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South Africa - Main Details

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Biodiversity Facts

Status and trends of biodiversity, including benefits from biodiversity and ecosystem services

The content of this biodiversity profile is still draft. The text below has been prepared by SCBD and remains subject to final approval by the Party concerned.

The diversity of topography, climate, geology and people in South Africa presents a wide variety of natural and cultural resources. It is notably considered one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world due to its species diversity, rate of endemism and diverse ecosystems. Terrestrial biodiversity can be divided into nine biomes, rivers into 31 different river ecoregions, and estuaries and coastal marine habitats into three biogeographical zones around the coast (subtropical, warm temperate, cool temperate). In addition, numerous structural types of vegetation, rivers, wetlands, estuaries and marine habitats add considerably to the biodiversity within these environments. While it occupies only 2% of the world’s land surface area, South Africa is home to 10% of the world’s plant species and 7% of its reptile, bird and mammal species. Furthermore, it harbors around 15% of the world’s marine species. Endemism rates reach 56% for amphibians, 65% for plants and up to 70% for invertebrates.

However, South African biodiversity is at present greatly endangered. National Red List assessments indicate that 10% of South Africa’s birds and frogs, 20% of its mammals and 13% of its plants are threatened. In terms of natural ecosystems, the National Spatial Biodiversity Assessment (NSBA) (2004) revealed that 82% of the main river ecosystems are threatened, with 44% critically endangered, 27% endangered, and 11% vulnerable. Of the country’s 440 vegetation types, 5% are critically endangered, 12% are endangered and 16% are vulnerable; 3 of the 13 estuary groups are critically endangered, a further 5 are endangered and 2 are vulnerable; 65% of the 34 marine biozones are threatened, with 12% critically endangered, 15% endangered and 38% vulnerable. In regard to freshwater ecosystems, the assessment revealed that only 29% of the country’s main rivers were unmodified, or largely unmodified, and an estimated 50% of South Africa's wetlands have been destroyed. An example is taken from the Cape Floral Kingdom, a particularly rich area in terms of flora. Home to 38% of South Africa’s plant species, this region is also the smallest and most threatened of the world’s six floral kingdoms, with 1,850 of its plant species (over 20%) now threatened with extinction.

The loss and degradation of South Africa’s biodiversity has serious implications for society and the economy. Natural ecosystems provide many essential services, such as the provision of clean water and air, prevention of soil erosion, pollination of crops, provision of medicinal plants, nutrient cycling, provision of food and shelter, as well as meeting spiritual, cultural, aesthetic and recreational needs. Large portions of the country’s economy are heavily dependent on biodiversity (e.g. fishing industry, game and livestock ranching, horticulture and agriculture based on indigenous species, commercial and subsistence use of medicinal plants, ecotourism). A recent estimate placed the total value added to the economy by all provisioning, regulating and cultural ecosystem services in South Africa, excluding the marine environment and the value generated by the extraction of water resources, in the order of R73 billion per annum (which is approximately 7% of the country’s annual GDP). In addition, intact ecosystems (i.e. ecosystems which are in a natural or near‐natural state) are likely to play an important role in providing cost‐effective resilience to the impacts of climate change, including buffering human settlements and activities from the impacts of extreme climate events. Finally, the majority of South Africans are highly dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, well-being and health care (it is estimated that over 70% of South Africans use traditional medicinal plants as their primary source of health care).

Main pressures on and drivers of change to biodiversity (direct and indirect)

The content of this biodiversity profile is still draft. The text below has been prepared by SCBD and remains subject to final approval by the Party concerned.

One of the major threats to biodiversity is habitat loss and degradation, resulting from alternative land uses for urban, industrial and mining development, agriculture, biofuel production, canalization (aquatic) and trawling (marine). Other threats include alien invasive species and their hybridization with local species (8% of the land area in South Africa is currently infested by about 200 species of invasive alien plants across all biomes and ecosystems), over-harvesting of resources (especially marine), discharge of industrial effluents into the water systems, and climate change. Finally, South Africa emits many greenhouse gases due to its reliance on coal for energy, which could result in a decrease of up to 55% in the area covered by current biomes in the next 50 years.

Measures to Enhance Implementation of the Convention

Implementation of the NBSAP

The content of this biodiversity profile is still draft. The text below has been prepared by SCBD and remains subject to final approval by the Party concerned.

South Africa published its National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) in 2005 and intends to complete a revised and updated NBSAP by 2014. National targets, aligned with the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, have already been developed and incorporate outcomes contained in the existing NBSAP (2005). Along with the National Biodiversity Assessment (2011), these documents serve as the basis for the National Biodiversity Framework (NBF) which is updated every five years, as required by the Biodiversity Act. The NBF identifies 33 priority actions to guide the work of the biodiversity sector to 2013.

Actions taken to achieve the 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets

The content of this biodiversity profile is still draft. The text below has been prepared by SCBD and remains subject to final approval by the Party concerned.

South Africa is currently behind target in regard to protected areas coverage and representativity of ecosystems and habitats. Protected areas now comprise 6.5% of the terrestrial surface area, however are targeted to increase to 8.8% by 2013 and to 12% in the next twenty years. Among them, the country counts 100 important bird sites, 8 World Heritage sites, 5 biosphere reserves and 19 RAMSAR sites. Ten percent of South Africa’s wetlands are fully protected, and a further 8% are partially protected. While 21.5% of the coastline is in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), only 9% is fully protected as no-take zones. Of South Africa's Exclusive Economic Zone, 0.4% lies within MPAs, with less than 0.2% in no-take zones. The same holds for aquatic ecosystems, with only 7% of main river ecosystems adequately protected. Similarly, while 59% of the 259 estuaries in South Africa are in good or excellent condition, only 5.4% have a high level of protection.

South Africa has however made noteworthy efforts in various policy fields, including: alien invasive species regulation (several programmes, such as the “Working for Water” programme, have been developed to deal with the threat of invasive alien species); protection of indigenous knowledge and involvement of communities (Indigenous Knowledge Systems Policy is in place to provide fair and equitable compensation to indigenous people for their contribution to the protection and conservation of biodiversity; local communities are involved in the implementation of the CBD to a certain extent, through programs such as “People and Parks”); and biosafety (South Africa is implementing the Cartagena Protocol).

Support mechanisms for national implementation (legislation, funding, capacity-building, coordination, mainstreaming, etc.)

The content of this biodiversity profile is still draft. The text below has been prepared by SCBD and remains subject to final approval by the Party concerned.

South Africa has a well developed and progressive policy framework for biodiversity management. Policies are given effect through various pieces of legislation, with the basis laid in the White Paper on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of South Africa’s Biological Diversity (1997). The National Environmental Management Act (1998) establishes overarching principles for environmental legislation, with separate acts passed to further define and support its objectives in relevant functional areas such as protected areas, coastal management, air pollution and waste management. The National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (2004) is of particular importance with respect to South Africa’s commitments under the CBD. This Act sought to resolve the fragmented nature of biodiversity-related legislation at national and provincial levels by consolidating different laws and giving effect to the principle of cooperative governance. Responsibility for biodiversity management being allocated among various government departments and agencies at the national, provincial and local levels, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) performs the role of lead agent in environmental governance. Biodiversity programs include, for instance, the Succulent Karoo Ecosystem Program (SKEP), Eastern Cape Co-ordination Unit for Bioregional Programs, Grasslands Program, Marine Program, Freshwater Programs.

The South African government is the primary source of funding for biodiversity management and, while donor funds are an important source of funding, amounts available from donors tend to decrease. Within the constraints of limited resources available to the sector, South Africa has nevertheless made substantial progress with mainstreaming biodiversity. It has embraced the Ecosystem Approach, applying it in planning activities and in implementing many programs. In particular, substantial progress has been made in developing a framework for incorporating biodiversity considerations into decision-making and land use planning, with various tools under development to achieve this (e.g. list of threatened ecosystems in relation to the Biodiversity Act; provincial spatial biodiversity plans and bioregional plans which identify critical biodiversity areas based on systematic biodiversity planning techniques). Furthermore, South Africa’s National Climate Change Response Strategy and National Action Programme to combat land degradation both incorporate biodiversity‐related matters, while both the recently-published National Framework for Sustainable Development and Discussion Document Towards an Anti‐Poverty Strategy for South Africa are cognizant of the important role that healthy ecosystems play in sustainable development.

Finally, the biodiversity sector has established business and biodiversity initiatives with a number of production sectors aimed at enhancing sustainable production. For example, the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI) in 2004 produced biodiversity guidelines for the wine industry (South Africa is the world’s eighth largest wine producer). Such initiatives are complemented by amendments to tax legislation and fiscal incentives that encourage biodiversity‐friendly management.

Mechanisms for monitoring and reviewing implementation

The content of this biodiversity profile is still draft. The text below has been prepared by SCBD and remains subject to final approval by the Party concerned.

The recently completed National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA) (2011) provides an assessment of South Africa’s biodiversity and ecosystems, including headline indicators and national maps for the terrestrial, freshwater, estuarine and marine environments. The NBA (2011) was led by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), in partnership with a range of organizations, including the Department of Environmental Affairs, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and South African National Parks. It follows from the National Spatial Biodiversity Assessment (2004), however is broader in scope, including key thematic issues as well as a spatial assessment. The NBA (2011) includes a summary of spatial biodiversity priority areas that have been identified through systematic biodiversity plans at national, provincial and local levels. Finally, progress has been made with data collection and calculation for certain indicators, including the amount of natural habitat lost, number of invasive species, extent and degree of infestation by invasive species and the extent to which terrestrial ecosystems are intact. To date, South Africa is the only country in the region to have established national targets in line with the Aichi Targets, while having also incorporated the outcomes in their existing NBSAP (2005) in these targets.

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  • United Nations
  • United Nations Environment Programme