“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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
There is so much to explore in the Cape Floristic Region. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes areas such as Table Mountain, De Hoop Nature Reserve, the Boland (aka Cape Winelands), Kogelberg Nature Reserve, The Groot Winterhoek wilderness area, the Swartberg Mountains, the Boosmansbos wilderness area, Cederberg, 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).
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!