Biodiversity Hotspots of the World (3 of 36): Cape Floristic Region of South Africa

South Africa is the most beautiful place on earth. Admittedly, I am biased but when you combine the natural beauty … and the fact the region is a haven for Africa’s most splendid wildlife … then I think that we have been blessed with a truly wonderful land.

— Nelson Mandela

After exploring South Africa’s Cape Province for two weeks in 1996, I have to agree with Nelson Mandela’s quote. South Africa is one of the most beautiful countries that I’ve had the opportunity to visit. It’s also home to a biodiversity hotspot known as the Cape Floristic Region. While the region represents less than 0.5% of the area of Africa, the Cape Floristic Region is home to about 20% of the continent’s plant species. It has the greatest non-tropical concentration of higher plant species in the world.

Map of the Cape Floristic Region Biodiversity Hotspot, from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF)

The Cape Floristic Region covers 12,600 square miles entirely within the country of South Africa. It includes a variety of ecosystems but is famous for its fynbos shrubland. Fynbos are “fine-leaved plants” that may not look like much from a distance, but these plants of the Cape region are celebrated among botanists as one of the world’s six floral kingdoms (Holarctic, Paleotropical, Neotropical, South African, Australian, and Antarctic).

Fynbos vegetation at Hermanus, South Africa

Of the estimated 9,000 plant species in the Cape Floristic region, 6,200 (69%) are found nowhere else on earth. Some of the better-known plant species include the king protea (Protea cynaroides), red disa (Disa uniflora), and Clanwilliam cedar (Widdringtonia cedarbergensis). The king protea also happens to be South Africa’s national flower.

King Protea (Protea cynaroides), the national flower of South Africa

While it’s often the plants that steal the show in this biodiversity hotspot, the area does support many endemic animal species, although the diversity is relatively low compared with other hotspots. The Cape Floristic Region supports 320 species of birds (6 endemic), 90 species of mammals (4 endemic), 100 species of reptiles (25 endemic), 40 species of amphibians (16 endemic), 35 species of freshwater fish (12 endemic), and 230 species of butterflies (30% endemic). Other than butterflies, there is much work to do to document the diversity of invertebrate species. Initial studies suggest there are large number of endemic invertebrate species in the region.

Some well-known animal species include the Cape sugarbird (Promerops cafer), Cape Siskin (Serinus totta), orange-breasted sunbird (Nectarinia violacea), the bontebok (Damaliscus dorcas dorcas), Cape grysbok (Raphicerus melanotis), and five species of tortoises, including the Critically Endangered geometric tortoise (Psammaboates geometricus). The region is also home to the Critically Endangered Table Mountain ghost frog (Heleophryne rosei), found only on the slopes of Table Mountain – the famous mountain you see in photos of Cape Town.

Cape Sugarbird (Promerops cafer) in a field of bright yellow pincushion proteas.

Critically Endangered geometric tortoise (Psammaboates geometricus)

Bontebok (Damaliscus dorcas dorcas)

Conservation Status

The Cape Floristic Region is under intense pressure from agricultural and urban expansion. An estimated 26% of the hotspot has been converted for agricultural land use. This includes 49% of the fynbos habitats of the Cape Floristic Region. The land is often converted to support the cultivation and harvesting of grapes for wine (viticulture), olives, rooibos tea, honeybush tea, and ornamental flowers such as proteas. To add to the pressure, there are 5 million people in the region, including 3 million in Cape Town, and uncontrolled development is expected to continue to degrade the Cape Floristic Region.

Another major threat to the region is the presence of many invasive species. Dense stands of alien plant species cover 2% of the Cape Floristic Region, medium density stands cover 1% of the region, and low density or scattered patches of alien plants cover another 70% of the region.

One of the challenges with protecting the Cape Floristic region is that 80% of the land is privately owned. Thus, it is critical to encourage private landowners to protect the rich biodiversity of the area. Unfortunately, the financial incentives are often stacked in favor of development, rather than conservation.

Travel and Tourism

The easiest way for international travelers to access the Cape Floristic Region is to fly into the international airport of Cape Town. When I visited Cape Town in 1996, it felt more like Europe than Africa. But the fact that I had been living in a tent in rural Kenya for several months before my arrival may have had something to do with that! Cape Town is a modern, cosmopolitan city that stands out as one of my favorite cities in the world.

Once arriving in Cape Town, a good place to start is the city’s spectacular backdrop, Table Mountain (3,558 ft. elevation). Depending on your fitness, you can hike to the top, take an Aerial Cableway to the top of the mountain, or explore some of the trails on the lower slopes. I also highly recommend a visit to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden for a nice introduction to the local flora.

Table Mountain Aerial Cableway in Cape Town

There is so much to explore in the Cape Floristic Region. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes areas such as Table MountainDe Hoop Nature Reservethe Boland (aka Cape Winelands)Kogelberg Nature ReserveThe Groot Winterhoek wilderness area, the Swartberg Mountains, the Boosmansbos wilderness areaCederberg, and Baviaanskloof.

If you want to time your visit to experience the spectacular flower blooming season, then it’s best to visit in August or September (spring in South Africa).

Aerial view of the Franschhoek valley in the Western Cape of South Africa

Coming Attractions

I hope you enjoyed this brief overview of the Cape Floristic Region biodiversity hotspot. For our next post (in two weeks), we’re off to the Caribbean Islands.

Thanks for reading!


Author: Mark Aspelin

Mark Aspelin is a freelance nature, health, and travel writer who helps people become more engaged in biodiversity conservation and live a lifestyle that optimizes physical and mental health. Mark has worked as a conservation biologist, healthcare project manager, certified personal trainer, and he's the author of over 50 blog posts and articles and two highly rated books: “Profitable Conservation: Business Strategies That Boost Your Bottom Line, Protect Wildlife, and Conserve Biodiversity” and “How to Fail at Life: Lessons for the Next Generation”. He has a B.S. in Biology from the University of Notre Dame, M.S. in Biology from Creighton University, and MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. Mark has worked with a wide variety of organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, The Coca-Cola Company, Intel Corporation, Molina Healthcare, United HealthGroup, and The International Crane Foundation, and his articles and interviews have been featured by GreenBiz, Inside EPA, Perceptive Travel, and the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation’s Half-Earth Project. Mark is also an avid traveler who has visited over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States and he lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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