Mkhambathi Nature Reserve is situated on the coast of north-eastern Pondoland in the Eastern Cape. It is bounded by the Mtentu River in the north and the Mzikaba River in the south; in the east, between the two river mouths, it includes a 13-km stretch of pristine coastline. The reserve extends inland c. 5 km along the Mzikaba River and c. 9.5 km along the Mtentu River. The gentle topography, a result of intense planation, is interrupted by two steps parallel to the coast, the first at 85 m a.s.l. and the second at 190 m a.s.l.; they mark the position of previous shorelines. The Mtentu River reaches the ocean through a long, incised and meandering gorge. At a point approximately 9 km upstream of the coast, it flows over a spectacular waterfall that has cut an almost straight cliff face some 500 m wide. Cliffs of Table Mountain Sandstone flank the river, rising 300 m from its bed to meet the surrounding plains. For the most part they are sheer, beginning at the coast and continuing inland for 10–20 km. The climate is humid and temperate, with a mean temperature of 20 °C. The reserve receives an average rainfall of 1 200 mm p.a., which falls mostly in spring and early summer.
Some extremely important vegetation types are protected in Mkhambathi. Examples of the Pondoland-Ugu Sandstone Coastal Sourveld grasslands in this reserve are the only ones under formal conservation, while its Pondoland Scarp Forests are some of the most significant forests in South Africa. Mkhambathi Nature Reserve falls within the Maputaland–Pondoland–Albany Hotspot, one of the most important centres of plant diversity and endemism in Africa.
The cliffs on the Mtentu River hold one of the largest remaining colonies of Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres in the Eastern Cape. This colony is also one of the few protected breeding sites in the world. The surrounding grassland and broken woodland hold Southern Ground-Hornbill Bucorvus leadbeateri and Black-bellied Bustard Lissotis melanogaster. The grassland also supports Grey Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum, Denham's Bustard Neotis denhami, Black-winged Lapwing Vanellus melanopterus, African Grass Owl Tyto capensis, Buff-streaked Chat Campicoloides bifasciata and the most southerly population of Swamp Nightjar Caprimulgus natalensis. Scattered protea bushes hold Gurney's Sugarbird Promerops gurneyi, and dense coarse grass along vleis and marshy vegetation supports a small population of Broad-tailed Warbler Schoenicola brevirostris.
The small forest patches hold Crowned Eagle Stephanoaetus coronatus, Chorister Robin-Chat Cossypha dichroa, Brown Scrub Robin Erythropygia signata, Black-bellied Starling Notopholia corrusca, Spotted Ground Thrush Zoothera guttata (which may breed here), Grey Sunbird Cyanomitra veroxii and Olive Sunbird C. olivacea. Knysna Woodpecker Campethera notata, nearing the northern limit of its distribution, is uncommon. Black-rumped Buttonquail Turnix nanus, Corn Crake Crex crex and Striped Flufftail Sarothrura affinis have all been recorded in grassland areas nearby and almost certainly occur within the reserve. The Mtentu River and its tributaries have thick overhanging riverine vegetation that supports White-backed Night Heron Gorsachius leuconotus, African Finfoot Podica senegalensis and Half-collared Kingfisher Alcedo semitorquata. The rugged coastline is home to a few Cape Cormorants Phalacrocorax capensis.
Globally threatened species are Cape Vulture (140–180 breeding pairs and 400–800 individuals), Spotted Ground Thrush, Knysna Woodpecker and Southern Ground-Hornbill (three family groups forage in the reserve). Regionally threatened species are Half-collared Kingfisher, African Marsh Harrier Circus ranivorus, Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus and Swamp Nightjar. Restricted-range and biome-restricted species that are fairly common include Knysna Turaco Tauraco corythaix, Grey Cuckooshrike Coracina caesia, Buff-streaked Chat, Brown Scrub Robin, Olive Bush-Shrike Chlorophoneus olivaceus, Black-bellied Starling, Gurney's Sugarbird and Grey Sunbird.
The coastal forest–grassland mosaic may support the South African endemic Zulu golden mole Amblysomus iris, forest shrew Myosorex varius, least dwarf shrew Suncus infinitesimus, Natal black snake Macrelaps microlepidotus, southern brown egg eater Dasypeltis inornata and variable legless skink Acontias poecilus; all occur within the general vicinity. The area is also particularly rich in highly localised endemic frogs, and Knysna leaf-folding frog Afrixalus knysnae, Natal chirping frog Arthroleptella hewitti and bush squeaker Arthroleptis wahlbergi all occur in this coastal region and possibly within the reserve. Yellow-striped reed frog Hyperolius semidiscus, forest tree frog Leptopelis natalensis and plaintive rain frog Breviceps verrucosus have been recorded in the reserve.
There is a high level of plant endemism in Mkhambathi, and Pondoland Scarp Forest, one of the rarest forest types in Africa, supports an endemic family, Rhychocalycaceae, which is represented here by false water-berry Rhynchocalyx lawsonioides. The endangered Pondo palm Jubaeopsis caffra is known only from this area, where it grows along the banks of the Msikaba and Mtentu rivers.
Mkhambathi faces relatively few major threats. Invasive alien plants such as triffid weed Chromolaena odorata, black wattle Acacia mearnsii, tickberry Lantana camara and guava Psidium species are present. Occasional poaching occurs in the reserve, as well as arson fires to attract game to certain points where poachers can more easily target them.
Although the vultures in the reserve are relatively safe, their long-distance foraging renders them vulnerable to threats. Poisoned carcasses set for vermin, or more commonly by traditional practitioners for 'muti', or medicine, could be responsible for considerable numbers of vulture mortalities (hundreds can be killed in a single poisoning incident). At the nests, adults that are disturbed, even for short periods, may lose their eggs or nestlings for that year. The period of greatest vulnerability extends from egg-laying in April (peak in May), through peak hatching in July to fledging by October–November.
In 1922 people were moved out of the area and a leper colony with a hospital was established on 18 000 ha of rolling coastal grassland. When leprosy was cured, the facility became a TB hospital. In 1977 a provincial nature reserve was proclaimed in a third of the 18 000 ha. A land claim for the reserve, including the surrounding area, was lodged and granted in 2004 and the applicants were constituted as the Mkhambathi Land Trust (MLT), with the condition that Mkhambathi Nature Reserve be maintained as a reserve and co-managed with ECPTA. The reserve has remained in an untransformed state and there are few settlements in close proximity to it. The adjacent grassland areas are just as valuable in terms of biodiversity and there is a possibility that they will be incorporated into the reserve.
In 2012 permission was granted for two tourism lodges with a total capacity of 110 beds to be built in Mkhambathi. Having entered into a lease agreement with the MLT and ECPTA, a developer will lease a section of the reserve, fence it and construct lodges at two beach locations at a cost of not less than R65-million. Lease agreements for the development of the facilities have been concluded and an environmental impact assessment is under way. This development has the potential to significantly benefit the local community (if undertaken responsibly), contributing to the case for maintaining the reserve for biodiversity conservation. In addition it may provide leverage in future to include the adjacent important grassland areas.
Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency www.visiteasterncape.co.za
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