Biodiversity describes the variety
of life in an area, including the number of different
species, the genetic wealth within each species, the
interrelationships between them, and the natural
areas where they occur.
An immensely rich species diversity is found in
South Africa. With a land surface area of 1,1 million
km2 - representing just 1% of the earth's total land
surface - South Africa contains almost 10% of the
world's total known bird, fish and plant species, and
over 6% of the world's mammal and reptile species.
This natural wealth is threatened by growing human
populations and their demands on the environment.
WHY SUCH DIVERSITY?
South Africa has a wide range of climatic
conditions and many variations in topography (e.g.
narrow coastal plain, steep escarpment, large
plateau). In combination, climate and topography give
rise to broad vegetation zones which, together with
their associated animal life, are called biomes.
These are the Karoo, fynbos, forest, grassland and
savanna biomes. Each of these supports its own
collection of plant and animal species. The Karoo,
for example, is home to plants and animals well
suited to hot, dry conditions such as the gemsbok,
and succulent plants. Fynbos is home to a variety of
plants that are suited to a mediterranean climate and
the poor soils of the south west Cape.
More than 20 300 species of flowering plants occur in
South Africa. One of the six most significant
concentrations of plants in the world is the Cape
Floral Kingdom, with its distinctive fynbos
vegetation, in the south west Cape. Most of South
Africa's 2 000 threatened plants are found in fynbos
(see Enviro Facts "Fynbos").
In total 243 mammals are found in the region. There
are 17 threatened species in South Africa, including
the black rhino, pangolin and giant golden mole. The
riverine rabbit, roan antelope and wild dog are
endangered. Two mammals have become extinct: the blue
antelope and the quagga.
Of the more than 800 bird species, 26 are threatened,
including the jackass penguin, Cape vulture, martial
eagle, bateleur and Cape parrot. The 5 endangered
species are: wattled crane, roseate tern, Egyptian
vulture, blackrumped buttonquail and blue swallow.
* Reptiles and Amphibians:
In total 370 reptiles and amphibians occur in the
region, of which 21 are threatened. Six of these are
220 freshwater fishes occur, of which 21 are
threatened. There are more than 2 000 marine fish
species, for which no information is available about
80 000 insects are known to occur, many of which are
endemic. There are many more as yet undescribed
THREATS TO SOUTH
Unfortunately this immense natural wealth is under
extreme pressure resulting from human demands placed
on the environment through economic development,
agriculture and urbanisation. Invasive alien
vegetation and the trade in wildlife also contribute
to the problem. (See Enviro-Facts
PROTECTION OF SOUTH
* Red Data Books or RDBs, are lists of threatened
plants and animals specific to a certain region. They
are a vital source of information in guiding
conservation decisions. South Africa has produced 5
RDBs dealing with each of the following: birds, land
mammals, fishes (fresh water and estuarine only),
reptiles and amphibians, and butterflies.
* Southern Africa has 582 national parks and
nature reserves covering 6% of the region. More than
90% of the region's birds, mammals, amphibians, and
reptiles occur in this network of protected areas.
However, only 34% of plants are protected. There is
an urgent need to extend the network of conservation
areas to include unprotected plants.
* The Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species, or CITES, signed by 100
countries, including South Africa, controls and in
some cases prohibits the trade in threatened species.
CONSERVATION STATUS OF A SPECIES
The conservation status of a plant or animal
species is described by the following terms:
- EXTINCT: a species for which
there is a historical record, but which no longer
exists in the area under review.
- ENDANGERED a species in danger
of extinction, and whose survival is unlikely if the
factors causing its decline continue.
- VULNERABLE a species which it
is believed will move into the endangered category if
the factors causing its decline continue.
- RARE a species with small
populations, which are not yet vulnerable or
endangered, but which are at risk.
The term THREATENED is commonly
used as a collective description for species which
are endangered vulnerable or rare.
Some species are ENDEMIC, i.e.
they are restricted to one region and occur nowhere
else. A threatened endemic is a conservation
WHAT YOU CAN DO
* Demands for goods and services place pressure on
the environment - the less we use, the less severe
* When a conservation issue rears its head, make
your voice heard - draw up a petition, contact your
local MP, write to the Department of Environment
Affairs and liaise with your newspaper.
* Support a conservation organisation.
SOUTH AFRICA'S THREATENED
J. Ledger. Endangered Wildlife Trust, Johannesburg,
THE GAIA ATLAS OF PLANET
N. Myers (ed). Pan Books, London, 1985.
GOING GREEN: PEOPLE, POLITICS AND
ENVIRONMENT IN SOUTH AFRICA. J. Cock and E.
Koch (eds). Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991.
SOUTH AFRICAN ENVIRONMENTS INTO THE 21ST
CENTURY. B. Huntley, R. Siegfried and C. Sunter. Human, Rousseau &
Tafelberg, Cape Town,
BIODIVERSITY. E. Wilson (ed).
National Academy Press, Washington D.C., 1988.
Enviro-Facts: "Why Conserve?" and
Department of Environment Affairs and
Tourism. P/Bag X 447, Pretoria, 0001. Tel.
WWF-SA. P.O. Box 456,
Stellenbosch, 7600. Tel. 021-887 2801.
Endangered Wildlife Trust. P/Bag
X11, Parkview, 2122. Tel. 011-486 1102.