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Majestic fynbos mountains, a coastal botanical garden, endless endemic creatures and even a land-based colony of African penguins – the world-class “Kogelberg” offers breathtaking natural beauty and abundant biodiversity.
Being in the Kogelberg is how I imagine it might feel to be in heaven. And when no longer in it, one longs for how peaceful and astoundingly beautiful it was to be in its midst.
Unlike heaven, the Kogelberg is a place on Earth. You can find it not far from Cape Town, under an hour’s drive. The Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve region is vast: a magical blend of dramatic mountains and coastlines; abundant plant, bird and animal life; a desired destination for holidaymakers, and home to many families who have fished the sea for centuries.
The Kogelberg mountain-to-coast outdoor playground offers indigenous biodiversity at its best. And because of its immense natural diversity, in 1998, it was South Africa’s first site recognised and registered as a biosphere reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
At first, the concept of a biosphere might bring up thoughts of the mid-90s Pauly Shore movie called BioDome. Or a real-world biodome, the UK’s Eden Project – built in 2001 – which is considered the world’s largest greenhouse. While a biodome is an enclosed artificial environment, a biosphere reserve is defined as a “learning place for sustainable development”. According to UNESCO, they are sites for testing interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including the management of biodiversity.
The Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve consists of rugged terrain rich in fynbos and ocean species. Its plant diversity is more abundant than the Amazon rainforest. Its total reach covers 100 000 hectares of terrestrial and marine treasures. From the coastal town of Gordon’s Bay to the Bot River estuary, including the inland Elgin Valley, this unique biosphere is approximately 10% of the 1 million-ha Cape Floral Kingdom. The true fynbos heart.
While CapeNature manages the core of this biosphere – across the immense 3 000-hectare Kogelberg Nature Reserve, Stony Point Nature Reserve and a few others – the surrounding Kogelberg buffer zone is where collaboration is essential for the well-being of this unique landscape. This collaboration requires balancing sustainable livelihoods for people and safeguarding hundreds of species found nowhere else on the planet. One of these indigenous species is the blue-headed lizard – or Bloukop Koggelmander – which I’ve been told is the inspiration for the name of the Kogelberg region.
From an underwater perspective, the local Betty’s Bay marine protected area provides a haven for endangered African penguins, cormorants and heavily depleted abalone, as well as offering protection for a range of endemic shark species such as pyjama sharks, dark shysharks and puffadder sharks.
Now, 25 years since the biosphere reserve complex was initiated, it continues to thrive thanks to the close partnerships and collaboration between CapeNature, the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve Company, South African National Biodiversity Institute and WWF South Africa.
WWF has also been working with the small-scale fishing communities along this stretch of magnificent coastline since 2014. This area includes the Betty’s Bay marine protected area (MPA), a 20 km2 zone which is a biodiversity haven and acts as a “nursery” for many juvenile fish. WWF-led research done together with the local communities inside and outside this MPA shows the importance of such sites and their contribution to the community’s coastal livelihoods and the wider ocean food web.
Since 2012, WWF has also funded a group of Marine and Coastal Community Monitors who work along the Kogelberg coast. They look out for seabird or wildlife strandings, record types of litter on the beaches, and do water quality assessments in the estuaries.
On the slopes behind Betty’s Bay, the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden is a pocket of pristine land that contributes an inviting learning space to the biosphere. Started in the 1950s, this national garden includes an indigenous nursery, education centre and various footpaths, including two worthwhile hikes to nearby waterfalls and their rooibos-red pools.
At Harold Porter, only 10 hectares – or 5% – of the 200-ha garden is cultivated and curated. These garden beds offer a multitude of sign-posted species with stories of the plants’ cultural significance or medicinal purposes, plus enjoyable anecdotes too!
In early 2023, those in the know celebrated a new addition to the garden. I am told it is “a very special three hectares”. Secured by WWF, this small but significant property is the final piece in this garden’s conservation-for-perpetuity puzzle, a natural corridor from the biosphere’s mountain fynbos to the coastal fynbos and the kelp forest below the waves.
The pride of South Africa’s first biosphere reserve continues to grow as a learning environment for sustainable development and a space for all to benefit, breathe and be.
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