The northern boundary of this reserve lies 13 km south-west of Harrismith. In the south, the IBA was expanded in 2014 to include the whole escarpment down to Oliviershoek and thus link with the Maloti Drakensberg Park IBA (SA064), which is already formally protected with management plans. The expansion incorporates a Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres breeding colony and an additional vegetation type in the form of a section of Northern KwaZulu-Natal Moist Grassland (with wooded kloofs).
At an altitude of between 1 700 and 2 328 m a.s.l., this IBA falls within the Grassland Biome and consists of rolling sour grassland surrounding the state-owned Sterkfontein Dam, which receives most of its water from the Tugela River. There are five grassland vegetation types: Eastern Free State Sandy Grassland (listed as an Endangered ecosystem, it is poorly protected with only 55.3% of its total extent intact); Northern Drakensberg Highland Grassland (classified as Least Threatened, with more than 90% of its total extent remaining); Lesotho Highland Basalt Grassland (classified as Least Threatened, with more than 90% of its total extent remaining); Low Escarpment Moist Grassland (with 94.2% of its total extent remaining); and the recently added Northern KwaZulu-Natal Moist Grassland (with wooded kloofs), which is listed as Vulnerable and has 73.7% of its total extent remaining. The wetlands in this IBA are classified as Mesic Highveld Grassland Group 1_Channelled valley-bottom wetland, Mesic Highveld Grassland Group 1_Seep and the Nuwejaarspruit River (NFEPA maps, SANBI).
The western portion of the reserve includes part of the northern end of the ‘Little Drakensberg’ section of the escarpment, where cave sandstone cliffs are dissected by streams to form valleys and gorges. There is some fynbos scrub on the higher rocky plateau, with bare shallow soil patches and rock sheets near the escarpment. Protea, Erica and Helichrysum shrubs form a high-altitude heath, stands of Leucosidea sericea occur on some of the slopes, and small patches of Afrotemperate forest are found in a few gorges. There are also patches of invasive alien acacias at the bases of cliffs and in the gorges and valleys.
The IBA hosts at least 237 bird species. Although the dam in this IBA is sizeable, the notable birds are terrestrial species rather than waterbirds. The CWAC counts have been discontinued mainly because there were usually only a few hundred waterbirds.
This area supports breeding Southern Bald Ibis Geronticus calvus and a colony of breeding Cape Vultures; both species are the most frequently encountered threatened bird species in Sterkfontein Dam Nature Reserve. The area potentially also supports the highly threatened grassland specialist Rudd's Lark Heteromirafra ruddi. Other threatened species recorded in the IBA that are easily overlooked, and possibly more common, are Half-collared Kingfisher Alcedo semitorquata and Short-tailed Pipit Anthus brachyurus. The area is important for eight species of cisticolas, which frequent the small grassy vleis in higher-lying areas. Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus has also been recorded. The small patches of Afrotemperate forest support Forest Canary Crithagra scotops and Bush Blackcap Lioptilus nigricapillus.
Globally threatened species are Cape Vulture, Southern Bald Ibis, Grey Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum, Rudd’s Lark, Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus, Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus, Blue Korhaan Eupodotis caerulescens, Melodious Lark Mirafra cheniana, Denham’s Bustard Neotis denhami, Bush Blackcap, Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius and Yellow-breasted Pipit Anthus chloris. Regionally threatened species are Black Stork Ciconia nigra, African Grass Owl Tyto capensis, Short-tailed Pipit and Half-collared Kingfisher. Restricted-range and biome-restricted species are Buff-streaked Chat Campicoloides bifasciata, Gurney’s Sugarbird Promerops gurneyi, Forest Canary and Chorister Robin-Chat Cossypha dichroa.
The reserve is known to hold sungazer lizard Smaug giganteus, Breyer’s long-tailed seps Tetradactylus breyeri and the Drakensberg dwarf chameleon Bradypodion dracomontanum. The dam has been stocked with the rare largemouth yellowfish Barbus kimberleyensis. African wild cat Felis lybica, aardvark Orycteropus afer, oribi Ourebia ourebi, serval Leptailurus serval and Lesueur’s hairy bat Myotis lesueuri occur in the surrounding grassland.
There is an existing Technical Cooperation Permit for the eastern section of the Free State, including this IBA, for petroleum (shale gas) exploration, which is likely to be by means of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). There is, therefore, a potential threat of petroleum mining/fracking over the medium term in or around the IBA. However, the reserve’s formal protection status may exclude such activities within this IBA.
Other threats include a sectional title resort development that will comprise a golf course, hotel, casino and sports training centre. This will be built near the existing resort.
Annual fires can be a problem if not adequately controlled. Late season fires, if too hot, destroy Protea trees. It is therefore important that fires are well managed.
Although the c. 19 000-ha Sterkfontein Dam Nature Reserve is under the sole jurisdiction of the DETEA, its human resource structure and capacity are insufficient to meet management requirements. The new section of the IBA south of the nature reserve is unprotected. The vulture restaurant in the IBA has been provisioned for some years now, but supplying carcasses has recently become a problem because of three lion farms that have been established around Harrismith.
Barnes K. (ed.). 1998. The Important Bird Areas of southern Africa. BirdLife South Africa, Johannesburg.
Barnes K, Colahan BD, Nuttall RJ, Taylor B. 1998. Important Bird Areas of the Free State. In: Barnes, K (ed.), The Important Bird Areas of southern Africa. Johannesburg: BirdLife South Africa.
Christian M. 2013. Short-tailed Pipit breeding and distribution records from the Eastern Free State. Ornithological Observations 4: 72–75.
Mucina L, Rutherford MC (eds). 2006. The vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Strelitzia 19. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.
NFEPA wetlands map. 2011. Available at http://bgis.sanbi.org
Petroleum exploration and shale gas exploration applications maps. Available at http://www.bctwa.org/Frk-SouthAfrica.html and http://www.greenbusinessguide.co.za/fracking-plans-need-a-unified-voice/ [accessed June 2014].