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A silver celebration of conserving the Succulent Karoo

This landscape looks so dry that you’d swear that nothing survives in it for long. Yet, the Succulent Karoo, renowned for its water-wise plants that put South Africa on the global biodiversity map, showcases a unique climate-sensitive region that also provides food and income for people. WWF South Africa is celebrating the silver anniversary of investing in this special landscape over the past 25 years.

© WWF South Africa/ Katherine Forsythe
The Succulent Karoo extends from the West Coast up to Namaqualand in the Northern Cape, through to Namibia, and through the Little Karoo in the Western Cape as well as into the Eastern Cape.

If you have had the fortune to visit Namaqualand or South Africa’s West Coast region during the spring flower season, usually from mid-August to mid-September, you might have experienced the beauty of this landscape when it is covered with a multi-coloured carpet of wildflowers. The variety of these daisy-like species is astonishing, yet they form only a portion of the diversity of this biome. More than 6 000 plant species, 40% of which are found nowhere else in the world, can be identified in the Succulent Karoo. It is also home to over 250 bird species, 132 reptile species, about 80 mammal species, and numerous numbers of insects.

This precious landscape is distinguished from other biodiversity hotspots by its semi-arid climate, allowing for a rich diversity of drought-resistant succulent plants.

© Therese Brinkcate
Succulent plants have a special way of surviving in the dry climate by storing water in their fat leaves, stems and roots.
Life in the semi-desert

Although only certain plants and animals survive in this region, there are people who live here too and they also have to adapt to the harsh climate. Local communities have been using this very same dry land for livestock farming for many centuries. But over the years, this area has not been doing so well as it has been placed under intense pressure from unsustainable farming and mining practices, combined with the impacts of climate change.

The Namaqualand region has been severely affected by drought and was declared a disaster area in January this year.  All these challenges make life even harder for both wildlife and the communities who rely on these landscapes for their way of life and survival. Now faced with the negative impacts of Covid-19, these communities are more vulnerable than before.

Across the Succulent Karoo, WWF has invested the generous legacy donation of Mr Leslie Hill to enable many ways of conserving this lesser-known corner of the country. From wise land purchase for public nature reserves and national parks to working with rural farming communities through voluntary biodiversity stewardship agreements, as well as supporting research into environmental issues for future protection of this biome. Through all of this, some of the communities’ farming practices have improved, various jobs have been created through conservation and the region is better supported by tourists visiting these special areas.

Protected areas for wildlife and people

In the past 25 years, WWF has purchased and secured over 229 000 hectares of land for conservation through the Leslie Hill Succulent Karoo Trust (LHSKT). This land is now managed by either SANParks or the provincial conservation agencies. These strategic land purchases have added to over 10 protected areas across the Succulent Karoo, as well as enabling the creation of a new national garden in 2007: Hantam National Botanical Garden.

Through LHSKT funding, these land purchases have been central to establishing Namaqua National Park in the Northern Cape, and the Knersvlakte Nature Reserve in the Western Cape. WWF has also contributed land for the expansion of Tankwa Karoo National Park, on the border of the Western Cape and Northern Cape, as well as Haarwegskloof Nature Reserve in the Western Cape.

Some of these conservation areas are not only crucial for the protection of Succulent Karoo plants and animals, but also for securing critical river systems.

The Tankwa Karoo National Park, for instance, protects most of the catchment for the Renoster River as well as a stretch of the perennial Tankwa River in the south. These streams, while small, join larger river systems that supply West Coast towns like Vredendal and Klawer, showing the interconnected nature of these landscapes.

LHSKT Nature Reserve
© WWF South Africa/ Jan Coetzee
The Knersvlakte Nature Reserve near Vanrhynsdorp is one of the areas that the LHSKT has invested in. It is characterised by its white quartzite gravel in amongst which the unique succulents grow.
Helping rural farmers put food on the table

Some local communities in these dry parts benefit from the land through farming, like those in Kamiesberg in the Northern Cape who make a living through goat and sheep farming.
In 2017, the LHSKT funded a project that works directly with the Kamiesberg livestock farmers. Here, the impact of overgrazing and ongoing drought has changed the way that people in these communities live as they have to survive with reduced water and limited food for their livestock.

For many years these farmers had limited access to farming support from the government, plus limited access to skills development and knowledge about sustainable farming. As a result, they used to allow their herds of goats and sheep to repeatedly graze in the same area. This increased soil erosion, and further denuded the already-dry landscape making it difficult for the vegetation to recover.

Now, these herders have to move their flocks and tribes further away from residential areas to find sections of the land with adequate vegetation for them to forage on. Even worse, the rivers in the area are now dry, so they rely on groundwater pumped into round concrete tanks where the community’s livestock has to drink from.

Through this LHSKT-funded project, 90 communal farmers have received training and mentorship to help them improve their farming methods, as well as to develop greater resilience in the face of climate change and its impacts.

Kamiesberg farmers
Livestock farming in the Northern Cape, which mainly consists of goats and sheep, contributes a lot to the local economy.
Investing in the Succulent Karoo’s future

In the last couple of years, the LHSKT stretched its funding wings even further to support research in the Succulent Karoo. The first funded PhD project was completed in early 2020. This project explored land degradation issues across Namaqualand using novel remote sensing techniques.

From funding forward-looking research to creating reasons to visit, this innovative trust has enabled investment into this landscape for a quarter of a century – securing species and special places, locals and livelihoods.

And because of the high levels of biodiversity found in the Succulent Karoo, many nature enthusiasts from around the world now choose to spend their holidays exploring these special nature areas. From bird watchers and plant lovers to hikers and cyclists, and those who just want to spend time away from busy city life to enjoy the tranquillity of nature under starry skies in these wide open parts of the country. 

Eco-tourism adds a sizable contribution to the local economy and the well-being of people, as well as creating livelihoods and job opportunities for local communities, many who are employed in these reserves and parks that have been enabled through the LHSKT.

Succulent Karoo protected area
© WWF South Africa/ Angus Burns
Thanks to a generous donation 25 years ago by the late Mr Leslie Hill, we are all able to enjoy scenic nature reserves in the biodiversity-abundant Succulent Karoo.

Mr Leslie Hill’s legacy lives on, for the benefit of people and nature, in the unique and sensitive landscape of the Succulent Karoo.

With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, no one knows what the future may look like. As we keep our country going, the protection of our special landscapes remains an important vehicle for looking after those who rely on them and continues to inspire and give hope to those of us who visit them.

Dimpho Lephaila Photo
Dimpho Lephaila, Communications Officer

Dimpho believes in the power of science communication, because it is through knowledge sharing that people can learn and change their behaviour.

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