This crescent-shaped park, which forms part of southern Africa's eastern escarpment, extends for c. 200 km along most of KwaZulu-Natal's south-western border with Lesotho. The border follows the watershed above the Drakensberg escarpment, which consists of a continuous, abrupt and rugged scarp or mountain wall. Lesotho's Thaba Ntlenyana (3 484 m a.s.l.), the highest peak in Africa south of Kilimanjaro, lies along this scarp. There are a number of outstanding topographical features in this formidable barrier of cliffs and peaks, including, from north to south, the Amphitheatre, a semi-circle of high cliffs with a sheer drop of 613 m; Mont-aux-Sources (3 282 m a.s.l.), Cathedral Peak (3 004 m a.s.l.), Cathkin Peak, Champagne Castle, Giant's Castle (3 314 m a.s.l.), Injusuti Dome (3 409 m a.s.l.), Sani Pass and Hodson's Peak (3 244 m a.s.l.), Rhino Horn (3 051 m a.s.l.) and Wilson's Peak (3 210 m a.s.l.). Together, they define the characteristic shape of the Drakensberg skyline.
The cliffs forming the escarpment are capped by extensive, horizontally bedded basalt lava slabs, which create a high-altitude plateau lying between 1 830 and 2 440 m a.s.l. The basalt is deeply incised by the tributaries of the three largest rivers in KwaZulu-Natal, the Tugela, Mkhomazi and Mzimkulu. These river catchments hold many sheer cliffs, with near-vertical walls more than 500 m high. At lower altitudes, these steep basalt cliffs give way to slopes that form a large grassy terrace of variable width, interspersed with bands of exposed basalt. Lower still, the grassy terrace falls away as cave sandstone cliffs are dissected by rivers and streams to form valleys, gorges and inselbergs. These two lines of cliffs, the larger basalt cliffs and the lower sandstone ones, run the entire length of the Maloti Drakensberg.
The region is dominated by ferriferous soils, which are characteristic of well-drained uplands with high rainfall and relatively low temperatures. Leaching has been severe and fertility is therefore low. Temperatures are extreme and, on the high-altitude slopes, can drop below -15 °C, although the maximum annual average reaches 15–35 °C, depending on altitude. Annual average rainfall is 800 mm, falling mostly in summer (October–April).
The altitudinal zonation of vegetation is characteristic of most mountains of sufficient height. In the Drakensberg, three primary altitudinal zones occur: the montane zone (1 280–1 830 m a.s.l.), the sub-alpine zone (1 830–2 865 m a.s.l.) and the alpine zone (2 865–3 500 m a.s.l.). The montane belt extends from the lowermost basalt cliffs to the valley floors. Grasslands dominate, while protea parkland is found on most spurs and crests. This huge protected area holds almost all of the remaining alpine and sub-alpine vegetation in KwaZulu-Natal. Two different communities predominate: low-altitude sub-alpine grassland, the climax vegetation of which is, however, fynbos; and temperate grassland, which is present at high altitude on mesocline slopes.
The vegetation of the alpine belt consists of climax heath interspersed with alpine grassland genera. Woody communities flourish in rocky enclaves. Associated karroid shrubs occur in overgrazed areas and in fire-protected gullies. The summits are generally rocky with bare patches of shallow soil and rock sheets near the escarpment.
On the lower slopes, scrub develops on the rock and cliffs, including small trees and shrubs. Several woody communities are confined to the sheltered gorges and kloofs. The climax community of the montane belt is tall evergreen forest, which occurs on mesic streambanks and in deep kloofs where fire is excluded.
The Drakensberg catchment consists of an interconnected system of wetlands ranging from open waterbodies such as mountain tarns to vleis, marshes and an intricate network of stream and river courses. Distributed in a complex mosaic throughout the altitudinal gradient of the mountains, these wetlands host several characteristic plant communities.
The Drakensberg escarpment is one of the primary breeding strongholds of the Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres and Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus, and the park is an important refuge for these species. This is the only population of Bearded Vulture in the southern hemisphere and in the past five decades it has declined by 32–51%, with only 368–408 individuals remaining. A total of 792 Cape Vultures were counted at 55 occupied sites on the larger basalt cliffs in 1983. This consisted of 17 breeding sites holding 534 birds and 38 roosting sites holding 258 birds. On the lower sandstone cliffs, another 553 Cape Vultures were counted at 17 sites, including six breeding colonies.
In 2011–2012 a repeat survey of the high Drakensberg escarpment counted a total of 211 pairs at 10 colonies, representing a 38% decrease over the 30-year period. As in 1983, the highest numbers and densities of Cape Vulture were found in the northern and central sections of the high Drakensberg, with numbers and concentrations of vultures decreasing from north to south. Six breeding sites supporting 93 nesting pairs were found in the north and four sites supporting 118 pairs in the south. The recent surveys failed to find breeding sites in the southern high Drakensberg. The main breeding colonies are in the upper catchment of the Mweni River above Woodstock Dam, at Vultures Retreat just north of Champagne Castle and at two closely neighbouring colonies in the Injesuthi area. Cape Vulture uses predominantly south- and east-facing cliffs between 1 750 and 3 100 m a.s.l. for breeding and roosting.
Cape Vultures and Bearded Vultures forage over a wide area. It is estimated that some birds travel to carcasses up to 54 km away from their breeding colonies, suggesting a foraging range of some 9 200 km2. The birds in the northern Drakensberg, where densities are highest, probably forage extensively to the west of the escarpment in the high-altitude terrain of Lesotho’s Maloti Mountains. Rural Basotho herdsmen graze large numbers of small stock in Lesotho, adjacent to the park. The stock suffers severe winters and the consequent mortality is high, supplying the vultures with a substantial food source during their critical winter breeding season.
Other widespread cliff-nesting species include Jackal Buzzard Buteo rufofuscus, Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus and Verreauxs’ Eagle Aquila verreauxii, as well as Black Stork Ciconia nigra, which forages in association with streams and vleis. The high-altitude alpine belt holds heath and karroid elements that support Grey Tit Parus afer, Sickle-winged Chat Cercomela sinuata and Layard’s Tit-Babbler Sylvia layardi. This reserve forms a critical part of the Lesotho highlands EBA, as it holds important populations of all the Drakensberg Escarpment restricted-range species. Drakensberg Rockjumper Chaetops aurantius and Drakensberg Siskin Crithagra symonsi are common and widespread within the park, especially at altitudes above 2 000 m a.s.l. Mountain Pipit Anthus hoeschi is found at extremely high altitudes, mostly above 3 000 m a.s.l., where it is a locally common breeding migrant.
The climax grassland areas with moist vleis and marshes support Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus, Wattled Crane Bugeranus carunculatus, Grey Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum, Southern Bald Ibis Geronticus calvus, Denham’s Bustard Neotis denhami, African Marsh Harrier Circus ranivorus, Black-rumped Buttonquail Turnix nanus, Short-tailed Pipit Anthus brachyurus and Yellow-breasted Pipit A. chloris.
South Africa’s main Striped Flufftail Sarothrura affinis population is found in the Drakensberg region, where it may be locally numerous. The grassy slopes and valleys also hold Martial Eagle Polemaetus bellicosus, Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius and Large-billed Lark Galerida magnirostris.
Rocky outcrops are the favoured haunts of Cape Eagle-Owl Bubo capensis, Ground Woodpecker Geocolaptes olivaceus, Buff-streaked Chat Campicoloides bifasciata, African Rock Pipit Anthus crenatus and Sentinel Rock Thrush Monticola explorator, while Black Harrier Circus maurus hunts over any relatively open grassland. The protea woodland holds Gurney’s Sugarbird Promerops gurneyi, and the thicket and forest patches in the kloofs and gullies are home to Chorister Robin-Chat Cossypha dichroa, Bush Blackcap Lioptilus nigricapillus, Barratt’s Warbler Bradypterus barratti and Forest Canary Crithagra scotops.
Globally threatened species are Southern Bald Ibis, Cape Vulture (200–230 breeding pairs and 600–1000 individuals), Wattled Crane (four breeding pairs and 8–12 individuals are found in and bordering the park), Blue Crane, Grey Crowned Crane, Denham's Bustard, Bearded Vulture, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Secretarybird, Crowned Eagle Stephanoaetus coronatus, Martial Eagle, Black Harrier and Bush Blackcap. Regionally threatened species are African Rock Pipit, Mountain Pipit, African Marsh Harrier, Black-rumped Buttonquail, Striped Flufftail, African Grass Owl Tyto capensis, Short-tailed Pipit, Black Stork, Lanner Falcon and Half-collared Kingfisher Alcedo semitorquata.
Fairly common restricted-range and biome-restricted species include Forest Buzzard Buteo trizonatus, Kurrichane Thrush Turdus libonyanus, Sickle-winged Chat, Drakensberg Rockjumper, Barratt's Warbler, Gurney's Sugarbird, Mountain Pipit, Swee Waxbill Coccopygia melanotis, Forest Canary and Drakensberg Siskin.
Globally threatened species are Southern Bald Ibis, Cape Vulture (200–230 breeding pairs and 600–1000 individuals), Wattled Crane (four breeding pairs and 8–12 individuals are found in and bordering the park), Blue Crane, Grey Crowned Crane, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Crowned Eagle Stephanoaetus coronatus, Black Harrier, Ground Woodpecker and Bush Blackcap. Regionally threatened species are Mountain Pipit, Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus, Martial Eagle, African Marsh Harrier, Black-rumped Buttonquail, Striped Flufftail, Denham’s Bustard, African Grass Owl Tyto capensis, Short-tailed Pipit, Black Stork, Secretarybird, Lanner Falcon, Black-winged Lapwing Vanellus melanopterus, Half-collared Kingfisher Alcedo semitorquata and Broad-tailed Warbler Schoenicola brevirostris.
Restricted-range and biome-restricted species include Forest Buzzard Buteo trizonatus, Kurrichane Thrush Turdus libonyanus, Sickle-winged Chat, Drakensberg Rockjumper, Barratt’s Warbler, Gurney’s Sugarbird and Drakensberg Siskin.
The vegetation is varied and shows immense levels of endemism. More than 300 plant species are thought to be endemic to the greater Drakensberg range and adjacent Lesotho, including many spectacular plants. A substantial proportion of the global range of the endemic Drakensberg cycad Encephalartos ghellinckii falls within the park. The alpine floral communities found in the Lesotho and Drakensberg mountains are unique in southern Africa and they include a remarkable number of endemic plant species, including Protea nubigena. It is likely that many species remain to be discovered.
Threatened mammals include leopard Panthera pardus, brown hyaena Hyaena brunnea, aardwolf Proteles cristatus, African striped weasel Poecilogale albinucha, serval Felis serval, oribi Ourebia ourebia and white-tailed rat Mystromys albicaudatus. Frog species include the endemic Natal cascade frog Hadromophryne natalensis, Maluti river frog Amietia umbraculata, Drakensberg river frog A. dracomontana, Phofung river frog A. vertebralis and Natal chirping frog Anhydrophryne hewitti, as well as the threatened long-toed tree frog Leptopelis xenodactylus. Reptiles include Drakensberg dwarf chameleon Bradypodion dracomontana, the range-restricted Lang's crag lizard Pseudocordylus langi and spiny crag lizard P. spinosus. A new snake, cream-spotted mountain snake Montaspis gilvomaculata, was described as recently as 1991. Among the butterflies, the extremely rare and poorly known Mokhotlong blue Lepidochrysops loewensteini and the widespread but habitat-restricted sylph Metisella syrinx are present. The Drakensberg is also important for the Drakensberg daisy copper Chrysoritis oreas, which is known from only five locations.
Poisoning poses the greatest threat to the Bearded Vultures and Cape Vultures remaining in the Drakensberg. Farmers in the areas adjacent to the park have been shown to use poisons potentially lethal to both vulture species. The poisons are placed in animal carcasses by small-stock farmers to combat mammalian predators such as black-backed jackal Canis mesomelas, caracal Caracal caracal and domestic dogs. Hundreds of vultures can be killed in a single poisoning incident. Unfortunately, the mammalian predators targeted by farmers are more common near the conservation areas and consequently farmers closer to the vulture colonies use poisons more frequently than those farther away do. It is imperative that farmers using poisons be made aware of the dangers poisoned carcasses pose to vultures. There is a prevalent misconception that vultures are sheep killers. Awareness programmes could vindicate the vultures' reputation as harmful or nuisance animals, and the importance of their ecological role could be harnessed. An awareness initiative should be introduced in the areas where the problem seems to be most severe; the small-stock farming areas in the southern Drakensberg should be targeted first.
Another threat faced by vultures is a depleted food supply. This results in the loss of vital nutrients in the diet, which is responsible for bone abnormalities. The establishment of more vulture feeding areas along the Drakensberg escarpment could alleviate this problem. Vulture feeding areas may also encourage vultures to remain within the park when they forage, thus reducing their exposure to poisoned carcasses on private property neighbouring the park.
Major concerns for vulture species are the proposed wind farms in the Lesotho Highlands and the proposed Drakensberg cableway, which would stretch from the base to the top of the escarpment for approximately 2 km. Collisions with man-made structures such as power lines, human encroachment and environmental pollution are other minor sources of threat. The cumulative effects of all these hazards seriously threaten the remaining populations of Bearded Vultures and Cape Vultures along the Drakensberg escarpment.
The Maloti Drakensberg is regarded as the most important mountain catchment in South Africa because of the high yield and quality of water that flows from it. The wetlands in this area have been designated a Ramsar site as they play a key role in the hydrological cycle. Various farming communities, villages and a number of large towns depend directly on these rivers and their catchments for water supplies.
The area is also of major significance for nature conservation purposes because of the diversity of endemic and threatened plants and animals that it supports. The only Afro-alpine vegetation in southern Africa is shared between Lesotho, the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. The Afro-alpine belt contains extensive wetlands, which, by virtue of their extremely limited distribution on the subcontinent, possess great rarity value. The most extensive, secure and near-pristine Afro-alpine and montane wetlands in South Africa are protected in the park.
The Maloti Drakensberg Park is a declared World Heritage Site administered by EKZNW. Important research is being undertaken to investigate the possible impacts of wind farms on its populations of Cape Vultures and Bearded Vultures.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife www.kznwildlife.com
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