The Diverse Biomes of South Africa: A Nature Lover’s Guide

south african biomes

South Africa is a country that is very rich in biodiversity on both the flora and fauna fronts. It is a land that is characterized by diverse landscapes and rich ecosystems. This is also reflected in the cultural diversity of the people of this country. You can’t help but notice all of this as you make your way across the nine provinces and see the landscape changing beautifully. Isn’t it an amazing coincidence that there are also nine biomes in total that give character to the topography of this country? Today I want to talk about the eight major terrestrial biomes, what they look like, and how they contribute to the beauty of this country. The Indian Ocean coastal belt is the ninth biome but it will not be the subject of today’s discussion.

South African Biomes At A Glance

Here are the 9 South African Biomes:

  1. Grassland Biome: Covers almost a third of the country, characterized by flat and rolling topography, and home to a diverse range of plant and animal species, including the national bird, the blue crane.
  2. Thicket Biome: Found along the coast, it consists of evergreen and succulent trees and shrubs. It’s the habitat for species like the African Elephant and Kudu, and includes the Addo Elephant National Park.
  3. Nama Karoo Biome: A semi-desert region covering 21% of the country, known for its deciduous vegetation and diverse wildlife, including the endangered Riverine Rabbit.
  4. Fynbos Biome: Occupying 7% of the land, it’s known for its large variety of plant species and is a hotspot for fynbos harvesting.
  5. Savanna Biome: The largest biome, covering 34% of the land, with a mix of trees, shrubs, and grasses. It supports a wide range of wildlife, including the iconic Big Five.
  6. Forest Biome: The smallest biome, characterized by a closed canopy of trees and a rich underlayer of plants. It includes the largest forest, Tsitsikama, outside Knysna.
  7. Succulent Karoo Biome: Known for its vast collection of succulents, this biome covers 7.5% of the country and is prominent in Namaqualand, famous for its seasonal flower blooms.
  8. Desert Biome: Shared with Namibia, it features sandy soil and a range of unique plants and animals adapted to arid conditions.
  9. Indian Coastal Belt Biome: Warm, humid climate with vast vegetation. You’ll find a lot of sealife here as well as some rarer species like the Samango monkey!

1. Grassland

Mainly found on the high central plateau of the country, and the inland areas of Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Eastern Cape it is the second largest biome covering almost a third of the country, an area of approximately 360,0000 kms (224,000 mi). These are the areas that mainly get frost in the winter season and they get summer rainfall with an average of 450mm – 1,900 mm of rainfall a year. Its topography is mainly flat and rolling. This biome is home to about 3,800 plant species. Fires are quite common in these areas and so there aren’t many trees but it’s mostly geophytes (plants with short seasonal life spans and mostly underground storage organs), grass and some flowering plants that grow there . There are roughly 14 vegetation types growing here. Grasslands are great for livestock farming, mostly cattle and sheep, and they are habitat to large herds of antelope and many smaller animals. There are also ten bird species that are exclusively restricted to grasslands.

Some of the species that this biome is home to are: the giant bullfrog, blue crane which is the national bird, red-winged francolin, black wildebeest and the star flower.

2. Thicket

Occurring in a rather fragmented band along the coast from the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal down to the Western Cape province, this biome covers mostly the Eastern Cape province. It takes up just under 3% of the country which is roughly 31,500 kms (19,500 mi) of land. It is home to a species of woody plants and is characterized by many evergreen and succulent trees, and shrub vegetation, with a tree component of varying proportions. Some of the wild animals that are found here are the African Elephant, Kudu, Vervet Monkey and Bushbuck. Addo Elephant National Park which is the third largest national park after Kruger National Park and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is about 45 kms (28 mi) outside of Port Elizabeth, the main city of the Eastern Cape province. Addo offers more than just the 600 elephants on-site, they also have over 400 Cape buffalo, lions and hyenas, antelope, zebra and warthog, among other species.

Some of the species that have made the Thicket Biome their home are: the African savanna elephant, tree dassie, Addo dung beetle and the Albany adder.

3. Nama Karoo

Being the third largest in the country, it covers about 21% of the country, which is around 260,000 kms (161,000 mi). It stretches over the central plateau of the western half of South Africa. This region experiences windy and hot summers and very cold winters and it gets very little rain. It is a semi-desert area. Most of the plants are deciduous, which means the lose their leaves in dry season. It is also characterized by low shrubs and grass. Some of the common animals you will find here are the Ostrich, the Bat-Eared Fox, Tortoises, Spring Hare, Brown Locust and the Riverine Rabbit. The rabbit is a threatened species. The Nama Karoo is well-known for sheep and goat farming. Some of the best lamb that you will eat in some top notch restaurants here comes from there. Just ask for Karoo lamb. Some people in the main river valleys of this area farm olives, citrus and deciduous fruit. 

Nama Karoo has a huge number of reptiles and is also home to: Karoo padloper tortoises, Namaqua sandgrouse, steenbok and the yellow mongoose. It is also home to a number of special insectivorous mammals and birds, which are some of the smallest and largest species in this country. 

4. Fynbos

The Fynbos takes up almost 7% of the land, an area that is 85,000 kms (53,000 mi) large which is situated in the south western corner of the country. It is home to the largest plant species of all biomes, housing around 8,000 species. Specifically the area stretches along the coast and in the Cape Fold Mountains along Nieuwouldtville in the north-west with Port Elizabeth to the east. Also known as the Cape Floral Kingdom, This area gets wet winters and dry and hot summers and the type of vegetation found here mostly is Fynbos and Renosterveld. Some of the fynbos plants available here are proteas, ericas and restios, and other groups of plants like daisies, legume, geophytes, and vygies. The animals you can expect to find here are the bontebok, small buck like grysbok and steenbok, leopard, chacma baboon, tortoises, porcupine, and nectar- and seed-eating birds. 

Most people who live in the area work in fynbos harvesting where they’re harvesting buchu for medicine and flavoring, wildflowers, restios for thatching, and rooibos tea. 

5. Savanna

Covering 34% of the land (435,000 km / 270,000 mi) it is the largest biome in South Africa. This biome stretches from the Kalahari in the north-west across to the lowveld in the north-east and southwards to the lowlands of KwaZulu Natal and the Eastern Cape provinces. The vegetation is mostly a mixture of trees or shrubs and grasses, and the shrubs include shrub-land, bushveld and woodland. This area is also known as the bushveld. This area experiences summer rains but the amount differs across the regions, ranging from around 235mm per year in the Kalahari to more than 1,000mm per year in the eastern parts. Most geological soil types are found in the savanna biome. Also the variation in environmental factors contribute to the variation in the life that it supports and the vegetation.

There are more than 5,700 plant species that grow in the savanna biome, and even though fires are quite common, most of the plants re-grow. Some of the trees that grow here are the Baobab, Mopane, Camel Thorn and Knob Thorn trees. The flagship species you can expect to find here are: white rhino, wild dog, Cape vulture, ground hornbill, over 500 bird species, 167 mammal species, and 161 reptile species. The Savanna is also home to some of the big African animals like the lions, elephants, buffalos and kudus.

6. Forest

This is the smallest biome in South Africa covering only 0,25% of the land. High rainfall and frost-free areas support the growth of forest. You will recognize the forest biome by how it consists of trees that form a closed canopy and has layers of plants that grow beneath the canopy. The forest biome is a fragmented area occurring mostly in the Drakensberg and the coastal plains. The largest forest is the Tsitsikama outside a town called Knysna in the Western Cape. You will also find a dune forest in St Lucia in KwaZulu-Natal province stretching all the way to the northern border of the province.

Some of the plants you can expect to see here are: climbers, epiphytes, mosses and ferns, as well as, yellowwood, stinkwood and ironwood trees. When it comes to animals expect to see bushbuck, bushpig, monkeys, knysna loeries, pigeons and eagles.

7. Succulent Karoo

It covers an area of 87,000 kms (54,000 mi) which is about 7,5% of the country and covers mostly the dry western parts of this country, including Namaqualand and the Richtersveld. This area gets very limited rainfall and very hot and dry summers with temperatures above 40 deg Cel (104 F). The area gets some rain in winter which varies from 20-290 mm per year.

The type of vegetation that one can expect to find here are semi-desert shrubs with the largest amount of succulents for the area of its size, mostly vygies and stonecrops. This is more than can be found anywhere else in the world. Expect to also see small wild animals like the bat-eared fox, barking gecko, suricate (meerkat), birds, and invertebrates. Most of these animals are nocturnal and hide underground during the day to escape from the hot, dry conditions. Namaqualand is also known for its flower season which is short, just about a month long but it is a beauty to behold, especially the proteas and the sunflowers.

8. Desert

The desert biome is shared by South Africa and Namibia as it is on the border of these two countries. It has similar characteristics to the Succulent Karoo biome and the Nama-Karoo biome with the rainfall averaging 70 mm per year. The weather is very hot and dry and the soil is sandy. Both geophytes and succulents grow in the desert because they can retain water.

Some of the plant species that can be found here are the Welwitschia plant and the quiver tree, and when it comes to animals expect to spot some gemsbok, also known as the Oryx gazelle.

Visiting South African Biomes

To be honest not all South African biomes have a lot of activities for international visitors so I’m going to mention two here that will give you more bang for your buck:

  • Fynbos: Tsitsikama National Park
    • Situated just outside of Knysna, has so much to offer and you will get some of the best holiday experiences here that include visiting Addo Elephant Park where you get the opportunity to interact with the elephants, and the Tsitsikama forest where you will experience the fynbos at its best. Also known as the water sports lovers’ paradise, some of the activities that you can indulge in here are swimming, sailing, diving, snorkeling, kayaking and watching dolphins. For the more adventurous there’s abseiling, mountain biking, bungee jumping, hiking the Otter Trail which is known as one of the best in the world, and climbing. The rivers in this region house some of the most fascinating marine creatures. The park boundary stretches 5km (3 miles) out to sea, where it protects the marine life, reef and deep-sea fish. 
    • This is home to the highest bungee jump in the world which stands at 216m (853 ft). Bungee jumping takes place at Bloukrans Bridge that is on the way toward Storms River, 24 mi outside of Plettenberg Bay. The Storms River mouth itself offers plenty of activities including canopy tours where you can zipline through the trees or do walks including the suspension bridge walk. The Otter trail also starts here. This area is also a bird watchers paradise.
  • The Savanna
    • This is the area you visit when you want to experience the best of wild life that South Africa has to offer, specifically, the Big 5 (Buffalo, Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhinos). Most non-Africans picture the Savanna when they think of what South Africa looks like, but though it is the largest biome in this country, it certainly isn’t all that South Africa is about. However, there is much to do and see here for sure, for a great safari experience.

Others worth mentioning:

The Kruger National Park and the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game reserves are two of the well-known game parks in this country.

Kruger National Park (KNP) is spread across two South African provinces, Limpopo and Mpumalanga province which is the north-eastern part of the country. It is one of the largest game reserves in the entire continent. of Africa. There are tons of activities that you can do at the KNP such as going for game drives or guided walks (morning, sunset, or nighttime drives) to see the Big 5, mountain biking, eco-trails, backpacking trails, 4×4 adventure trails, and bird watching. You can even have your wedding at the KNP.

The park is home to 336 trees, 507 birds, 147 mammals, 114 reptiles, 49 fish, and 34 amphibians. During the guided drives or trails you learn a great deal about the flora and fauna of the area. This is truly a nature lovers’ paradise. Most of the rain falls between January and March. International visitors who want to visit KNP will fly into Johannesburg (JHB,) where they can either hire a car and drive themselves there, or connect to the smaller Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (KMIA) which is about 100 kms (62 mi) to KNP.

To be noted: the park has different access points/gates. So, depending on which gate you’re going to, this could be a distance of five hours drive from JHB airport or less. You have to check your gate and the closing times. Day visitors are also welcome.

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park on the other hand is in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, the eastern part of the country. It’s proclaimed to be the oldest game reserve in the continent. You will have to fly to Durban’s King Shaka International Airport (KSIA) and drive up north to Hluhluwe. This park also has the Big 5 and it hosts 86 mammals and 340 bird species in total. Known for their conservation efforts they’re the home of rhino preservation, having saved the Rhinos from near extinction in the ’60s, they currently hold around 1,600 White Rhinos in the reserve.

Some of the activities you can participate in here are game drives for Big 5 sightings, boat drives in the wetlands, 4×4 trails, and scuba diving. While you’re here you can also learn a bit about King Shaka and the history of the Zulu people, you get a bit of cultural immersion.

Human Activities Impacting Biomes in South Africa

Unfortunately, it would be impossible to miss the changes in the biomes that happen over time. This is mainly due to conversion for agricultural reasons and urban settlements.

Studies that have been done comparing untransformed protected areas to those that have been transformed show differences in the richness and abundance of species. The number of mammals is also decreasing due to growing eco-tourism, commercial hunting, and those who hunt for subsistence. Urbanization is also accelerating in South Africa with more and more people moving into the urban areas, which places a huge demand on natural resources.

Agriculture and logging cause habitat loss and/or the introduction of alien species, which puts the native species at risk, ultimately changing the biodiversity of the area. Prey-predator dynamics between the animals also contribute to the changing biodiversity and it differs greatly across the different regions.

Climate Change and How it Affects South Africa’s Biomes

Climate changes also have an impact on the biomes, mainly because the climate determines the growth of the plants, so things like prolonged droughts can cause the biomes to shrink easily as they lose their key organisms. It’s the same thing with the invasion of alien species, as this changes the biodiversity of the area. Research done by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) shows that the recent climate changes could mean that many species will become extinct by the year 2100 due to climatic conditions.

The grassland is the biome that is at most risk of changing due to increased temperatures and rising atmospheric CO2 which brings about encroachment by woody vegetation. The other biomes that are threatened by the changing climatic conditions are the Nama Karoo biome, the Fynbos biome, and the Forest biome


Which Is The Largest South African Biome?

The largest biomes in South Africa by order are:

  1. Savanna Biome: Approximately 405,026,907,317 m²
  2. Grassland Biome: Approximately 393,114,351,220 m²
  3. Nama Karoo Biome: Approximately 250,163,678,049 m²
  4. Succulent Karoo Biome: Approximately 89,344,170,732 m²
  5. Fynbos Biome: Approximately 83,387,892,683 m²
  6. Thicket, Forest, Desert, and the Indian Coastal Belt sizes are not known yet

Which Are The 9 South African Biomes?

  1. Grassland Biome
  2. Thicket Biome
  3. Nama Karoo Biome
  4. Fynbos Biome
  5. Savanna Biome
  6. Forest Biome
  7. Succulent Karoo Biome
  8. Desert Biome
  9. Indian Coastal Belt Biome

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