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WWF and global partners team up to protect a South African habitat on the verge of extinction.
Renosterveld, which literally translated means ‘rhino veld’, is part of the Cape Floral Kingdom – the smallest and richest of the six plant kingdoms in the world. It’s known as the shy sister of the more well-known fynbos habitat but is arguably the richest of all Mediterranean shrublands.
However, renosterveld faces extinction, with only 5% of the original extent remaining on the planet. This landscape has been shaped by decades of large-scale agriculture, meaning that most of what’s left untouched occurs as tiny fragments on outcrops, steep hills and in valleys in the Overberg Rûens. Despite this, renosterveld still provides a haven for an abundance of biodiversity.
The remaining islands of virgin renosterveld are, however, threatened by overgrazing from livestock, inappropriate fire regimes, illegal damming, further ploughing and invasive alien plants. Without a clear and decisive strategy to secure and connect these remnants, renosterveld will be lost forever.
The recent purchase of a key portion of property represents a major milestone achievement within the ORCT’s greater strategic plan. The conservation team that collaborated with the ORCT to buy the Plaatjieskraal property, situated 40km south of the town of Swellendam, included WWF South Africa, the UK-based World Land Trust, the IUCN NL Land Acquisition Fund, and WildLandscapes International, based in America. The property will be managed by the ORCT, in partnership with WWF South Africa and the World Land Trust.
A “powerful collaboration” for conservation
According to Dr Odette Curtis-Scott, Director of the ORCT, “This is a powerful collaboration of like-minded organisations from across the world. This is significant because it shows that renosterveld is, at last, being recognised internationally. It’s really exciting for us to be working with these incredible partners.”
The negotiations to secure the Plaatjieskraal property took 16 years, until a deal was finally reached with the landowner in 2023. She says the acquisition is essential because the farm is home to nearly 500 hectares of intact renosterveld. In contrast, around three quarters of remaining renosterveld are less than one hectare in size – the equivalent of one rugby field.
The acquisition also doubles the size of the existing Haarwegskloof Renosterveld Reserve, purchased in 2013 through a joint initiative by WWF South Africa and the ORCT. Plaatjieskraal will be declared a Nature Reserve and managed together with Haarwegskloof. “We are thrilled that 500 hectares have now been added to the 500 hectares of Haarwegskloof. These two reserves together now make up the most extensive area of protected renosterveld and are part of the largest cluster of contiguous renosterveld left on Earth.”
Home to more than 560 plant species
While the habitat is highly threatened, it nevertheless houses extraordinary levels of plant diversity: Over 560 plant species (and counting!) have been recorded to date, nearly 10% of which are species of conservation concern. The high proportion of endemic and threatened species can be attributed to the localised quartz outcrops found only on renosterveld patches within this small part of the Overberg, providing unique micro-habitats on which specialised flora have evolved.
For the World Land Trust, this project represents an exciting first, in that it focuses primarily on plant diversity. The area is a botanical hotspot with species new to science still being discovered. For example, the tiny pink iris, Hesperantha kiaratayloriae, was discovered by the ORCT on Plaatjieskraal in 2012 and has since only been found on a single additional property (which is not protected), rendering it critically endangered. This species represents an anomaly within its genus, having a novel pollination strategy whereby it is pollinated solely by a single butterfly species.
Similarly, the type specimen for the legume known as Xiphotheca rosemarinifolia was also first collected on Plaatjieskraal and is also known from just one other (unprotected) property. The delicate iris, Hesperantha muirii and the striking succulent Drosanthemum lavisii, both listed as endangered, are just some of the botanical jewels that thrive on this special site. Many animals rely on it for their persistence too, including locally rare species like aardwolf and aardvark, honey badger, several small antelope and predators and many endemic birds.
A hotspot for breeding harriers
The Haarwegskloof/Plaatjieskraal cluster also supports one of the largest breeding hotspots for the black harrier, an endemic, endangered species that relies on large, natural, intact habitats in which to breed. There are only an estimated 1300 individuals left of this charismatic raptor.
This was one of the reasons that the IUCN NL Land Acquisition Fund became involved. According to Marc Hoogeslag, coordinator of the Fund, “As the Land Acquisition Fund of IUCN NL, we did not only look at protecting the habitat of renosterveld’s charismatic animal species, but also took the fauna in this botanically unique region into account.”
Curtis-Scott says the dream is to connect all the remaining large remnants together up to the De Hoop Nature Reserve, a coastal fynbos nature reserve managed by the provincial conservation authority, CapeNature. This could be achieved by buying land where farmers are willing to sell subdivided portions of unused natural vegetation, but also by working with farmers who love their veld to sign conservation easements which commits their land to conservation in perpetuity through a voluntary title deed restriction.
Reaching the landscape dream
Curtis-Scott says, “The purchase of Plaatjieskraal’s renosterveld is the culmination of 16 years of perseverance and the formation of incredible partnerships. Conservation at the coalface is a tough and challenging place to be and we have once again been reminded that persistence, eventually, pays. We are now one step closer to our dream of a contiguous renosterveld reserve that ultimately connects to a coastal fynbos reserve.
“Much remains at stake, and we will not stop here. If we want to preserve this biodiversity hotspot and all its extraordinary hidden jewels, we need to conserve this system in its entirety, conserving its species and the crucial ecological processes that keep the system alive. This broader landscape approach to conservation is our only chance of building resilience in these severely threatened environments, particularly towards the anticipated changes to our climate.”