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Grasslands park project bioblitz turns up many new species

A biological survey of a part of the Eastern Cape Drakensberg that has been earmarked for the establishment of a new grasslands national park has turned up several new and undescribed species.

The intention is to establish the new national grasslands park in a working agricultural landscape through voluntary stewardship agreements with both communal and private landowners.

The area earmarked for this project is in the north-eastern grasslands of the Eastern Cape between Rhodes village, Nqanqarhu (previously known as Maclear) and Mount Fletcher. A better understanding of the biological diversity is required to help guide a long-term management plan.

To gain a clearer understanding of distribution patterns, species of conservation concern and the identification of endemic and range-restricted species, 50 taxonomic experts, ecologists and key biodiversity practitioners participated in the week-long “bioblitz” in February 2022. The event was led by SANParks, with support from the SA National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and WWF South Africa.

Below are some of the highlights in the final reports collated by SANBI:

  • Spiders: Ruan Booysen and team from the University of the Free State found a total of 149 species, many of which could be Drakensberg endemics, and collected several unknown and undescribed species. They recommended that further research be done in the area.
  • Plants: Vathiswa Zikishe and the SANBI and Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency teams observed 521 plant species including one undescribed orchid species which has yet to be published, and two species that have only recently been described. They said the area displayed an incredible diversity of plants and recommended regular field surveys for this “data scarce region”.
  • Ants: Peter Hawkes and his Afribug team found 54 ant species, six of which were undescribed and a further 18 that are not yet fully identified. They also found at least one, possibly two, undescribed species of flightless katydids (sometimes known as bush crickets). Hawkes said even though the survey period was brief, it had resulted in a “substantial contribution to the knowledge of South African ant fauna”.
  • Water beetles: David Bilton and team from the University of Plymouth and the University of Johannesburg sampled around 70 species across 19 sites and also found some species new to science with identification ongoing.
  • Hover-flies: John Midgley and team from the KwaZulu-Natal Museum recorded 50 species of hover-flies which amounts to almost 1% of the global diversity. They reported that the higher altitude sites had lower overall diversity but with several rare species making the site worthy of special conservation attention.
  • Snakes, frogs & lizards: Werner Conradie from the Port Elizabeth Museum and team recorded eight amphibian species and 12 reptile species, with three new records for the region.
  • Birds: Melissa Whitecross and team from BirdLife South Africa reported that the birdlife in the area was excellent, particularly in the high-altitude areas which yielded good numbers of the endemic species and included encounters with both Cape and Bearded vultures. Overall, they recorded more than 130 species.

Some bioblitz participants also looked at the veld condition and the general health of the rivers and wetlands in the area. Among the management needs identified were for the maintenance of the veld through a regular fire regime, control of invasive alien species, management of erosion, and the reduction of grazing on the steepest slopes.

The bioblitz findings concluded that the high altitude sites were still in relatively pristine condition and that the area offered a multitude of natural attractions, among them birds, floral diversity, geology, stargazing, and cultural heritage. This holds great potential for training local guides from surrounding communities to meet the needs of the ecotourism market as the park project progresses.

Participants in the February bioblitz negotiate some tricky terrain on one of the sites earmarked for potential inclusion in a proposed new grasslands national park in the Eastern Cape.

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