A Global Treasure
The 116 000 km² Succulent Karoo hotspot extends from the
southwest through the northwestern areas of South Africa and into southern
Namibia. It supports the richest succulent flora on Earth. Succulents, or in
Afrikaans vetplante (literally "fat plants"), make up 29 percent of all plant
species. The world's highest local diversity of succulents was recorded in the
mountainous desert of the hotspot's Gariep area, with more than 330 species in
an area of just 1.3 km².
The Succulent Karoo is also notable for its high diversity of bulbs, which make
up 18 percent of its plant species. In addition, the hotspot is a centre of
diversity for reptiles and various invertebrate groups and supports a variety of
mammals and many of South Africa's endemic birds.
The reptiles of the Succulent Karoo are particularly diverse, with 115 species
of which 36 are found nowhere else. Tortoise diversity is especially impressive.
A large number of unique invertebrate animals live in this arid environment as
well. Important insect groups include monkey beetles, wasps and various
specialized groups of bees. A number of these species are the sole pollinators
of the flowers they visit.
The recently described Barlow's lark — one of 269 bird species found here — is
unique to the Succulent Karoo. The Black harrier, which has the most restricted
range of the world's 13 harrier species, is frequently observed hunting over the
In pre-colonial times, larger mammals were a conspicuous feature of the Succulent Karoo.
Gemsbok ranged on the sandy coastal
plain of Namaqualand. Cape mountain zebra were common in the uplands. Vast herds
of springbok migrated from the summer rainfall areas on the inland plateau into
the Succulent Karoo for the winter. All of these mammals still occur in the
region. Elephant, black rhinoceros and Cape buffalo have long since disappeared
from the gallery forest habitats along the Orange River, although black
rhinoceros are being re-introduced in certain areas.
Pressures on Biodiversity
Only 3.5 percent of the region is formally protected in conservation areas. Most
of the region, an estimated 100 000 km², is used as communal or commercial
grazing. Although this land use can be compatible with the maintenance of
biodiversity, overgrazing has severely degraded as much as two-thirds of this
area. The recent expansion of the ostrich farming industry has devastated
thousands of hectares in the Little Karoo and is likely to pose a greater threat
in the future. Mining and agriculture along river corridors have also had a
significant impact on the region and are likely to expand in the future.
Succulent species are highly prized by collectors and are threatened by illegal
collection and trade. Invasive alien species pose yet another threat to many
areas of the Succulent Karoo.
Only 30 000 km² of the Succulent Karoo (about 27 percent) exists in a relatively
pristine state. Existing traditional conservation areas have become islands that
do not include a range of climatic and environmental conditions to allow plants
and animals to move in response to seasonal and long-term climatic changes. This
is particularly critical in the Succulent Karoo, where species are already
experiencing the impact of human-induced climatic change. As a result of
existing pressures, already fully 936 plant species, 17 percent of the total
that occur in the Succulent Karoo, are threatened.
Fortunately there are viable solutions that can maintain biodiversity while
promoting sustainable development. SKEP was conceived to provide the forum for
finding these solutions.
SKEP obtained information and generated consensus among stakeholders for a
holistic conservation and sustainable land-use plan for the Succulent Karoo.
SKEP, which means "to serve" or "to create" in Afrikaans, involved more than 60
scientific experts and 400 local stakeholders representing government, academia,
non-governmental organisations, private sector interests and local communities
in a unique approach to conservation planning.
The SKEP planning process was managed by a technical working group of
Conservation International, the Botanical Society of South Africa, Eco-Africa
Environmental Consultants, the Institute for Plant Conservation, the Ministry of
Environment and Tourism of Namibia, the National Botanical Institute of South
Africa and the Terrestrial Ecology Research Unit. Additionally, local
representatives for each sub-region, known as champions, and two special
advisors participated in all decision-making.
The SKEP 20-year strategy is derived directly from the people living in the
hotspot, confirmed and augmented by the scientific community and national and
regional-level stakeholders through the SKEP process.
- Create a co-ordinated conservation and sustainable land-use programme throughout
the Succulent Karoo that involves all main land-use sectors and additional role
players in working towards conservation targets.
- Secure 100 percent of conservation targets for Succulent Karoo vegetation types
under conservation management regimes controlled by state, communal, private or
corporate entities. This will effectively conserve 75 percent of the species in
- Maintain populations of key indicator and flagship species within priority
geographic areas at their current levels.
- Conserve important ecological processes, namely the sand corridor movements,
river corridors and climatic gradients, by protective legislation and
improvement of local management practices.
Geographic Priorities for Biodiversity Conservation
SKEP recommends giving priority to conserving habitats within nine geographic
priority areas that have few options for achieving conservation targets and are
most vulnerable to future land-use pressure
The 607 050 ha Sperrgebiet in Namibia encompasses nearly all of the northern
extent of the Succulent Karoo and is the only wilderness area in the hotspot. As
a mining concession for the last century, it has been strictly off-limits to the
public and scientists. In addition to a high concentration of unique plants,
amphibians and reptiles, wild populations of gemsbok, springbok and carnivores
such as brown hyena live in this undisturbed environment. This unique area
boasts the highest levels of biodiversity in all of Namibia.
The Greater Richtersveld includes the Gariep region, covering 2 066 403 ha,
which has a staggering 2392 plant species, 818 of which are unique and 462 of
which are threatened. Since 80 percent of the plant species are succulents, this
is widely regarded as the area with the world's highest succulent diversity.
Many unique plant species, such as the flagship halfmens and the giant bastard
quiver tree, are locally rare and occur only in small colonies. The Greater
Richtersveld also has the highest cover, density and diversity of lichens in the
world with 29 species.
The Bushmanland Inselberg area is located on the northeast margin of the
Succulent Karoo hotspot, just south of the Orange River and the border between
Namibia and South Africa. The area is dominated by a plain of desert grasslands
and interrupted by inselbergs, ancient rocky outcrops in irregular patterns.
These provide important refuge for plants and animals and act as stepping-stones
for rock-loving species migrating east west across the sand-covered plains of
Bushmanland. The 338 084 ha area includes 429 plant species, of which 67 are
found only in this hotspot and 87 are threatened.
The Namaqualand Uplands encompass the highlands of central Namaqualand in the
Northern Cape Province. The area is known for its spectacular displays of spring
flowers and high diversity of bulbous flowers. The 360 810 ha area includes 1109
species, of which 286 are found nowhere else and 107 are threatened. In addition
to its diversity, the region contains large zones of transitional vegetation
between succulent and fynbos habitats. Experts consider these zones crucial for
continued speciation and resilience to climate change.
Central Namaqualand Coast
Although diamond mining and tourism development have transformed much of the
Namaqualand coastline, the Central Namaqualand Coast incorporates a crucial 30
km-wide tract of relatively pristine coastline where access to diamond mining
areas was controlled. The 372 709 ha area includes 432 plant species, 85 of
which are unique to the Succulent Karoo and 44 of which are threatened. Flagship
species include locally dominant unique species such as Grant's golden mole and
Gronovi's dwarf burrowing skink.
The Knersvlakte is an extensive dry plain in the center of the Succulent Karoo
hotspot bounded on the east by the Bokkeveld Mountains. Fields of white quartz
pebbles cover the gently rolling hills of the area and are associated with
unique dwarf succulent plants. The quartz patches, and their associated
biodiversity patterns and processes, are unsurpassed in Namaqualand and
globally. The 522 317 ha area is extremely rich in plant species, with a total
of 1324 species, 266 of which are found nowhere else. The Knersvlakte is also
home to the greatest number of threatened species, with 128 threatened species.
The Hantam-Roggeveld area is centered on the town of Calvinia and encompasses
both the Bokkeveld and Roggeveld escarpments. The total plant species tally in
this 932 140 ha area is 1767, of which 357 are found nowhere else and 173 are
threatened. The area includes the only vegetation type in the world that is
dominated by the bulb life form. Due to relatively low levels of transformation
in this priority area, there are excellent opportunities to include viable
populations of black rhinoceros and upland-lowland seasonal migration routes for
animals, especially springbok.
Central Breede River Valley
The Worcester/Robertson Karoo Centre, which includes the Middle Breede River
Valley, 206 741 ha has approximately 1207 species of plants of which 104 are
endemic and 58 are Red List species. Of the endemics, 77 percent are succulent
species, although other groups such as the bulbs are also important. Only 2.4
percent of this region is conserved and this is the most transformed part of the
Succulent Karoo. The principal sources of transformation include wine production
Central Little Karoo
The Central Little Karoo lies in the valley between the Langeberg and Swartberg
mountain ranges in the south of the Succulent Karoo hotspot. There are 1325
species in this 548 150 ha area, including 182 species unique to the Succulent
Karoo and 92 threatened species. Although unique and rare species are found
throughout the Central Little Karoo landscape, many are concentrated along veins
of weathered quartz, where patches of white pebbles provide camouflage and
moderate the temperature for stone plants.
Summary of SKEP 20-year Strategy
The SKEP 20-year strategy is derived directly from the people living in the
hotspot, confirmed and augmented by the scientific community, national and
regional-level stakeholders through the SKEP process. The strategy consists of a
comprehensive set of actions that will achieve conservation targets by
addressing constraints and maximising opportunities that are most relevant for
each sub-region. These actions are summarised below as a series of four
strategic focal areas. Within these focal areas, recommendations common to all
four sub-regional strategies are summarised as priority activities. Finally,
specific approaches for undertaking the activities that arose from the workshops
are summarised as the strategy. Though far-reaching and widely supported, it is
recognised that the SKEP strategy is a living document and these priority
actions and strategic emphasis will evolve over time.
Strategic Focal Areas
Expanding protected areas and improving conservation management, particularly
through the expansion of public-private-communal-corporate partnerships.
Improving the capacity of the government organisations responsible for protected
areas — particularly in the areas of planning, outreach and biodiversity
monitoring capacity — was identified as a priority for expanding and managing a
network of reserves that would contribute to achieving SKEP targets. However,
large, conservation-worthy tracts of land in the Succulent Karoo are owned and
used by mining, agricultural and tour companies, as well as by communities and
private farmers. An additional SKEP priority in this area is, therefore, to
promote and facilitate innovative programmes that involve local landowners in
the creation of effective conservation areas within the priority areas and
throughout the region.
Increasing local, national and international awareness of the unique
biodiversity of the Succulent Karoo.
Generating local and national awareness about the importance of the hotspot is
the first step to ensuring conservation practices are adopted. SKEP will
therefore invest in general public awareness campaigns around this message, but
more importantly SKEP's strategy will be to get people, particularly land users,
government officials and youth, involved in activities that support the SKEP
vision and expand the conservation awareness of the importance of the Succulent
Karoo hotspot. Additionally, SKEP will seek to raise international awareness
about the Succulent Karoo's biodiversity as a way of supporting sustainable
development activities in the region.
Support the creation of a matrix of harmonious land uses.
The effectiveness of SKEP to achieve its conservation targets will depend on its
ability to influence government sectors and private agents to implement
conservation activities in the greater Succulent Karoo matrix. Within this focal
area, SKEP will encourage partnerships between the conservation community and
key industry and government stakeholders and provide exposure to opportunities
for enhancing their business and development interests while simultaneously
meeting conservation objectives.
Improve institutional co-ordination to generate momentum and focus on
priorities, maximize opportunities for partnerships and ensure sustainability.
Effective conservation of the Succulent Karoo requires the integration of
biodiversity concerns into all agencies and actors involved in land use,
decision-making, education and enforcement. In addition to the conservation
community, a wide constituency of stakeholders who may not be directly concerned
with biodiversity but whose actions can impact the success of SKEP must be given
the tools to integrate biodiversity conservation into their work. By expanding
participation in a broad vision, SKEP can maximise opportunities to mainstream
biodiversity and ensure that the momentum generated for a holistic SKEP
programme is institutionally and financially sustainable.
Article Date: 18 May 2005