In Southern Africa seven biomes are found, namely Fynbos, Savannah, Grassland, Nama-Karoo, Succulent Karoo, Desert and Forest. Each of these biomes is classified according to rainfall, dominant life forms and other structural characteristics. The Kruger to Canyons Biosphere Reserve is a showcase of three of these biomes. The escarpment consists of Grassland and Forest biomes, while the Lowveld region is characterised by the Savannah biome.
Savannah was once used restrictively to describe central South American grasslands in Spanish but is now used extensively in many nations to describe a vegetation type typified by a lower, herbaceous, often grass-dominated, component and an upper level woody plant community.
Canopy cover may range from very low to up to around 75% where the plant communities are then often described as 'shrubveld', 'woodland' or 'Savannah woodland', in our case very common in the Kruger to Canyons region as a whole.
Savannah exists as the largest South African biome covering around 45%, or nearly 1 million square kilometres, of the country.
It is the predominant biome in the Lowveld and the Kalahari, as well as in adjacent Botswana, Namibia and to an extent also in Zimbabwe.
The biome predominates in the weak to strong summer rainfall areas receiving more that 235mm of rain per annum, and experiences strong seasonal and daily temperature fluctuations as well as occasional frost and hail in some higher lying areas (up to 2,000m above sea level).
Summers are long to very long, being of greater duration than that experienced in other biomes, and will extend sometimes for up to 7.5 months where daytime temperatures may reach 40 degrees Celsius or more.
Savannah areas, due in combination to the multitude of geology and soil types, variance in rainfall, fire and action of various herbivores, are generally bio-diverse with equally beautiful and varied landscapes making them compelling destinations for eco-interested travellers.
Fire is in many areas very common, sometimes controlled or influenced by the action of humans. However most Savannah plants and animals are well-adapted to such occurrences and bio-production generally increases following fires and ensures that the grass layer predominates over time.
Due to the strong and long link between Savannah and early human occupation, the structure of this biome may be linked to the action of humans over time.
Faunal presence, diversity and biomass is limited to the variance and composition of the vegetation in any one region within the Savannah biome as a whole; thus some areas may have a multitude of antelope species while other areas may not, or at least have different types due to their varying adaptations to environment and conditions.
In general, Savannah tree heights vary between 3m and 7m, but massive specimens of up to 20m or more may be seen, especially along large watercourses or wooded ravines and gulleys amongst relief features.
Much of the South African savannahs are effectively conserved as game farms, with a small proportion conserved officially. Other areas within the Savannah are utilised for cattle farming and some agriculture where soils are suitable and water may be available. Much of this biome is non-urbanised probably due to the mostly hot, moist climate and presence of serious diseases like malaria and sleeping sickness spread by the mosquito and tsetse fly respectively.
The Savannah biome of Southern Africa is considerably more biodiverse than Savannahs in other African countries, mainly due to the complexity of the geomorphology, and is considered to be an important centre of diversity and speciation (Cowling et al, 1989). It is in the Savannah biome that most of the large mammals and birds, which are special attractions for both national and international visitors, can be seen.
Grasslands, or 'Grassveld' as it is sometimes colloquially known in South African vernacular, are found predominantly on the central high plateau, inland areas of the Kwa-Zulu Natal seaboard and other mountainous areas of the Eastern Cape. They cover a vast area of around 343,000 square kilometres.
Grasslands vary in height above mean sea level, occurring from 300m to 2,850m. Climatic conditions prevalent in the grasslands are those of relatively high Summer rainfall of 400 to 2000mm per annum, commonly experienced frost and average lowest temperatures of below 10C.
Along our wonderful escarpments fog in many places is quite common and lends an air of mystery and foreboding to these areas, many of which occur in the Northern Drakensberg range adjacent to the game-rich Kruger landscape below.
Sparsely populated with trees and other woody vegetation, this biome is, as the name implies, almost completely dominated by grass communities (plants from the Poaceae family), with geophytes (often bulbous type plants with their buds close to the soil surface) being locally abundant and adding magnificent splashes of colour and interest.
Irises, Daisies, Mints, Orchids, Aloes, Euphorbs, Bracken, Crassulas, Everlastings, Ericas, Lobelias, Proteas are prevalent.
The proliferation of other woody plant communities is curtailed by frosts, fire and the actions of grazing animals, although in recent times man has had a massive effect on the functioning, transformation and degradation of grasslands.
The pictures below look toward Iron Mountain and the Wolkberg Wilderness area from Magoebaskloof taken in 1923 and again in 1992. These grasslands and associated habitats are some of the most threatened in southern Africa.
Indeed much of our grassland has fallen to silviculture, agriculture and stock farming, with other areas sorely in need of conservation and strong protection, partly because some of these areas contain mountain wetlands that filter and supply much water to drainage systems leading to populated areas which utilise the water.
Less than ten percent of the total "North-Eastern Mountain Grassland", a sub-type of the South African Grassland Biome which occurs in the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere, has conservation status.
Up to 45% of these grasslands have been transformed in some way or another by human activity.
Many special bird species occur within these grasslands and their adjacent evergreen forests, together with a multitude of diverse invertebrates and small mammals.
Many travellers to South Africa are attracted to their scenic splendour, especially of the mountainous grasslands, a part of this beautiful country that we as a people will be absolutely empty without.
The Grassland biome is considered to be one of the three most threatened and one of the most rare found in the country. Within this biome montane seepage wetlands are found; the condition of these catchment wetlands is of the utmost importance to the quality and quantity of water channelled into the major rivers in the area. South Africa has already lost 50% of its wetlands; it is therefore imperative that these few remaining wetlands remain protected. Currently only around 1% of the North Eastern Mountain Sourveld Veld Type is under conservation.
The Forest biome occurring within the Biosphere Reserve is known as Northern Drakensberg Escarpment Forest. The combination of plants found in this forest is not encountered anywhere else in South Africa. The indigenous forest type habitats of South Africa account for only 0.25% of South Africa's land, are essential eco-systems and are threatened with extinction.