The IBA is centred on the Amatola Mountain range and consists of a series of montane forest blocks, including several State forests, the Mpofu and Fort Fordyce nature reserves, surrounding fragmented urban and rural areas and montane grassland. The forest complex runs from Fort Fordyce Nature Reserve and Katberg State Forest in the west to Kologha State Forest and Fort Cunningham in the east and includes large State-owned forest blocks such as Katberg State Forest, Fort Fordyce Nature Reserve, Auckland Forest, Auckland Nature Reserve, Hogsback State Forest, Pirie Forest, Cwencwe Forest, Isidenge State Forest, Kologha State Forest and Kubusi State Forest, as well as smaller patches that provide continuity between the larger blocks, especially in the Keiskammahoek area. These patches include Wolf River Main Forest, Malan Forest, Cata Forest, Lenye Forest, Lotutu Forest, Gongoo Forest, Mt Thomas Forest, Abafazi Forest, Quza Forest, Mt Charybois Forest and Izelene Forest, and other small forest fragments adjoining them.
State and private forestry concerns and small urban, suburban and rural communities are interspersed between the forest blocks. The boundaries are not distinct and the forests merge with the rural and urban areas on the borders of the IBA. The area holds several high peaks, including Katberg (1 828 m a.s.l.) and Devil Bellow's Neck (1 726 m a.s.l.) on the western boundary, Elandsberg (2 016 m a.s.l.) and Gaika's Kop (1 963 m a.s.l.) in the centre of the complex, and Kubusi (1 662 m a.s.l.) and Dohne (1 454 m a.s.l.) peaks in the Kubusi State Forest in the east. The areas at highest altitude, particularly in the rain-shadow, are characterised by a mixture of montane grassland and fynbos heath. Further south, the topography becomes gentler, characterised by lower peaks such as Murray's Krans (927 m a.s.l.) in Pirie Forest. Much of the area comprises steep cliff-faces, with numerous perennial and non-perennial streams. The largest of these, the Buffalo River, feeds the Maden and Rooikrantz dams, which supply water to the greater King William's Town/Bisho District. The area receives rainfall mostly in summer and autumn, ranging from 800 mm p.a. at the lowest altitudes to 2 000 mm p.a. at the highest points.
The area is generally rugged and comprises steep slopes and thickly forested gorges. Mean canopy height is 16.5 m, although some emergent trees reach 20 m. The dry forest on the steeper slopes has a lower canopy, reaching c. 7–11 m. As a result of forestry operations in the region, access roads are plentiful, especially in the south. The Amatola Mountains support a diverse array of plant communities; 442 species are described from the area. The forest complex holds both wet and dry forests, with scrub forest at lower altitudes, and there are several species of fruiting trees that are attractive to frugivores. Pine plantations, which directly abut the indigenous forests, occur as small, isolated, scattered pockets throughout the area. Smaller wattle plantations grow along the forest margins in certain areas. The soils are largely sandy loams, and there is considerable earthworm activity that forms a hard outer crust in dry conditions.
The areas of highest altitude are characterised by grasslands that have high levels of species diversity and endemism, with elements of fynbos heath. Amathole Montane Grasslands are found on the ridges and plateaus above the forests at altitudes of 650–1 500 m a.s.l., while Amathole Mistbelt Grasslands occur on the highest ridges at altitudes of 1 500–1 680 m a.s.l. Bhisho Thornveld and Albany Thicket are found in the lower-lying valleys in the south of the IBA.
The forests in this IBA hold a considerable number of the escarpment race of Cape Parrot Poicephalus robustus robustus; it is considered a full species by some authorities and its taxonomic status requires urgent assessment. Cape Parrots forage as far afield as King William's Town, Alice and Adelaide, with flocks of up to 200 birds recorded. Populations of Orange Ground Thrush Zoothera gurneyi and Bush Blackcap Lioptilus nigricapillus are also found in the Amatola Forests. Other forest specials include Forest Buzzard Buteo trizonatus, Knysna Turaco Turaco corythaix, Knysna Woodpecker Campethera notata, Chorister Robin-Chat Cossypha dichroa, Brown Scrub Robin Erythropygia signata, Forest Canary Crithagra scotops and Grey Sunbird Cyanomitra veroxii.
The localised patches of open proteoid woodland in the grassy areas hold both Cape Sugarbird Promerops capensis and Gurney's Sugarbird P. gurneyi; this is the only area where these species are sympatric. At high altitudes, where barren rocky slopes become prominent, Ground Woodpecker Geocolaptes olivaceus, Drakensberg Rockjumper Chaetops aurantius, Buff-streaked Chat Campicoloides bifasciata and Sentinel Rock Thrush Monticola explorator are found. In the grassland regions Black Harrier Circus maurus, Black-winged Lapwing Vanellus melanopterus, Denham's Bustard Neotis denhami, Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus and Grey Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum occur.
Globally threatened species are Blue Crane, Denham's Bustard, Grey Crowned Crane (flocks of up to 200 individuals have been recorded), Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius, Crowned Eagle Stephanoaetus coronatus Kynsna Woodpecker and Bush Blackcap. Regionally threatened species are Cape Parrot (300–500 individuals), African Marsh Harrier Circus ranivorus, Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus and Orange Ground Thrush.
Restricted-range and biome-restricted species that are fairly common to common include Forest Buzzard, Knysna Turaco, Grey Cuckooshrike Coracina caesia, Bush Blackcap, Orange Ground Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat, Chorister Robin-Chat, White-starred Robin Pogonocichla stellata, Barratt's Warbler Bradypterus barratti, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler Phylloscopus ruficapilla, Olive Bush-Shrike Chlorophoneus olivaceus, Grey Sunbird, Swee Waxbill Coccopygia melanotis and Forest Canary.
In comparison to other large forest tracts further west, between Port Elizabeth and George, this area supports a considerably greater proportion of threatened and endemic vertebrate species, including tree dassie Dendrohyrax arboreus, samango monkey Cercopithecus mitis labiatus, blue duiker Philantomba monticola and giant golden mole Chrysospalax trevelyani. Leopard Panthera pardus and honey badger Mellivora capensis are also reportedly present. The Amatolas are the only home to the extremely range-restricted Amatola toad Bufo amatolicus and they also support Hogsback chirping frog Anhydrophyrne rattrayi, which is endemic to these mountains. The South African endemic Amatola flat gecko Afroedura amatolica is another inhabitant of the Amatolas, as are southern dwarf chameleon Bradypodion ventrale and an isolated population of Natal black snake Macrelaps microlepidotus. The tributaries of the Kieskamma and Buffalo river systems, which occur within the IBA, hold two endemic threatened and highly localised fish species, Eastern Province rocky Sandelia bainsii and Border barb Barbus trevelyani.
Commercial forestry and smaller private forestry concerns operate within and around the area. It is important that their interests are monitored. There are no grazing or hunting rights, although resource extraction (such as bark-stripping and for fuel-wood and building materials) does take place. The boundaries of the forests are not physically demarcated and there is considerable movement of faunal populations between adjacent forest areas. Together, the complex forms a large forest network, which is likely to maintain its biological integrity provided that no further fragmentation or habitat destruction occurs. Water-hungry alien plantations above indigenous forest zones deprive indigenous forests of water, potentially changing their structure and functioning. Plantations should be managed to ensure that the indigenous forests receive their water requirements.
Other threats to the area's forests include the unsustainable harvesting of indigenous timber, targeting yellowwood species in particular, and uncontrolled fires in grasslands, which enter forest patches and in rare cases may destroy them. Domestic livestock graze within the forest and at forest margins, resulting in ecotone degradation. Grasslands have also become degraded due to overgrazing and bad farming practices. Illegal hunting using dogs, snares and weapons poses a threat to several small mammals and birds.
The Cape Parrot is threatened by illegal trapping for the cage-bird trade. Its flocking behaviour and ability to travel large distances make it vulnerable to capture, especially in urban areas and communities. This is especially a problem between March and August, when traditional food resources such as yellowwood fruits are scarce and large flocks of birds travel to towns in search of food. Compounding the problem is the fact that Cape Parrots are affected by Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD). The most severe symptom is a loss of feathers, which in the worst cases can leave the bird almost completely bald. The sudden onset of PBFD is most likely due to increased stress during periods of food scarcity, which leads to a drop in body condition and allows the disease to manifest itself aggressively. Most of the birds affected are probably lost to predators (cats, dogs and raptors) or picked up by members of the public, either with good intentions to rear them back to health or in some instances probably to sell or keep as pets. The majority of these sick birds are very likely to die due to the advanced stage of the disease. Bad weather also causes mortality among diseased birds, especially those individuals without feathers.
The area was previously managed by Ciskei Forestry, but control of all indigenous forests was handed over to the DNCECP in 1996. Approximately 18 500 ha of forests in the IBA are formally conserved as State forests and managed by DAFF. The Fort Fordyce and Mpofu nature reserves are managed by ECPTA, making up an additional 13 000 ha. A number of conservation NGOs are active in the area, focusing mainly on improving the livelihoods of communities. The Wild Bird Trust concentrates on tree-planting schemes, the erection of artificial nests and eradicating alien plants to restore natural forests and help conserve the Cape Parrot. The Hogsback Forestry Forum and wider Hogsback community are actively involved in a number of projects that support forest guards, clear alien plants and combat illegal poaching. Working for Water removes invasive alien plants and Working for Wetlands has initiated a project to restore wetlands in the IBA.
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