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!


Biodiversity Hotspots of the World (2 of 36): California Floristic Province

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks

— John Muir

The Scottish-American naturalist and author John Muir was so inspired by the beauty of the forests of the western United States that he became a passionate advocate for the protection of these iconic landscapes. His advocacy work led to the formal protection of areas that we now know as the Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park. Today, over a hundred years after Muir’s death in 1914, this land is part of a biodiversity hotspot known as the California Floristic Province.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and have visited California on a regular basis even after moving to New Mexico in 2000. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to visit many of the state parks and National Wildlife Refuges of California. I’ve long known that this landscape was special. Yet, I had never heard of the term “California Floristic Province” until a few years ago.

Map of the California Floristic Province Biodiversity Hotspot, from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF)

The California Floristic Province biodiversity hotspot runs along the California coast, extending into Oregon and Mexico. It also extends inland to Carson City, Nevada, encompassing the Sierra Nevada mountains, Transverse Ranges of southern California, the Coast Ranges, and the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains of northwest California and southwest Oregon.

This biodiversity hotspot boasts a wide range of habitat types. These include sagebrush steppe, prickly pear shrubland, coastal sage scrub, chaparral, juniper-pine woodland, upper montane-subalpine forest, alpine forest, riparian forest, cypress forests, mixed evergreen forests, Douglas fir forests, sequoia forests, redwood forests, coastal dunes, and salt marshes. The region has a Mediterranean climate with summers that are hot and dry, and winters that are cool and wet.

What makes this area a biodiversity hotspot are its plants. The California Floristic Province features over 8,000 species of plants. Over 3,400 of these plant species are found nowhere else on Earth. This includes two famous, endangered tree species: the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) and the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). Giant sequoias are the most massive tree species ever to live on Earth. In Sequoia National Park, you can find the world’s largest tree measured by volume. Known as the General Sherman tree, it is roughly 2,200 years old, stands 275 feet tall, has a circumference of 102 feet, and weighs 2.7 million lbs. Not to be outdone, the coast redwoods are slimmer but reach greater heights of up to 350 feet. These are awe-inspiring trees.

Giant sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park in California can reach up to 275 feet in height.

With such a large variety of habitat types, it’s no surprise to learn that many species of animals call the California Floristic Province home. But, compared to the plants, the animals have much lower rates of endemism, with the notable exception of amphibians. Scientists have recorded 340 bird species (10 endemic), 150 mammal species (20 endemic), 70 reptile species (4 endemic), 50 amphibian species (25 endemic) in the hotspot. Insects are also prolific in the California Floristic Province. There are an estimated 28,000 species of insects and 32% of these are endemic. This represents roughly one-third of all known insects in the United States and Canada.

Some of more well-known animal residents in the region include the Critically Endangered California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), Endangered giant kangaroo rat (Dipodomys ingens), desert slender salamander (Batrachoseps major aridus), kit fox (Vulpes macrotis), island fox (Urocyon littoralis), Roosevelt’s elk (Cervus elaphus roosevelti), and tule elk (Cervus elaphus nannodes).

In the 1980s, there were only 22 California condors. Today there are around 230 free-flying California condors in California, Arizona, and Baja California, with another 160 in captivity.

Conservation Status

If California was a country, it would rank as the 5th largest economy in the world. Despite it wealth, the State of California is one of the four most ecologically degraded states in the United States. This is due to habitat loss, expansion of large-scale agriculture, strip mining, oil extraction, invasive species, road construction, livestock grazing, logging, suppression of natural fires, urbanization, and other human population pressures in the nation’s most populous state.

Today, only about 25% of the original vegetation remains in pristine condition. Two of the hardest hit ecosystems include native grasslands and vernal pools, which have been reduced to 1% of their original area. Logging operations have reduced the distribution of redwood forests by 85%. Only 10% of the original wetlands, riparian woodlands, and southern maritime sage scrub remain. And while the grizzly bear is the state symbol featured on the California state flag, the last grizzly bear in California was shot in 1920. Similarly, the grey wolf, jaguar, and bison are no longer found in California. These massive declines, combined with the high levels of endemic species, are the reasons why the California Floristic Province is one of the 36 biodiversity hotspots of the world.

California state flag featuring the California grizzly bear. The last grizzly bear in California was shot by a hunter in 1920.

Unfortunately, these declines aren’t limited to the state of California. Guadalupe Island, a volcanic island in the Mexico portion of the California Floristic Province, has also experienced significant conservation challenges. Nearly 16% of the plant species on the island are endemic. Unfortunately, the release of feral goats in the early 19th century decimated many plant species. At least 26 native plant species have eradicated from the island. To make matters worse, over 60 exotic plant species, such as aggressive weeds, are now on the island.

Travel and Tourism

With nine national parks (Channel Islands, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Kings Canyon, Lassen Volcanic, Pinnacles, Redwood, Sequoia, and Yosemite), 280 state parks39 National Wildlife Refuges, four National Marine Sanctuaries, and the Point Reyes National Seashore, it will take you awhile to run out of places to view wildlife in California. You can also explore the Lake Tahoe area and cross into the Nevada portion of the California Floristic Province around Reno and Carson City.

In southwestern Oregon a northwestern California, a great place to visit is the Klamath-Siskiyou region, the wildest place left on the west coast of the United States. It has a larger concentration of roadless wildlands and intact watersheds than anywhere else on the west coast. The Klamath-Siskiyou region has been proposed as both a World Heritage Site and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

The Baja California, Mexico portion of the California Floristic Province extends south from the California border to an area north of El Rosario. This includes the pine-oak forests of Sierra Juarez and the Sierra San Pedro Martir. Much of this habitat is intact as the mountains are difficult to access. These conifer forests are the only multi-species Mediterranean-climate forests in Mexico.

Guadalupe Island, Mexico is one of the best places in the world to view a great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias).

Guadalupe Island, Mexico is home to about 150 permanent residents. They are mostly lobster and abalone fisherman, goat farmers, and military personnel. The island is one of the best places in the world to view the great white shark. But it’s not the easiest place to get to. Guadalupe island is considered a biosphere reserve so you’ll need to get a permit from the Mexican government if you would like to visit. But, if you’re not concerned with staying on the island and only want to experience a cage dive in one of the world’s top shark diving destinations, then you have some options. Catch a boat from San Diego, CA or Ensenada, Mexico as your launching point for an adrenaline-filled experience. The boat journey takes about 18 – 22 hours and you’ll be living on the boat for a total of 3-5 days. The boats only run from August to October, when the water temperatures hit the sweet spot to attract great white sharks. About 170-180 individual great White sharks visit the water around Guadalupe Island each year.

Coming Attractions

I hope you enjoyed this introduction to the California Floristic Province biodiversity hotspot! Next stop, the Cape Floristic Region of South Africa.

Thanks for reading!


Biodiversity Hotspots of the World (1 of 36): The Atlantic Forest of South America

Home to 35% of the South American population, the Atlantic Forest is one of the most fragmented tropical/subtropical forests in the world, which may well represent the present or future of other tropical forests worldwide.”

— Renato A. F. de LimaDepartamento de Ecologia, Universidade de São Paulo

When we hear the word “forest” in South America, the first place that usually comes to mind is the Amazon. Many people have never heard of the biodiversity hotspot that is the topic of today’s post: the Atlantic Forest. This is surprising, given that the biodiversity of the Atlantic Forest is on par with the Amazon.

Map of the Atlantic Forest Biodiversity Hotspot, from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF)

The Atlantic Forest extends 656,374 square miles along the eastern coast of Brazil and inland through parts of Argentina and Paraguay. With elevations that range from sea level to over 5,900 feet, the Atlantic Forest boasts a wide variety of habitat types, including mangrove forests, restinga (a type of moist broadleaf forest found in sandy soils), deciduous and semi-deciduous forests, Araucaria forest (a type of evergreen subtropical moist forest), and high-altitude grasslands.

With such a diverse landscape, it’s not surprising to learn that the Atlantic Forest supports a wide variety of wildlife and plants. An estimated 7% of the world’s plant species and 5% of the world’s vertebrate species are found in the Atlantic Forest, which includes many species that are not found anywhere else. It is home to over 250 mammal species (55 endemic), 340 amphibian species (90 endemic), over 1000 species of birds (188 endemic), and approximately 20,000 species of plants (half are endemic). In the past 30 years, scientists have discovered 9 new species of birds, 30 new species of mammals, and ~100 new species of frogs.

The Atlantic Forest is home to a famous tree called the pau brasil (Caesalpinia echinata) or Brazilwood. Portuguese traders valued the pau brasil as a source of reddish colored dye. These traders called the area the “Land of Brasil”, which was the origin of the country name of Brazil. The forest is also home to many charismatic animals such as jaguars, sloths, toucans, and tamarins.

Golden Lion Tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia)

Conservation Status

The Atlantic Forest is one of the most threatened forests in the world. The region is home to over 148 million people, including the cities of Sao Paulo, Porto Alegre, and Rio de Janeiro. The region generates an estimated 70% of Brazil’s gross domestic product. Infrastructure development, agriculture, and tree plantations have taken a major toll on the area. Less than 12% of the original forest remains, much of it in small and unconnected fragments.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Given the amazing diversity of wildlife and plants, the Atlantic Forest receives a lot of attention from non-government organizations, governments, and the private sector. Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay have increased the total protected forest area by more than 20%, thanks to efforts to protect the existing forest and recover lost areas of the forest.

With elevations ranging from sea level to over 5,900 feet, the Atlantic Forest supports a spectacular variety of plant and animal species.

Travel and Tourism

Given its proximity to large cities, ecotourism opportunities abound in the Atlantic Forest.

In Brazil, the Atlantic Forest South-East Reserves located in the Brazilian states of Paraná and São Paulo offer some of the best examples of Atlantic Forest habitat. The Atlantic Forest South-East Reserves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes over 1.1 million acres spread across 25 protected areas.

In Paraguay, two of the most important areas of remaining Atlantic Forest can be found in Mbaracayú Forest Nature Reserve and San Rafael Lagoon (a proposed National Park).

In Argentina, the northern province of Misiones has the has the world’s largest continuous area of Atlantic Forest, and most of it is formally protected as national and provincial parks such as Iguazu National Park, Urugua-í Provincial Park, and Cruce Caballero Provincial Park.

The amazing Iguazu falls on the border of Argentina and Brazil

Coming Attractions

I hope you enjoyed this brief overview of the Atlantic Forest biodiversity hotspot! For our next post, we’ll be heading to the western United States for an overview of the California Floristic Province biodiversity hotspot.

Thanks for reading!


What is a “biodiversity hotspot” and how is it different from other conservation and protected areas?

Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.

— Aldo Leopold

In earlier posts, we defined the term “biodiversity”, reviewed the major threats to biodiversity, and identified a variety of protection strategies. Today, we’ll continue our definitions discussion by reviewing terms that are frequently used to classify species and the land they depend upon. While this topic may sound as exciting as a colonoscopy, it will help us speak the same language as we explore the world’s most amazing places for biodiversity and wildlife. These biodiversity hotspots are our top priority for conservation.

Biodiversity Hotspots

Let’s start with the term “biodiversity hotspot.” A biodiversity hotspot has a very specific meaning. British ecologist Norman Myers first used the term “hotspot” in a paper that he wrote in 1988. In his paper, Myers identified ten tropical forest “hotspots” that contained large numbers of endemic plants and high levels of habitat loss. By “endemic”, we mean a species that is native to a single defined geographic region. The non-governmental organization Conservation International then took this hotspot idea and ran with it. Today, the “biodiversity hotspot” is the key concept underlying the organization’s conservation priorities. As Conservation International points out on its website, to qualify as a biodiversity hotspot, a region must meet two strict criteria:

  1. The region must have at least 1,500 endemic vascular plant species. These places contain a high percentage of plant life found nowhere else on earth and are irreplaceable.
  2. The region must have 30% or less of its original natural vegetation. In other words, these are highly threatened areas.

Today, Conservation International has identified 36 biodiversity hotspots on the planet. These biodiversity hotspots represent only 2.4% of the Earth’s land surface but support more than half of the world’s endemic plant species and ~43% of endemic bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian species.

Biodiversity hotspots also account for 35% of the “ecosystem services” that human populations depend upon. Ecosystem services are the processes through which natural ecosystems and their constituent species sustain and fulfill human life. We all enjoy ecosystem services that are often taken for granted, such as the pollination of crops and natural vegetation, the purification of water and air, climate regulation, flood and pest control, soil retention, and detoxification and decomposition of waste. Studies calculate that the Earth’s biosphere provides anywhere from US$ 16 to US$ 125 trillion worth of services per year, free of charge, for the good of people, businesses, and the planet.

Where are these “biodiversity hotspots?” Glad you asked! Here is a Conservation International map that gives you a rough idea of their locations.

Don’t worry about the lack of detail provided in the map. We’ll be exploring each of these biodiversity hotspots in future posts. After all, today we’re focused only on definitions!

IUCN Protected Areas

Since you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing that you’ve heard of terms like “National Park” or “Wilderness Area”. These terms are part of a classification system created by The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN defines a “protected area” as “a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” If an area meets the criteria of this wordy definition of a protected area, then it is placed into one of six management categories:

  • Ia Strict nature reserve: Strictly protected for biodiversity and also possibly geological/ geomorphological features, where human visitation, use and impacts are controlled and limited to ensure protection of the conservation values.
  • Ib Wilderness area: Usually large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, protected and managed to preserve their natural condition.
  • II National park: Large natural or near-natural areas protecting large-scale ecological processes with characteristic species and ecosystems, which also have environmentally and culturally compatible spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational and visitor opportunities.
  • III Natural monument or feature: Areas set aside to protect a specific natural monument, which can be a landform, sea mount, marine cavern, geological feature such as a cave, or a living feature such as an ancient grove.
  • IV Habitat/species management area: Areas to protect particular species or habitats, where management reflects this priority. Many will need regular, active interventions to meet the needs of particular species or habitats, but this is not a requirement of the category.
  • V Protected landscape or seascape: Where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced a distinct character with significant ecological, biological, cultural and scenic value: and where safeguarding the integrity of this interaction is vital to protecting and sustaining the area and its associated nature conservation and other values.
  • VI Protected areas with sustainable use of natural resources: Areas which conserve ecosystems, together with associated cultural values and traditional natural resource management systems. Generally large, mainly in a natural condition, with a proportion under sustainable natural resource management and where low-level non-industrial natural resource use compatible with nature conservation is seen as one of the main aims.

Not exactly an easy read, I know. In practice, the lines between these six categories can get blurry. To address this, the IUCN adds a caveat that “the category should be based around the primary management objective(s), which should apply to at least three-quarters of the protected area – the 75 per cent rule.”

On a side note, you may have noticed that the definition of a national park doesn’t say anything about biodiversity. In fact, many U.S. national parks are facetiously referred to as “rock and ice” by some conservationists because of their location in deserts and high mountains and their emphasis on conserving landscape views and unique geological features.

IUCN Red List Categories

The IUCN also creates the “Red List” which places species of animals, plants, and fungi into specific categories that serve as a health indicator of the world’s biodiversity. You’ve heard terms such as “endangered species” and “extinct species”? Well, those are two categories of the IUCN Red List. Below is a graphic from Bird Life International that shows the different IUCN categories. Of course, each category has specific criteria that I won’t go into in this blog post.

Today, more than 128,500 species have been assessed to determine which Red List category they fall in. While that might sound like a lot, it’s not. When you consider that there are millions of species on Earth, you can see that we have a long way to go. Of the 128,500 species that have been assessed so far, more than 35,500 species are threatened with extinction. The graphic below shows the breakdown. To learn more about the IUCN Red List, I encourage you to visit their website at

The Red List category for an assessed species can have major downstream ramifications. Government agencies, non-governmental organizations, environmental planners, and businesses use these categories to guide important conservation decisions. From a business perspective, a lot of money can be at stake. The presence of an endangered species can be a showstopper for a proposed development project. That’s why you’ll see some “lively debate” around species classifications.

National, State, and NGO Designations

To add to the list of acronyms for areas that have special significance for biodiversity and wildlife, there are also a wide variety of National, State and non-governmental organization (NGO) designations that you may come across, depending on the country you are in.

A well-known national example in the U.S. is the National Wildlife Refuge designation that is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. National Wildlife Refuges are protected areas that are managed with the goal to conserve native species of fish, wildlife, and plants. Today, there are 568 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts in the U.S.

For a state-level example in the U.S., California has identified 34 Areas of Special Biological Significance (ASBS), which are ocean areas that support an unusual variety of aquatic life and often host unique species.

Finally, non-governmental organizations are also in on the act. For example, BirdLife International (a global partnership of NGOs) created the “Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA)” designation to identify sites that are important for the conservation of bird populations. BirdLife International has identified over 13,000 IBAs worldwide. In case you aren’t feeling overwhelmed yet, I will add that IBAs are actually a type of KBA, or Key Biodiversity Area. KBAs are the most important places in the world for species and their habitats. Over 15,000 Key Biodiversity Areas are acknowledged worldwide.

Coming Attractions

Whew! You made it through the alphabet soup of biodiversity-related acronyms. If your eyes glazed over with all the terminology, no worries. Just know that there is a lot of effort being put into identifying, categorizing, and mapping the most important areas in the world from a biodiversity perspective.

In my next series of posts, I’ll be highlighting the 36 biodiversity hotspots of the world that have been identified by Conservation International. I hope you’ll join me for the ride.

Thanks for reading!