Biodiversity in South Africa

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.


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.


* Plants:
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").

* Mammals:
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.

* Birds:
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 endangered.

* Fish:
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 threatened species.

* Insects:
80 000 insects are known to occur, many of which are endemic. There are many more as yet undescribed species.


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 "Biodiversity")


* 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.


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 priority.


* Demands for goods and services place pressure on the environment - the less we use, the less severe the pressure.

* 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 WILDLIFE. J. Ledger. Endangered Wildlife Trust, Johannesburg, 1990.

THE GAIA ATLAS OF PLANET MANAGEMENT. 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, 1989.

BIODIVERSITY. E. Wilson (ed). National Academy Press, Washington D.C., 1988.

Enviro-Facts: "Why Conserve?" and "Biodiversity".


Department of Environment Affairs and Tourism. P/Bag X 447, Pretoria, 0001. Tel. 012-310 3425.

WWF-SA. P.O. Box 456, Stellenbosch, 7600. Tel. 021-887 2801.

Endangered Wildlife Trust. P/Bag X11, Parkview, 2122. Tel. 011-486 1102.

Created and maintained by: Jocelyn Collins
Last Updated: Thursday, February 01, 2001