Africa's Big Five / South Africa Savanna / Safari / Fynbos / Karro

South Africa

Wild Life

Africa's Big Five

Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Buffalo and Rhinoceros are the most sought after and dangerous of the world's big game. In previous centuries it was these five species that drew both hunters and sportsmen to Africa to experience the blood-pounding thrill of hunting and shooting the ‘Big 5.’ Even though these animals are no longer hunted, the exhilaration that one experiences when spotting the ‘Big 5’ is as thrilling as ever.

Savanna biome

This biome is an area of mixed grassland and trees, and is generally known as bushveld. In the Northern Cape and Kalahari sections of this biome, the most distinctive trees are the camel thorn (Acacia erioloba) and the camphor bush (Tarchonanthus camphoratus). In Limpopo, the portly baobab (Adansonia digitata) and the candelabra tree (Euphorbia ingens) dominate. The central bushveld is home to species such as the knob thorn (Acacia nigrescens), bushwillow (Combretum spp.), monkey thorn (Acacia galpinii), mopani (Colophospermum mopane) and wild fig (Ficus spp.) In the valley bushveld of the south, euphorbias and spekboom trees (Portulacaria afra) dominate. Abundant wild fruit trees provide food for many birds and animals in the savanna biome. Grey loeries, hornbills, shrikes, flycatchers and rollers are birds typical of the northern regions. The subtropical and coastal areas are home to Knysna loeries, purple-crested loeries and green pigeons. Raptors occur throughout the biome.

Nama-Karoo biome

This biome includes the Namaland area of Namibia, and the Karoo area of South Africa. Because of low rainfall, rivers are non-perennial. Cold and frost in winter and high temperatures in summer demand special adaptations from plants. The vegetation of this biome is mainly low shrubland and grass, with trees limited to water courses. The bateared fox, black-backed jackal, ostrich, suricate and ground squirrel are typical of the area. Only 1% of the Nama-Karoo biome falls within officially protected areas, of which the Karoo and Augrabies national parks are the largest. Overgrazing and easily eroded soil surfaces are causing this semi-desert to creep slowly in on the neighbouring savanna and grassland biomes.

Grassland biome

This biome is a summer-rainfall area with heavy thunderstorms and hail in summer, and frost in winter. A number of perennial rivers such as the Orange, Vaal, Pongola, Kei and Umzimvubu originate in, and flow through, the area. Trees are scarce and are found mainly on hills and along riverbeds. Karee (Rhus lancea), wild currant (Rhus pyroides), white stinkwood (Celtis africana) and several acacia species are the most common. The grassland biome has the third-largest number of indigenous plant species in the country. Eight mammal species endemic to South Africa occur in a wild state in this biome. Two of these, namely the black wildebeest and the blesbok, occur mainly in the grassland biome. The area is internationally recognised as an area of high species endemicity as far as birds are concerned. Birds commonly found in the area include the black korhaan, blue crane, guinea-fowl and other grassland birds. Only 1,1% of the grassland biome is officially protected. The wilderness areas of the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg are the most significant.

Succulent Karoo biome

One of the natural wonders of South Africa is the annual blossoming of the Namaqualand wild flowers (mainly of the family Asteraceae), which transforms the semi-desert of the Northern Cape into a fairyland. After rain, the drab landscape is suddenly covered from horizon to horizon with a multicoloured carpet (from August to October, depending on the rainfall). This is a winter-rainfall area with extremely dry and hot summers. Succulents with thick, fleshy leaves are plentiful. Most trees have white trunks to reflect the heat. The quiver tree (Aloe dichotoma) and the humanlike elephant’s trunk (Pachypodium namaquanum) are prominent in the Richtersveld. Grass is scarce. The animal life is similar to that of neighbouring biomes (fynbos and Nama-Karoo). The Richtersveld, Tankwa Karoo and Namaqua national parks have improved the conservation status of this biome considerably.

Fynbos biome

The fynbos biome is one of the six accepted floral kingdoms of the world. This region covers only 0,04% of the land surface of the globe. Fynbos is found mainly in the Western Cape. This is a winter-rainfall area and the fynbos vegetation is similar to that of mediterranean regions. Fynbos is the name given to a group of evergreen plants with small, hard leaves (such as those in the Erica family). It is made up mainly of the protea, heathers and restio, and incorporates a diversity of plant species (more than 8 500 kinds, over 6 000 of which are endemic). The fynbos biome is famous for the protea, for which South Africa is renowned. The biome also contains flowering plants, now regarded as garden plants, such as freesia, tritonia, sparaxis and many others. Protected areas cover 13,6% of the fynbos biome and include the Table Mountain and Agulhas national parks. This biome is not very rich in bird and mammal life, but does include the endemic Cape grysbok, the geometric tortoise, Cape sugarbird and the protea seed-eater. The mountains are the habitat of the leopard, baboon, honey-badger, caracal, rhebuck and several types of eagle and dassies.

Forest biome

South Africa’s only significant forests are those of Knysna and Tsitsikamma in the Western and Eastern Cape, respectively. Other reasonably large forest patches that are officially protected are in the high-rainfall areas of the eastern escarpment, and on the eastern seaboard. Forest giants such as yellowwood (Podocarpus spp.), ironwood (Olea capensis) and lemonwood (Xymalos monospora) dominate. The indigenous forests are a magical world of ferns, lichens, and colourful forest birds such as the Knysna loerie, the endangered Cape parrot and the rameron pigeon. Mammals include the endangered samango monkey, bushpig, bushbuck and the delicate blue duiker.

Thicket biome

Subtropical thicket ranges from closed shrubland to low forest, dominated by evergreen succulent trees, shrubs and vines. It is often impenetrable and has little herbaceous cover. Roughly 20% of the species in the thicket biome are endemic to it.

Desert biome

True desert is found under very harsh environmental conditions, which are even more extreme than those found in the succulent Karoo and the Nama-Karoo biomes. The climate is characterised by summer rainfall, but also by high levels of summer aridity. Rainfall is highly variable from year to year. Desert is found mostly in Namibia, although it does occur in South Africa in the lower Orange River Valley. The vegetation of the desert biome is characterised by the dominance of annual plants (often annual grasses). This means that after a rare season of abundant rain, the desert plains can be covered with a sea of short annual grass, whereas in drier years, the plains appear bare with the annual plants persisting in the form of seeds. Perennial plants are usually encountered in specialised habitats associated with local concentrations of water. Common examples of such habitats are broad drainage lines or washes. Nearer the coast, the role of coastal fog also governs the distribution of certain species commonly associated with the desert. The desert biome incorporates an abundant insect fauna, which includes many tenebrionid beetles, some of which can use fog water. There are also various vertebrates including reptiles, springbok, ostrich, gemsbok, snakes and geckos. Some areas in the desert biome are formally protected in the Richtersveld National Park.

The national parks of South Africa are:
• Addo Elephant National Park
• Agulhas National Park
• Augrabies Falls National Park
• Bontebok National Park
• Camdeboo National Park
• Golden Gate Highlands National Park
• Kalahari Gemsbok National Park (part of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park)
• Karoo National Park
• Knysna National Lake Area
• Kruger National Park
• Marakele National Park
• Mapungubwe National Park
• Mountain Zebra National Park
• Namaqua National Park
• Richtersveld National Park
• Table Mountain National Park
• Tankwa Karoo National Park
• Tsitsikamma National Park
• Vaalbos National Park
• Wilderness National Park
• West Coast National Park

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