation.

However, nature conservation is primarily essential for this rich centre of genetic diversity, and for the maintenance of natural resources on which many of the country’s people depend for their livelihood. Nature conservation is accordingly taken very seriously and South Africans have much to be proud of, at least in recent times.

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Leopard (Panthera pardus) crossing road with tourists in jeep in background. Photo: bikeriderlondon/ShutterstockA leopard crosses the road while tourists look on. Photo: bikeriderlondon / Shutterstock

Wildlife management

Africa, and thus South Africa, is famous for its amazing variety of antelopes and other grazing mammals, and for the large carnivores that prey on them. These herds of antelope used to graze from the Cape Peninsula in the south to the Limpopo Valley on the northern border.

The conservation record is not so good for native plants: at least 60 species or subspecies have become extinct since their discovery.

As the herds of wild ungulates began to be reduced by hunters in the 17th and 18th centuries, they were replaced by flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. The larger carnivores – lions, spotted and brown hyenas, cheetahs and African wild dogs – came increasingly into conflict with livestock farmers. These species were soon restricted to the remaining unoccupied or sparsely occupied portions of the country. Of all the larger carnivores, only the wily leopard has managed to persist in reasonable numbers outside the larger national parks and nature reserves, mainly in mountainous areas.

Today the large carnivores, the elephants, the rhinoceroses and the large herds of wild antelopes are restricted in the main to the larger protected areas, particularly those in the country’s northern savannahs. The greatest of these is the Kruger National Park, which since the end of 2002 has been part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. The new park, with an area of 35,000 sq km (13,500 sq miles) links Kruger with Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park and Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park. The oldest park in Africa, Kruger has long been regarded as one of the world’s finest examples of wildlife management.

Thanks to the range of different savannahs in the Kruger, well-prepared visitors can spend days exploring its vastness, its diversity and its unending series of wildlife interactions, without ever becoming bored. It is possible to see up to 147 indigenous mammal species, over 500 species of birds, 104 reptile species and 1,771 plant species here, including 357 species of trees and shrubs. From your own vehicle, from a variety of hides or on an escorted bush walk with an armed game ranger you can view some of the finest spectacles of African game available to a visitor anywhere on the continent.

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is the country’s first foray into the peace park initiative. Situated in the Northern Cape, the park combines the areas of what was South Africa’s second-largest national park, the 9,600-sq-km (3,700-sq-mile) Kalahari Gemsbok, with its 24,800-sq-km (9,500-sq-mile) counterpart in Botswana. The former border is along the normally dry bed of the Nossob River. The stark beauty of this semi-desert area is remarkable, with its red sand dunes dotted with low thorn trees, covered in good rainfall seasons with vast waving strands of sun-bleached grasses.

Here can be seen such dry-country specialists as the oryx (gemsbok), the red hartebeest and the springbok. Among the birds, the sociable weavers are probably the most characteristic. Their communal nests not only provide accommodation for themselves but also harbour a whole community of “hangers-on”, including the diminutive pygmy falcon, which appropriates and then nests in one of the many individual chambers that are built into the weavers’ nests.

The tall acacia trees that grow in these riverbeds accommodate the larger birds of prey that abound in the open savannahs. There are few places in Africa where one can meet with such densities of large eagles, vultures, falcons, hawks and owls. Family parties of ostriches are frequently met with as they slowly pick their way across the dunes or run energetically along a shimmering pan. In the dry heat of midday the pace of life slows right down in these silent savannahs. At this time Kori bustards, Africa’s largest flying bird species, fly in from the surrounding dune veld to stand gasping in the shade of a gnarled old camelthorn tree.

Mammalian predators are also easily located along these sparsely vegetated river beds, and this is probably one of the best places in South Africa to observe the cheetah hunting. This is also the major sanctuary for the only large carnivore that is endemic to southern Africa: the brown hyena.

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Elephants in Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa. Photo: JONATHAN PLEDGER/ShutterstockElephants exploring the Addo Elephant National Park. Photo: JONATHAN PLEDGER / Shutterstock

Preserving the rhino

In the east of the country, there are many smaller savannah reserves, including Africa’s oldest surviving game reserve, Phongolo, proclaimed in 1894 just 12 years after Yellowstone National Park was established in the United States as the world’s first. In 1895, nearby Hluhluwe-iMfolozi was proclaimed primarily to protect the last remaining populations of rhinoceros in Natal. These great reserves have succeeded beyond their originators’ wildest expectations.

The square-lipped rhinoceros (white rhino) found its last sanctuary in the iMfolozi Reserve and this population was thought to have been reduced to fewer than 20 individuals early in the 20th century. By careful protection and through the development of methods to capture safely and transport these enormous creatures, the KZN Wildlife, which administers these reserves, has built up the world population of this species to its current total of around 18,000–20,000 individuals and led to its recent reclassification from Endangered to Near Threatened on the IUCN Red Data List. Thousands of white rhinos have been captured and safely transferred to other conservation areas in Africa; indeed, the Kruger National Park’s population of more than 6,000 white rhinos is descended from individuals translocated from iMfolozi in the 1960s.

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi has also played a significant role in the conservation of the South African population of the Critically Endangered black or hook-lipped rhinoceros. Poaching reduced the continental black rhino population from around 100,000 in the 1960s to around 4,000 today, so that the once relatively insignificant population of black rhinos held by South Africa now represents about 40 percent of the global total.

A fresh spate of commercial poaching, mostly for the market in Asia, where rhino horn is believed to have aphrodisiac properties, has led to a rapid escalation in casualties over recent years. Where only 13 South African rhinos were lost to poachers as recently as 2007, the death tally for 2010 topped 300, and in 2012 it soared to 668, with many of the hapless victims being subjected to slow and painful deaths. This doesn’t yet constitute a crisis of the proportions experienced in East Africa in the 1980s (it represents an annual loss of around 3 percent of the national population, set against a birth rate of more than 6 percent), but it is still of great concern to conservationists.

These reserves are not only famous for their rhinoceros populations. Other mammals abound, including the most attractive of the African antelopes, the nyala, found only in the dense thickets of the southeastern lowlands. The variety of bird life is astounding, and breathtaking hours spent in the hides at waterholes in these reserves during the winter dry season will be a memory never to be forgotten. The nearby Mkhuze Game Reserve is also renowned for its hides.

Trekking through Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is just one of South Africa's adrenaline-fuelled adventures. Uncover more here if you dare... 

Hippopotamus amphibius. Photo: Vladislav T. Jirousek/ShutterstockA hippopotamus. Photo: Vladislav T. Jirousek / Shutterstock


On the northeastern coastal plain of Maputaland there are a variety of different conservation areas to visit. The centrepiece of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is Lake St Lucia, which holds the country’s largest populations of hippopotamus and crocodile. Waterbirds inhabit this enormous shallow lake, including large breeding colonies of white pelicans and the striking Caspian tern. If the water levels are low, vast flocks of flamingos can be seen. To the south of the estuary mouth, Maphelane Nature Reserve preserves a diverse dune forest on what are said to be the world’s highest forested sand dunes.

North of the estuary mouth, iSimangaliso Wetland Park follows the coast all the way to the Mozambican border, while a proclaimed marine reserve preserves the adjacent offshore wonders. Submerged coral reefs and the associated myriad tropical fish species and other sea life abound in the crystal-clear waters of the warm Mozambique Current that washes these golden beaches, fringed by lush dune forests. Each summer, hundreds of loggerhead and leatherback turtles haul themselves up these beaches to bury their clutches of eggs in these protected sands. After 25 years of strict protection by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, which each year monitors and safeguards their breeding activity, the populations are thriving.

To witness a huge turtle heave herself out of the surf and up the beach, the moonlight glistening off her wet carapace as its ancestors must have done each year for countless millennia, and then to watch her go about this age-old ritual of reproduction, is to experience something which cannot fail to confirm the importance of maintaining the full diversity of life on earth.

The coastal lakes of Sibaya and Kosi Bay also lie within iSimangaliso Wetland Park. A short drive inland, Ndumo Game Reserve and Tembe Elephant Reserve form part of the Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area, together with the Maputo Special Reserve on the other side of the Mozambican border. Ndumo, the most tropical of the KwaZulu-Natal reserves, is probably the premier bird reserve in South Africa. A series of pans lined with yellow-barked fever trees are filled with an amazing variety of waterfowl, and provide sanctuary for many hippopotamuses and crocodiles.

The fig forests that fringe the rivers and pans and the thickets that cover most of this relatively small reserve (110 sq km/42 sq miles) hold a great variety of bird life. More than 400 species have been recorded from the reserve, and in the summer wet season (November to March) when migrant species are present, one may easily record upwards of 200 different species within a few days.

The high grasslands conservation areas have much else to offer. The mountainous uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, another Unesco World Heritage Site, running for 180km (110 miles) along KwaZulu-Natal’s inland boundary with the kingdom of Lesotho, protects some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes – huge, towering amphitheatres set above rolling grassy slopes, with numerous mountain streams running through forested gorges to fall tumbling over cascading waterfalls. These mountains and grasslands are home to a fabulous variety of wild flowers and several of the country’s endemic bird species, such as the yellow pipit and the Drakensberg siskin. The majestic lammergeyer (bearded vulture) is still secure here, too.

Insight Guides: South Africa is full-to-bursting with information on the country's reserves and national parks 

Brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea) in Kalahari desert (South Africa). Photo: Johan Swanepoel/ShutterstockA brown hyena in Kalahari desert, South Africa. Photo: Johan Swanepoel / Shutterstock

The arid interior

Further west one can visit the Mountain Zebra National Park, Camdeboo National Park or Karoo National Park, as well as several provincial reserves, to obtain a glimpse of the semi-arid Karoo ecosystem, now mainly used for sheep farming. The Karoo is probably the most characteristic of South Africa’s ecosystems. For those who enjoy wide-open spaces and stark semi-desert landscapes, a trip through the Karoo, with planned stopovers at several of the relatively small reserves, will be well worthwhile.

The majority of the Karoo’s animal and plant life is unique to this area. Those visiting the region shortly after good rains can witness levels of biological activity unsurpassed in any of the other ecosystems of South Africa. The fields of brightly coloured flowers, a host of insects and flocks of nomadic birds breeding in such an area provide an absolutely unforgettable spectacle.

Whereas in most other countries it is the semi-desert ecosystems which are best conserved in national parks, the converse used to apply to South Africa. This situation has changed, however, and in addition to the various parks of the Karoo, recent years have seen the gazetting of the Namaqua National Park in the vicinity of Kamieskroon, an area renowned for its colourful spring wildflower displays, and the Richtersveld National Park, in the arid mountainous region just south of the Orange River border with Namibia. The more established but smaller Augrabies Falls National Park, higher up the Orange River, is also worth a visit, both for its spectacular scenery and to see some of the rich semi-desert fauna and flora of the country’s western arid zone.

Forests, lakes and fynbos

Further south still is the well-watered coastal strip in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces. Here are found the country’s largest evergreen forests. The Tsitsikamma sector of the Garden Route National Park allows the visitor a chance to see the region’s dense temperate forests. The enormous yellowwood trees, their canopies often festooned with “old man’s beard” lichens and the forest floor beneath the damp and mossy, are a far cry from the semi-desert Karoo ecosystems that lie only a few hours’ drive inland.

The coastal park not only has a spectacular five-day hiking trail – called the Otter Trail after the Cape clawless otters which can sometimes be seen feeding along this coastline – but also has an underwater trail for snorkellers or scuba divers. The Knysna Lagoon and the Wilderness Lakes, also both part of Garden Route National Park fall within the major temperate rainforest areas of the Southern Cape; these verdant forest landscapes only add to the beauty of the area.

The oceanic waters off South Africa harbour a rich variety of marine mammals, including Cape fur seal, several species of dolphin and southern right whales. The latter breed off the southern Cape Coast, usually arriving in June and leaving in December, when sites such as Hermanus and False Bay offer some of the world’s finest land-based whale watching.

Explore South Africa's wildlife for yourself in the country's top 5 game reserves

Zebras at the waterhole. Photo: lumen-digital/ShutterstockZebras at the waterhole. Photo: lumen-digital / Shutterstock

The future

Sitting on the top of Table Mountain and looking down on to the seemingly never-ending suburbs of Greater Cape Town, one cannot help feeling uneasy about the conservation future in South Africa. Within a single lifetime, the Cape Flats, which lie between the Cape Peninsula and the Hottentots-Holland Mountains to the east, have been engulfed by a spreading wave of humanity. What used to be an area of exceptional wetlands and a veritable garden of wild flowers is now virtually completely covered by factory land, suburbia and small agricultural holdings.

Wattles introduced from Australia choke the native vegetation on the last remaining scraps of uncultivated land. Sadly, many of the plants and animals of this area and the adjacent Cape Peninsula are now threatened with extinction. Indeed, 39 plant species have already been lost from the Cape Peninsula; 15 of them peninsular endemics.

With a human population that is currently growing extremely rapidly (the population has burgeoned from approximately 18.3 million in 1960 to an estimated 52 million in 2013), all the many pressures on South Africa’s natural environment are now intensifying.

It is essential that conservation agencies continue to receive all of the necessary funds to carry out their important task of protecting the natural resources of South Africa for the benefit of all its peoples, including the generations still to be born.

A visitor who, having enjoyed the wonderful country and its superb national parks, wishes to do something constructive to assure the future of conservation might consider taking out membership in one of the many local conservation societies that work directly with local projects. The oldest and largest of these is the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, which first came into existence a century ago during the initial campaign to establish the Kruger National Park. It now has over 15,000 members, and runs a variety of high-profile conservation education programmes.

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Bontebok pair standing in golden grass at sunset, Golden Gate National Park, South Africa. Photo: JMx Images/ShutterstockBontebok pair standing in golden grass at sunset, Golden Gate National Park. Photo: JMx Images / Shutterstock

The new South Africa

When the new government came to power following the historic April 1994 democratic elections, the environment was one of the causes that was set to benefit. The new South African Constitution, for example, contains a clause guaranteeing the “environmental rights” of every citizen; their rights to a clean and healthy environment, and the rights of both present and future generations to a well-conserved and cared-for natural environment.

With the country’s readmittance to the international community has come the ratification by South Africa of several important international conventions, most important of which (from a nature conservation perspective) is the Convention on Biological Diversity. Not only was this treaty ratified, but an extensive policy development process was carried out to support its local implementation, ending in the production of a Government White Paper on the topic. Another important treaty recently ratified was the World Heritage Convention, preparing the way for Unesco to inscribe eight of South Africa’s sites as World Heritage Sites between 1999 and 2007.

The time of transition also allowed several initiatives that have long been stalled to proceed: for example, in 1998, the government finally approved the creation of Table Mountain National Park , incorporating the mountain itself and the Cape Peninsula’s remaining natural areas. Similarly, the long, drawn-out debate on the possibility of mining the dunes on the eastern shores of Lake St Lucia was ended when the Cabinet ruled that this mining would not be permitted. Several other national parks have been created since 1994, and the period has also seen the creation or partial development of half-a-dozen Transfrontier Parks, most importantly Kgalagadi and Greater Limpopo (the latter incorporating the Kruger).

Unfortunately, not all of the recent changes have been so positive, with many of the provincial conservation agencies losing the majority of their experienced conservation professionals as a result of an ill-conceived and poorly executed downsizing of the civil service.

Working for Water

Probably the single biggest environmental success story of the new South Africa has been the “Working for Water” programme of the National Water Conservation Campaign. Begun under the visionary guidance of the former Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, Professor Kadar Asmal, this huge project ultimately aims to remove all alien trees from mountain catchment areas throughout the land, thus solving South Africa’s single most serious nature conservation problem. Involving an amazing number of different institutions, this campaign has mobilised more than 20,000 unemployed people, most of them women, since its inception in 1995. Today, it supports more than 300 projects countrywide.

It has not only benefited streams and rivers, but also the native plants and animals that would otherwise have been replaced by rapidly spreading stands of invasive alien plants.

The “Working for Water” programme represents the government’s approach to conser­vation at its best: making a genuine effort to care for the environment, while at the same time taking into account the real needs of South Africa’s predominantly poor population.

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