Golden Gate Highlands National Park

General Information


Global IBA (A1, A2, A3)


Free State


Fully Protected


32 720 ha



Additional Info

  • Site description

    Following the amalgamation of the Golden Gate Highlands and Qwaqwa national parks, the name of this IBA has been updated to Golden Gate Highlands National Park IBA. The park lies in the Rooiberg mountain range in the north-eastern Free State, along the border with Lesotho. Between the lowest point in the Little Caledon River valley (1 700 m a.s.l.), and the highest peak, Ribbokkop (2 840 m a.s.l.), there is an altitude difference of 1 140 m. The eastern sector of this IBA is characterised by deep valleys with dense vegetation, where the only major feature is Qwaqwa Mountain in an isolated range near the south-eastern border of the IBA.

    The park receives an average rainfall of 762 mm p.a. and considerable snow and frost at higher altitudes in winter. The annual average minimum and maximum temperatures are 4 °C and 22 °C respectively, although frost and snow at high altitude usually result in temperatures well below freezing in winter.

    There are several small patches of yellowwood Podocarpus latifolius-dominated Northern Afrotemperate Forest in the IBA, with much larger areas of shrubland dominated by Leucosidea, Buddleia and Cliffortia species. There are well-developed forest patches (not simply precursors) in gullies on the eastern side of Qwaqwa Mountain (partly outside the national park), at Mont Pierre and in Wonderhoek. In general, these patches are difficult to access and poorly birded.

    The Protea woodland patches comprise mostly Protea caffra, with some areas dominated by P. roupelliae and occasional P. subvestita trees. Gurney's Sugarbird Promerops gurneyi depends on P. roupelliae; both species appear to be declining in the IBA.


    Based on SABAP2 data, 220 bird species have been recorded in the IBA. This species count is likely to increase, as some species that are common in the area are under-represented because little atlasing has been done in the northern part of the park. Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres and Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus are the most frequently encountered threatened bird species in the IBA. The provision of vulture feeding stations in the park and elsewhere in the neighbouring area has increased the numbers and persistence of these species in the region.

    Golden Gate Highlands Nat Park Dominic HenryOther threatened species that are said to be uncommon in the park but are easily overlooked and possibly more common are: Half-collared Kingfisher Alcedo semitorquata, Short-tailed Pipit Anthus brachyurus, Black-rumped Buttonquail Turnix nanus and Striped Flufftail Sarothrura affinis. Short-tailed Pipit has recently been studied in this IBA and it was stated that the birds are likely to be frequently overlooked during atlasing. Grassland passerines are particularly abundant, with seven pipit species, nine cisticola species and four lark species. During SABAP2 five owl species have been recorded: Spotted Eagle-Owl Bubo africanus, Cape Eagle-Owl B. capensis, Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl B. lacteus, Western Barn Owl Tyto alba and, surprisingly, African Wood Owl Strix woodfordii. It is likely that both Marsh Owl Asio capensis and African Grass Owl T. capensis are also present.

    Two Southern Bald Ibis Geronticus calvus breeding colonies occur within the IBA, including the well-known site at Cathedral Cave. The ibises are regularly seen foraging in the grasslands alongside Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus, Grey Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum, White-bellied Korhaan Eupodotis senegalensis and Blue Korhaan E. caerulescens. The short, cropped, high-altitude grasslands also hold Yellow-breasted Pipit Anthus chloris. Martial Eagle Polemaetus bellicosus no longer breeds here but is a regular visitor.

    The rocky scarps, cliffs and crags hold breeding Black Stork Ciconia nigra, Jackal Buzzard Buteo rufofuscus and Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus, while the high-altitude rocky outcrops support Drakensberg Rockjumper Chaetops aurantius, African Rock Pipit Anthus crenatus and Ground Woodpecker Geocolaptes olivaceus. The intervening grassy slopes are home to Black-rumped Buttonquail, Drakensberg Siskin Crithagra symonsi, Buff-streaked Chat Campicoloides bifasciata, Sentinel Rock Thrush Monticola explorator, Mountain Pipit Anthus hoeschi, Cape Grassbird Sphenoeacus afer and, on protea-covered slopes, Gurney’s Sugarbird. Bush Blackcap Lioptilus nigricapillus and Fairy Flycatcher Stenostira scita occur in wooded gullies. Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni turns up as a regular summer visitor and Black Harrier Circus maurus as a regular winter visitor to the IBA.

    IBA trigger species

    Globally threatened birds are Southern Bald Ibis (c.1.25% of the global population), Cape Vulture, Bearded Vulture, Blue Crane, Grey Crowned Crane, Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius, Black Harrier, Blue Korhaan Martial Eagle, Yellow-breasted Pipit, and Bush Blackcap. Regionally threatened birds are Striped Flufftail, Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus, Short-tailed Pipit, Black-rumped Buttonquail and White-bellied Korhaan. Restricted-range and biome-restricted species are Buff-streaked Chat, Drakensberg Rockjumper, Mountain Pipit, Gurney’s Sugarbird and Drakensberg Siskin.

    Other biodiversity

    Threatened mammals are the South African hedgehog Atelerix frontalis and oribi Ourebia ourebi. Endemic mammals are black wildebeest Connochaetes gnou and blesbok Damaliscus dorcas phillipsi. Several southern African endemic reptiles occur within the vicinity and some of them may occur in the IBA, such as yellow-bellied house snake Lamprophis fuscus, Essex’s mountain lizard Tropidosaura essexi, spiny crag lizard Pseudocordylus spinosus and Drakensberg dwarf chameleon Bradypodion dracomontanum.

    Conservation issues


    The area of the park may change with the resolution of a land claim over part of the former Qwaqwa National Park. When farms were acquired for the park in 1984, no arrangements were made for the farm workers who lived on them. Some of these families remained and raised stock in the park throughout its existence. The management of Qwaqwa National Park was ineffective, particularly in the decade before transfer, with the result that many additional people moved into the sanctuary with their stock and made claims to the area. A lack of access control meant that there were also increases in wildlife poaching and vandalism to buildings. The land claim is currently being adjudicated and is likely to be resolved partly through a land swap.

    The Glen Reenen rest camp has a poplar tree Populus alba invasion. Cotoneaster Cotoneaster sp. and berbera Berberis glaucocarpa are starting to invade Leucosidea shrubland.

    Conservation action

    The IBA is fully protected. In 2004, Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Valli Moosa announced that Qwaqwa National Park would be incorporated into the adjoining Golden Gate Highlands National Park. The transfer was finally gazetted in November 2008. The entire area (32 608 ha) is now under the sole jurisdiction of SANParks and goes by the name of Golden Gate Highlands National Park.

    As an extended public works project in 2010–11, several hundred kilometres of game fencing was put up around the enlarged Golden Gate Highlands National Park and 12 old farmhouses are being renovated for use by the park. Working on Fire assists with fire breaks and fighting fires, while Working for Wetlands is active in wetland rehabilitation and restoring streams in the IBA.

    Related webpages

    South African National Parks


    If you have any information about the IBA, such as a new threat that could impact on it, please send an e-mail to or call BirdLife South Africa +27 (11) 789 1122.

    Page last updated

    Tuesday, 13 January 2015

    Further Reading

    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.

    De Swardt DH, Van Niekerk DJ. 1996. An annotated checklist of the Qwaqwa National Park. Koedoe 39: 89–106.

    Mucina L, Rutherford MC (eds). 2006. The vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Strelitzia 19. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.

    Petroleum exploration and shale gas exploration applications maps. Available at and [accessed June 2014].

    Southern African Bird Atlas Project. Available at

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