Biological diversity in Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany
The Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Hotspot lies along the east coast of southern Africa, below the Great Escarpment, extending from extreme southern Mozambique (south of the Limpopo River, where it adjuts on the Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa Hotspot) and Mpumalanga province in South Africa (south of the Olifants River) in the north, through eastern Swaziland to the Eastern Cape province of South Africa in the south. The region is floristically, climatologically and geologically complex. There are at least three clear foci of high endemism and high diversity in the area, the names of which have been amalgamated as the name of this hotspot: Maputaland (Tongaland) in the north, Pondoland further south, and Albany in the southwest.
The topography of the region ranges from ancient sand dunes and low-lying plains in the north to a series of rugged terraces deeply incised by river valleys in the central and southern parts. The [[[Biodiversity hotspots (collection)|Hotspot]] also incorporates several mountain ranges, including the Sneeuberg, Winterberg, Amatola Mountains, Ngeli Range, Lebombo Mountains and Ngoye Range. The area is bordered on the west by the Great Escarpment, which separates the elevated interior plateau of southern Africa from the coastal lowlands.
The hotspot's vegetation is comprised mainly of forests, thickets, bushveld and grasslands. About 80 percent of South Africa's remaining forests fall within this Hotspot. These warm temperate forests, which are home to nearly 600 tree species, have the highest tree diversity of any of the world's temperate forests. The area also has a remarkable succulent flora, principally in the Albany region; these are mainly stem succulents, as opposed to the dominant leaf succulents found in the Succulent Karoo in the western parts of southern Africa. One type of forest (LicuÃ¡ti forest), three types of thicket, six types of bushveld, and five types of grassland are restricted to the Hotspot.
Unique and Threatened Biodiversity
Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany is an important center of plant endemism, and the second richest floristic region in Africa after the Cape Floristic Region. In total, about 8,100 species of plants from 243 families occur within this Hotspot, and nearly a quarter of these – at least 1,900 species – are found nowhere else. This includes 39 endemic genera (among 1,500 genera in total), and one endemic family: the Rhynchocalycaceae, which is represented by a single species, Rhynchocalyx lawsonioides (VU), found only in Pondoland in southern KwaZulu-Natal and the eastern Transkei area of the Eastern Cape.
Many of the hotspot’s plants have been developed successfully for horticulture around the world. One of the best known is the bitter aloe (Aloe ferox), which is used to make a purgative drug called Cape Aloes and is arguably the most important medicinal plant in South Africa. The bird-of-paradise flower (Strelitzia reginae) is endemic to the Hotspot and can grow up to two meters in its natural habitat in the Eastern Cape coastal bush. It is a popular horticultural subject in many parts of the world and has even been adopted as the civic emblem of Los Angeles. The once plentiful Sandersonia aurantiaca, a monotypic endemic genus whose beautiful orange-yellow flowers has led to the species common name of Christmas bells, is becoming increasingly rare.
At least half of the 40 species of red-hot poker (Kniphofia spp.) that occur within Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany are endemic to the Hotspot. One of the most notable is Kniphofia rooperi, a large and sturdy plant that has orange-yellow flowers, unlike the bright red flowers found on most other red-hot pokers.
Birds are the most diverse group of vertebrates in the Hotspot, with more than 540 regularly occurring species. The hotspot is part of BirdLife International’s Southeast African Coast Endemic Bird Area, with four restricted-range species: Rudd’s apalis (Apalis ruddi), pink-throated twinspot (Hypargos margaritatus), Neergaard’s sunbird (Nectarinia neergaardi) and lemon-breasted seedeater (Serinus citrinipectus).
An important bird species found in the Hotspot is the southern race of brown-necked parrot (Poicephalus robustus robustus). These birds, which can be distinguished from the northern race by their brownish heads, are dependent on the yellowwoods (Podocarpus spp.) of the hotspot for nesting sites and food. Illegal harvesting of yellowwoods severely threatens the future of this subspecies.
Woodward’s barbet (Stactolaema olivacea woodwardi) is found in southern Africa only in the Ngoye Forest between Eshowe and Empangeni in KwaZulu-Natal. Although the species also occurs on the Rondo Plateau in Tanzania, the precise taxonomic status of these two disjunct populations is unclear.
Of the nearly 200 mammal species found in the Hotspot, only four are endemic, including the red bush squirrel (Paraxerus palliates, VU), the four-toed elephant shrew (Petrodromus tetradactylus), Marley’s golden mole (Amblysomus marleyi) and the giant golden mole (Chrysospalax trevelyani, EN).
One of the most notable mammal species in the Hotspot is the southern subspecies of the white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum simum). Once common and widely distributed throughout southern and East Africa, the species was greatly reduced due to hunting for its prized horn. Once near extinction, with only a few dozen individuals remaining in KwaZulu-Natal’s Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, the subspecies was saved in one of the greatest success stories in conservation. Today, there are more than 12,000 individuals, many of which have been relocated to parks and reserves outside KwaZulu-Natal and beyond the borders of South Africa.
Two dainty antelopes are also important mammal species for Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany. The southern population of the blue duiker (Philantomba monticola) is confined to the hotspot and severely threatened by habitat destruction and fragmentation, poaching and snaring. The endemic southern race of the suni (Neotragus moschatus zuluensis), which relies on forests with high stem density and low ground cover, is quite restricted in its distribution because of destruction of its habitat.
More than 200 reptile species are found in the hotspot, and roughly 30 are endemic. The area is home to at least seven species of dwarf chameleon (Bradypodion spp.), all of which have very restricted distributions. The Hotspot also has one endemic genus, the Natal black snake (Macrelaps microlepidotus). Other interesting endemic reptiles include the Natal hinged tortoise (Kinixys natalensis), which is found throughout the Lebombo Mountain range, and the very rare endemic Albany adder (Bitis albanica), which is confined to the Algoa Bay area of the Eastern Cape. Tasman’s girdled lizard (Cordylus tasmani) is also endemic to the Algoa Bay area, where it lives under dead leaves on tall aloes or on dead aloe stems lying on rocky slopes.
All 72 of the hotspot’s amphibian species are frogs, eleven of which are endemic. This includes 8 threatened species that represent monotypic endemic genera: Boneberg’s frog (Natalobatrachus bonebergi, EN) and Rattray’s or hogsback frog (Anhydrophryne rattrayi, EN). Boneberg’s frog is restricted to forests along the coasts, where recent housing developments and sugarcane plantations have destroyed much of its habitat. Rattray’s frog is confined to thick vegetation along streams in the Amatola and Katberg Mountains in Eastern Cape Province, where commercial timber plantations threaten its survival. Other noticeable species include two endemics, the Natal banana frog (Afrixalus spinifrons, VU) and the Pickersgill’s reed frog (Hyperolius pickersgilli, EN), and the recently described soprano or whistling frog (Breviceps sopranos), which utters a long, high-pitched whistle.
Of the more than 70 freshwater fish species native to the Hotspot, about 20 are endemic, including four species of barb (Barbus spp.). The border barb (Barbus trevelyani, CR), which inhabits pools and riffles of clear rocky streams, is restricted to the Keiskamma and Buffalo river systems in the Eastern Cape. The endemic Eastern Cape rocky (Sandelia bainsii, EN) is one of only two species in its genus; the other species is endemic to streams in the Cape Floristic Region Hotspot.
The Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Hotspot has an exceptionally rich and diverse invertebrate fauna. There are a number of butterfly and moth species found here, including the spectacular Charaxes pondoensis, which is confined to a small area of coastal forest near Port St. Johns. The hotspot is also home to many species of the phylum Onychophora (velvet worms), a fascinating group of ancient, caterpillar-like animals that are the most primitive group to walk with the body raised up on legs. Most species of the Onychophora genus Opisthopatus are found in this hotspot; one of two species in the genus, O. roseus (CR), is extremely rare and known only from Ngeli Forest near Kokstad.
The hotspot is a major center of diversity for the family Microchaetidae, a family of gigantic earthworms endemic to southern Africa that inhabit moist, undisturbed primary grasslands and forests. Microchaetus vernoni, which is found only in grassland in Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve in southern KwaZulu-Natal, can grow up to 2.6 meters in length and 1 centimeter in diameter.
Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany also has a very rich and varied scarab or dung beetle (Scarabaeidae: Scarabaeinae) fauna. The rare flightless dung beetle (Circellium bacchus) has a very restricted distribution and has captured the imagination of visitors to the Addo Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape, where road signs warn motorists not to drive over elephant and buffalo dung pads in the roads, for fear of crushing the beetles.
With one of the highest human densities in sub-Saharan Africa, the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany hotspot is under threat from a number of activities, principally cultivation, plantation forestry and urbanization, and only about one-quarter of the hotspot's original vegetation remains in pristine condition.
Cultivation in South Africa increased by 122 percent between 1987 and 1994. Both large-scale commercial agriculture and subsistence farming pose a threat to the forests, thickets and grasslands of the hotspot. Subsistence farming in communal areas consists mostly of shifting cultivation, which, while not expanding at the moment, affects hundreds of square kilometers. In these areas, land that has not been affected by cultivation is often under severe grazing pressure from domestic livestock; almost half of the region is communally owned and supports livestock in numbers far in excess of what is considered ecologically sustainable. Commercial sugarcane farming has completely transformed large tracts of land, especially in the coastal regions north and south of Durban.
Industrial timber production also poses a threat, particularly through the establishment of large-scale timber plantations, which have already destroyed several hundred thousand hectares of species-rich primary grasslands. In addition to transforming habitats, stands of alien tree species, including pine trees (Pinus spp.), eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.) and Australian wattles (Acacia spp.) alter the natural hydrological regime by using more groundwater than native species and affect the chemical and physical status of soils.
Urbanization around the hotspot's three major urban centers, Maputo in southern Mozambique and Durban and Port Elizabeth in South Africa, may also pose a threat, particularly through the development of unplanned sprawling slums that stretch out into the countryside around cities.
Other threats include invasive alien plant species and localized mining activities, specifically titanium extraction from coastal sands. In southern Mozambique, large-scale conversion of trees into charcoal to supply the growing demand for firewood in the larger Maputo area also poses a threat.
Conservation Action and Protected Areas
About eight percent of Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany, or 23,051 km2, is under some form of protection, with most of these protected areas in IUCN categories I to IV. Although several of the hotspot's national parks, including the 24,000-hectare Greater Addo Park and the 6,536-hectare Mountain Zebra National Park, are managed by South African National Parks, a statutory body within the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, most protected areas in KwaZulu-Natal fall under the jurisdiction of Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife. The main conservation areas in southern Mozambique, which include the LicuÃ¡ti Forest Reserve and the Maputo Elephant Reserve, are managed by the DirecÃ§Ã£o Nacional de Florestes e Fauna Bravia of the MinistÃ©rio da Agricultura e Pescas. The 256,644-hectare Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
However, law enforcement and protection in conservation areas in Mozambique is poor, and the protected area system in the Hotspot is not representative of the biodiversity of the region. This is particularly true in Pondoland, where only a few small conservation areas exist. Grasslands, woody grasslands and coastal forests and thickets are underrepresented in the system. This is in large part due to the fact that most conservation areas have been established with the protection of big game in mind, rather than the preservation of floristically interesting and unique areas.
Current conservation initiatives include efforts to establish a transfrontier protected area linking nature reserves in Swaziland, southern Mozambique and northern KwaZulu-Natal, the establishment of the Baviaanskloof Megareserve and the expansion of the Greater Addo Park and the Mountain Zebra Reserve. The recently completed Subtropical Thicket Ecosystem Planning (STEP) project produced a conservation plan, involving dozens of stakeholders, for the region. The plan identified priority areas for the establishment of new protected areas and raised awareness of the importance of intact thicket ecosystems.
An important private initiative in the region is the conservancy program, which originated in KwaZulu-Natal in 1978, and involves the establishment of committees of landowners who pledge to protect the natural environment or certain natural features, such as a particular species. There are now about 218 conservancies in KwaZulu-Natal alone, covering about 1.5 million hectares.
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