The South-West Cape: South Africa’s Biological Jewel

South Africa has such a high level of biodiversity that it is ranked the third most bio-diverse country in the world, after Brazil and Indonesia. One of the richest parts of the country in terms of biodiversity are the protected areas that hug the coastline that stretches between Gordon’s Bay and Still Bay.

This region of the south-western cape supports extraordinary diversity in a relatively small area. In fact, much of the nature reserves in the region are part of a world heritage site, the Cape Floral Kingdom. The Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve in the Overberg Mountains is part of that world heritage site. It is one of the bio-diverse areas on the planet, with over 1800 plant species crammed into an area of about 30 square kilometres. The diversity of plants in this area is unrivaled by almost every other place in the country. The mountains are also critical sources of water for Cape Town, Stellenbosch and other urban areas, as well as providing a home for Cape leopards.

Betty’s Bay lies on the coast on the very edge of the Kogelberg Mountains. This coastal town surrounds one of the world’s only two land-based colonies for the endangered African penguin: Stony Point. It is in fact the only colony of this species in the world that is actually increasing in number, with the current population standing at over 2000 breeding pair. Stony Point is home to significant breeding colonies of four of the countries five cormorant species, including the threatened bank cormorant, and the endemic black oystercatcher. I’ve been lucky enough to spot large flocks of Cape gannets from the colony and even a northern giant petrel that had flown in from the Sub-antarctic Islands.

On the far side of Betty’s Bay, the Harold Porter Botanical Gardens lie at a meeting place of two mountain valley’s, Disakloof and Leopards Kloof. This small botanical garden showcases the botanical biodiversity of the Kogelberg Mountains and also protects the indigenous forests and fynbos that shroud the two valley’s. Both the garden and forests are full of birds that are difficult to see elsewhere like Victorin’s warbler and blue-mantled crested-flycatcher. Even leopards patrol the outskirts of the gardens.

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African black oystercatcher calling on the shoreline below the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve (@Callum Evans).

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Rock hyrax at the Stony Point Penguin Colony (@Callum Evans)

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The Palmiet River Valley in the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve (@Callum Evans)

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The Kogelberg is home to over 1800 species of plant, a diversity rivalling even that of rainforests (@Callum Evans).

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The African penguin colony at Stony Point is home to 2000 breeding pair and is the only African penguin colony that is increasing in number (@Callum Evans).

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An endemic Victorin’s warbler calling at Harold Porter Botanical Gardens (@Callum Evans).

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A Southern rock agama lizard in the Kogelberg (@Callum Evans).

The Southern tip of Africa, Cape Agulhas, lies in the middle of the hot spot of biodiversity. The Agulhas National Park itself protects large areas of coastal fynbos and renosterveld, and is now home to reintroduced populations of Cape buffalo and hippo. The dunes in the national park are also sites of archaeological importance, having produced hundreds of historical artefacts over the years. The surrounding farmlands are home to globally important populations of Denham’s bustard, black harrier, secretarybird and South Africa’s national bird, the blue crane. The plains are in fact so rich that they draw in birds from other parts of the country that very rarely visit in the region. I’ve managed to see blue-cheeked bee-eater and Goliath heron, the world’s largest heron, on the edge of the national park.

Not far down the coast from Agulhas lies De Mond Nature Reserve, one of the smallest protected areas in the Western Cape province and yet it is world renowned by bird watchers for being one of the only two breeding sites in the country for the endangered and endemic Damara tern (which is also one of the smallest terns in the region). The terns are drawn here because of the estuary within the reserve, which also supports large numbers of migrating wading birds, including the bizarre Eurasian curlew. The estuary is flanked on both sides by dense thickets of milkwood trees and coastal fynbos (‘strandveld’).

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A southern tchagra peering out of the thickets at De Mond Nature Reserve (@Callum Evans).

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The estuary at De Mond Nature Reserve, home to one of only two breeding colonies of the endangered Damara terns in the country (@Callum Evans).

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Red-capped lark in the farmlands around De Mond (@Callum Evans).

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Blue cranes resting in the farmlands around the Agulhas National Park (@Callum Evans).

About 50 kilometres up the coast lies De Hoop Nature Reserve. It includes a terrestrial reserve, which protects mountain, lowland and coastal fynbos as well as the De Hoop Vlei, and a marine protected area. The marine section is home to over 300 species of fish, as well as great white and hammerhead sharks. But what it is most famous for is being the summer calving grounds for several thousand Southern right whales. On land the reserve is home to some of the largest herds of bontebok and Cape mountain zebra in the country, both of which were nearly extinct  80 years ago. I’ve also been lucky enough to spot bushbuck here too. The De Hoop Vlei is home to massive populations of waterbirds, including both of Africa’s flamingo species. The Potberg mountain’s that lies in the far east of the reserve are home to the Western Cape’s only breeding colony of the endangered Cape vulture. thanks to stringent conservation efforts, the colony is now home to nearly 250 birds. Even the farmlands just outside De Hoop are home to wildlife, with bat-eared foxes, Karoo korhaan and Agulhas long-billed lark being just three of the rarer animals that forage there.

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Ostrich’s in De Hoop Nature Reserve (@Callum Evans).

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An eland bull browsing in the middle of the rest camp at De Hoop Nature Reserve (@Callum Evans).

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Bontebok grazing in the old farmlands at the centre of De Hoop Nature Reserve (@Callum Evans).

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Two bushbuck ewes grazing at the foot of the Potberg Mountains at the far eastern edge of De Hoop (@Callum Evans).

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A Cape mountain zebra resting as the sun sets over De Hoop (@Callum Evans).

While this region still holds exceptional biodiversity, most of that biodiversity is contained in small protected areas which are surrounded by agricultural land. Although the farmlands still support some wildlife, the plantlife and large mammals are gone. Lion and rhino have long since been extinct in the region and much of the indigenous fynbos have been bulldozed. While these islands of biodiversity are still threatened, they still house some of the greatest biological treasures in the world. And they can also serve to remind us that we need these places for our future, and they can inspire to continue to restore this region to what it once was.

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Sunset over the farmlands just outside De Hoop (@Callum Evans).

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