The Bitterputs Conservation Area is situated 65 km south-west of Pofadder. This arid landscape consists of extensive sandy and gravel plains covered with sparse, perennial desert grassland. The coarse, pale red sandy soils and red dunes of the southern section of the Koa River valley system bisect the IBA. Extremely low rainfall, at 70–90 mm annually, results in the grass cover being only 30–40%. Gravel plains are covered with sparse dwarf shrubland and short bushman grasses. A few large salt pans are a unique habitat type in this IBA.
The conservation area falls within the Bushmanland Bioregion and the Nama Karoo Biome. Three vegetation types are present: the Bushmanland Vloere (salt pans), Bushmanland Arid Grassland and Bushmanland Sandy Grassland. The ecosystem status for the entire area is Least Threatened.
Although much of the land area is still natural, some parts are probably overgrazed and degraded. It appears that most of the land in this IBA is used for sheep and goat ranching. There is some evidence of over-utilisation in the north-eastern section, but the total extent is unknown.
This IBA is one of a few sites protecting both the globally threatened Red Lark Calendulauda burra, which inhabits the red sand dunes and sandy plains where there is mixed cover of grasses and dwarf shrubs, and the near-threatened Sclater’s Lark Spizocorys sclateri. This site also holds 16 of the 23 Namib-Karoo biome-restricted assemblage species and a host of other arid-zone birds.
At the time this IBA was assessed it had not yet been atlased for the SABAP2 project. A total of 47 species was recorded for SABAP1, including the Red Lark and three other lark species.
Ludwig’s Bustard Neotis ludwigii, Kori Bustard Ardeotis kori and Karoo Korhaan Eupodotis vigorsii are present in this IBA, and Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius and Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus have been recorded here.
Globally threatened species are Red Lark, Sclater’s Lark, Kori Bustard and Ludwig’s Bustard. Regionally threatened species include Karoo Korhaan. Restricted-range and biome-restricted species are Stark’s Lark Spizocorys starki, Karoo Long-billed Lark Certhilauda subcoronata, Black-eared Sparrow-lark Eremopterix australis, Tractrac Chat Cercomela tractrac, Sickle-winged Chat C. sinuata, Karoo Chat C. schlegelii, Karoo Eremomela Eremomela gregalis, Cinnamon-breasted Warbler Euryptila subcinnamomea and Black-headed Canary Serinus alario.
The Bitterputs Conservation Area is one of three Bushmanland IBAs important for the conservation of endemic lark species. Like the nearby Haramoep and Black Mountain Mine Nature Reserve (SA035) and Mattheus-Gat Conservation Area (SA034) IBAs, it has a history of overstocking and the resultant degradation of habitat. There has been a c. 75% loss of optimal habitat for the Red Lark over the past 100 years. The disappearance of this species from ranches where dune grassland has been replaced by ephemerals is probably linked to the reduction in grass awns for nesting, shelter and invertebrate and plant foods. Black-eared Sparrow-lark, Grey-backed Sparrow-lark Eremopterix verticalis, Pink-billed Lark Spizocorys conirostris, Sclater’s Lark and Stark’s Lark use the awns of desert grasses Stipagrostis species as nest lining and can only start nesting when there is a supply of suitable awns. When the grasses flower and fruit, harvester termites increase their surface activity and they are an important food for lark nestlings.
In recent years, there has been a shift from cattle ranching on many farms in the region to sheep and goat ranching. However, overstocking and overgrazing is a continuing threat.
There is a serious threat from climate change and it is predicted that temperatures will increase and rainfall decrease sharply in arid areas such as Bushmanland. Locally resident endemic larks, in particular, are at risk. Increased CO2 can lead to the increase of C3 plants (shrubs) at the expense of C4 plants (mainly grasses), causing a shift in vegetation diversity and structure and making the habitat unsuitable for some species. It is expected that the Red Lark will not meet the challenge of global warming.
Droughts are predicted to become more severe due to climate change, so birds will have to cope with greater variability in their food, less suitable habitat and different predators, parasites/diseases and competition. Nomadic species (such as Stark’s Lark) may find it easier and only have to decide where to go, but resident species (Sclater’s Lark, Red Lark) are more likely to remain in their patch and use the available resources as best they can.
Other significant threats are prospecting for diamonds and possible diamond mining. The lack of monitoring, formal protection and a management plan for this IBA is cause for concern.
Currently no part of this IBA is formally conserved and no conservation actions have been implemented. Bitterputs falls within the Central Astronomy Advantage Area, which has restrictions on activities that can take place in it. This could result in some protection for the IBA.
Future considerations for conservation action include linking Bitterputs to the Mattheus-Gat Conservation Area and Haramoep and Black Mountain Mine Nature Reserve IBAs. There are medium-term plans to declare a large Protected Environment, namely the Bushmanland Conservation Area, which will include this IBA. Since 2013, African Parks has been working on plans to establish this area through land purchase, proactive stewardship and biodiversity offsets.
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