Ithala Game Reserve is located 15 km from Louwsburg in the rolling hills south of the Pongola River. Geologically, the reserve consists of a mixture of ironstone shale, quartzite, dolomite, granite and sandstone. Drainage lines and deep valleys, extending predominantly north–south and opening mostly into the Pongola River basin, cleave the area. This results in an extremely varied topography and rugged terrain, with steep, rocky cliff faces and deep gorges dissected by numerous streams with a network of pools. The area varies in altitude from 350 m a.s.l. at the Pongola River to 1 550 m a.s.l. on the plateau to the west of Louwsburg. In conjunction with differences in topography and altitude, rainfall is also highly variable locally, ranging from c. 680 mm p.a. in the eastern valleys to c. 900 mm p.a. in the west and up to c. 1 200 mm p.a. on top of the high-altitude plateau. This variability and complexity in edaphic factors leads to variation in vegetation. Three main habitat types are recognised: the lowland community found in the valley bottoms; the middleveld found at intermediate altitudes; and the open grasslands of the plateau above 1 250 m.a.s.l.
The reserve is known to support more than 300 bird species, a diversity that can be attributed to its ecotonal nature and the variety of habitats it supports. Among these are a number of large, wide-ranging species that have suffered considerably outside extensive protected areas. The riverine forest provides habitat for many of the more secretive river-dependent species, such as Half-collared Kingfisher Alcedo semitorquata. The mountainous cliffs hold a colony of Southern Bald Ibis Geronticus calvus. Several large raptor species that are rare outside South Africa's large parks occur here, including White-backed Vulture Gyps africanus, Lappet-faced Vulture Torgos tracheliotos, Martial Eagle Polemaetus bellicosus, Bateleur Terathopius ecaudatus and Tawny Eagle Aquila rapax. African Grass Owl Tyto capensis occurs in the grassland areas in small numbers. The varied woodland communities support several bushveld species, including Natal Spurfowl Pternistis natalensis, White-throated Robin-Chat Cossypha humeralis and Burnt-necked Eremomela Eremomela usticollis. Gorgeous Bush-Shrike Chlorophoneus viridis is found in thicket and forest areas.
Globally threatened species in the reserve are Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus (up to three pairs breed here), Southern Bald Ibis (a colony of 20–30 birds is present), White-backed Vulture, Bateleur, Crowned Eagle Stephanoaetus coronatus, Martial Eagle and Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius. Regionally threatened species are Tawny Eagle, White-bellied Korhaan Eupodotis senegalensis, African Grass Owl, Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus and Half-collared Kingfisher. Biome-restricted species include Kurrichane Thrush Turdus libonyanus, White-throated Robin-Chat, Gorgeous Bush-Shrike and White-bellied Sunbird Cinnyris talatala.
This area supports a number of large mammal species that are locally extinct in other parts of the province. Several species have been re-introduced, including white rhinoceros Ceratotherium simum, black rhinoceros Diceros bicornis, Cape buffalo Syncerus caffer, nyala Tragelaphus angasi, African elephant Loxodonta africana and cheetah Acinonyx jubatus. Naturally occurring populations of oribi Ourebia ourebi, hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius, leopard Panthera pardus, serval Felis serval, African wild cat F. lybica, brown hyaena Hyaena brunnea, spotted hyaena Crocuta crocuta, aardwolf Proteles cristatus, African striped weasel Poecilogale albinucha, honey badger Mellivora capensis, aardvark Orycteropus afer, pangolin Manis temminckii, greater musk shrew Crocidura flavescens, forest shrew Myosorex varius and white-tailed rat Mystromys albicaudatus also occur.
Endangered reptiles include African rock python Python sebae natalensis and Nile crocodile Crocodylus niloticus. Amphibians and reptiles endemic to South Africa are raucous toad Bufo rangeri, Natal hinged tortoise Kinixys natalensis, slug eater Duberria lutrix, cross-marked grass snake Psammophis crucifer, northern spiny agama Agama aculeata distanti, Transvaal girdled lizard Cordylus vittifer, Barberton girdled lizard C. warreni barbertonensis, Natal flat lizard Platysaurus intermedius natalensis, spotted thick-toed gecko Pachydactylus maculatus and Van Son's thick-toed gecko P. vansoni, a KwaZulu-Natal endemic. Butterflies that are also endemic are Swanepoel's copper Aloeides swanepoeli, yellow Zulu Alaena amazoula and sapphire Lolaus silas. Rare and localised trees include Protea comptonii, Searsia (formerly Rhus) pondoensis, Warburgia salutaris, Gonioma kamassi and Syzygium legattii. Other plants of special interest include Aloe vryheidensis, Cyrtanthus brachysiphon, Dracosciadium italae, Melanospermum italae, Gladiolus cataractum and G. microcarpus italaensis.
The main conservation problems are soil erosion and, especially, invasive alien plants. The control of the latter would be greatly eased if continual re-infestation from the north bank of the Pongola River, which is currently not conserved, could be addressed.
Historically the area was situated in the Vryheid Republic. It bordered South Africa's first, but short-lived, game reserve, the Pongola Game Reserve, which was proclaimed in 1895. Originally proclaimed in 1973, Ithala has been enlarged over the years by the acquisition of additional farmland. The land is owned by the State and administered by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. The areas that were previously farmland are recovering from overgrazing and erosion caused by the cultivation of slopes. However, most of the area was minimally modified and still shows exceptional diversity, a function of its topography, geology and geographical position. Many of the larger mammals were historically hunted out of the region but have been re-introduced from surrounding KwaZulu-Natal reserves. Programmes are being implemented to control invasive alien plant species and rehabilitate areas affected by erosion. All these interventions benefit the trigger species. There are also plans to incorporate areas to the north into the reserve.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife www.kznwildlife.com
Rautenbach IL, Nel JAJ, Root GA. 1981. Mammals of Itala Nature Reserve, Natal. Lammergeyer 31: 21–37.