This IBA, previously known as the Vhembe Nature Reserve IBA, is located at the Shashe–Limpopo confluence where South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe meet. The name and boundaries of the IBA were changed to incorporate the whole of Mapungubwe National Park as well as neighbouring properties that hold important habitats for birds. The status of the IBA was raised from subregional to global, as it contains a number of globally threatened bird species.
Away from the Limpopo River, the landscape is dissected by numerous small, normally dry riverbeds. The rivers flow briefly during summer rainstorms and form secluded backwaters. The terrain is primarily flat, low-lying (550 m a.s.l.) and featureless, comprising deciduous woodland and savanna, with a fringe of riparian forest along the river. The area is normally hot and dry, with summer temperatures regularly ranging between 15 °C and 35 °C and occasionally reaching 44 °C. The reserve receives an average rainfall of 450–500 mm per year.
The riverine forest provides habitat for secretive, subtropical, river-dependent species such as Pel's Fishing Owl Scotopelia peli, although the status of this species within the IBA is unclear. The taller trees provide nesting sites for some species, particularly White-backed Vulture Gyps africanus. The Limpopo and Maloutswa floodplain are important for many wetland-dependent and associated birds, such as Black Stork Ciconia nigra, Woolly-necked Stork C. episcopus, Saddle-billed Stork Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis and White-crowned Lapwing Vanellus albiceps. Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus, Lesser Moorhen Gallinula angulata and Allen's Gallinule Porphyrio alleni occur in small numbers when conditions are suitable. Kori Bustard Ardeotis kori is regularly recorded and may be breeding.
Several large, wide-ranging species are found here, including Marabou Stork Leptoptilos crumeniferus, White-backed Vulture, Martial Eagle Polemaetus bellicosus, Bateleur Terathopius ecaudatus and Tawny Eagle Aquila rapax. The varied woodland communities support Red-crested Korhaan Eupodotis ruficrista, White-throated Robin-Chat Cossypha humeralis and Burnt-necked Eremomela Eremomela usticollis.
Many bird species reach the southern limit of their Afrotropical range along the Limpopo River valley. Although extremely rare within South Africa, they are considerably more common and widespread outside the country's borders. Such species are Tropical Boubou Laniarius major, Broad-billed Roller Eurystomus glaucurus and Meves's Starling Lamprotornis mevesii.
Globally threatened species are White-backed Vulture (breeding) and Kori Bustard (possibly breeding). The only regionally threatened species is Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis. Biome-restricted species that are common are Kurrichane Thrush Turdus libonyanus, Meves's Starling, White-bellied Sunbird Cinnyris talatala and White-throated Robin-Chat.
The eastern purple-glossed snake Amblyodipsas microphthalma may occur in this reserve on the deep alluvial soils of the Limpopo River valley. Southern African endemics such as the Transvaal quill-snouted snake Xenocalamus transvaalensis, Limpopo dwarf burrowing skink Scelotes limpopoensis, Transvaal flat gecko Afroedura transvaalica, tiger thick-toed gecko Pachydactylus tigrinus and two-striped shovel-snout Prosymna bivittata are known to occur in the general vicinity and may occur within the IBA. The Nile crocodile Crocodylus niloticus is common in the river.
Numerous applications have been made to mine in the vicinity of this IBA and they could have an impact on its trigger species if they are approved. Infrastructure such as power lines and roads already impact on the trigger species and ways to mitigate their impacts should be investigated. Illegal hunting is a concern and difficult to control, as poachers sometimes enter the IBA from Zimbabwe and Botswana. Floods occur regularly, causing severe damage to infrastructure. Although they are a natural phenomenon, there is concern that the number and severity of the floods may increase because more water is flowing into the system from Gauteng.
SANParks is the management authority for Mapungubwe National Park. The area is also a National Heritage Site and was the first of South Africa's national parks to receive this designation. This status adds considerable value to the site, especially in an international context. It is the responsibility of the DWEA and SAHRA to ensure that the site is correctly managed according to the principles for a National Heritage Site, and SANParks must report to UNESCO on a regular basis. However, being a National Heritage Site does not add to the formal protection status of the IBA. Land ownership in the IBA is complicated: some land belongs to SANParks and some is privately owned but is managed by SANParks under contract and is not proclaimed.
The park also forms part of the Greater Mapungubwe TFCA, which straddles Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa. The Memorandum of Understanding for the TFCA was signed on 22 June 2006.
This IBA also falls within the boundaries of the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve. It protects some vitally important riparian fringe vegetation along South Africa's most important subtropical river. The biosphere reserve borders the large Tuli Block Wilderness Area in Botswana and the Maramani Wilderness Area in south-western Zimbabwe which, in combination, form a large continuous conservation area.
Day DH. 1987. Birds of the upper Limpopo River valley. Southern Birds 14.