Author: South African National Biodiversity Institute
( Article Type: Explanation )
The grasslands biome is the second largest of the country’s nine biomes, covering an area of 339 237.68 km2 in seven provinces. The biome is rich in plant diversity, making it second only to the internationally-renowned biodiversityrich Cape Floristic Region. The biome has over 370 plant species, 15 of South Africa’s 34 endemic mammal species, and 10 of South Africa’s 14 globally threatened bird species including South Africa’s national bird, the Blue Crane. In addition to its important biodiversity, the grasslands play a critical role in water production with the South Africa’s major river systems all originating in the biome, with wetlands fulfilling an important water provision and flood attenuation role in the grasslands.
In 2004, the National Spatial Biodiversity Assessment (NSBA) identified the Grasslands biome as the most threatened with over 30% already irreversibly transformed and only 1.9% of vegetation targets formally conserved. An assessment of conservation priorities in the grasslands biome (Grassland Biodiversity Spatial Priority Assessment 2005) identified 36,7% of the land area as being important for conservation. About 12% of the biome needs to be under formal protection by 2028.
Facts about South Africa’s grasslands biome
• Of the 72 vegetation types in SA’s grasslands biome, two are classified as critically endangered, 14 as endangered and 24 as vulnerable.
• The majority of the population harvests the medicinal plants such as the Milkweed, Fever tea, African potato and Elands bean from the grasslands biome.
• The biggest river systems in the country originate from the grasslands, namely uMzimvubu, Vaal, Mfolozi, Orange and the Tugela catchments.
• About 43% of SA wetlands are found in the biome. Five of South Africa’s nineteen Ramsar sites are located in the Grassland biome.
• About 6.4 million cattle and 13 million sheep graze the grasslands.
• The biome is home to 3370 plant species, 42 river ecosystems, and 3 World Heritage sites.
• Of the 40 species of birds endemic to South Africa, 21 species (53%) are found in the grasslands biome which includes some of the globally threatened species such as the Wattled Crane, Blue Swallow, Rudds and Botha’s Larks.
• Of the 195 reptile species endemic to South Africa, 22% are found in the biome and one-third of the 107 threatened South African butterfl y species occur in the grasslands.
The grasslands programme
The Grasslands Programme, hosted by SANBI is a 20 year South African initiative which aims ‘to sustain and secure the rich biodiversity and ecosystem services of the grasslands biome for current and future generations’. The Programme was officially launched in May 2008 by the Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Ms Rejoice Mabudafhasi. The Programme influences policies and decision-making by engaging partners in sectors that utilise the biome, including agriculture, forestry, urban development and coal mining. Market level initiatives to direct the development footprint away from high priority biodiversity areas as well incentivise ‘greener’ production practices are being developed with partners in the Grasslands Programme. The Programme also works with land owners in the key economic sectors to protect important biodiversity on privately owned land through biodiversity stewardship. What makes the Grasslands Programme unique in its approach to meet conservation targets, is its strategy to work in the major economic sectors to incorporate biodiversity goals in their plans for plantations, food production, urban development and coal mining. For more, visit www.grasslands.org.za