In pre-colonial times the area was inhabited by indigenous hunter-gatherer populations (the San, also known as Bushmen), who were later followed by livestock herders (the Khoi). The first Dutch colonialists arrived in the early 1700s - initially as elephant hunters, later as stock farmers – and the subsequent two centuries saw gradual settlement by European immigrants, practicing a similar extensive pastoralism as their indigenous counterparts.

During the 20th century there has been a shift towards more intensive farming systems, including ostrich, dairy, citrus, wine cultivation etc., combined with extensive grazing of sheep and cattle. Also during this period, protected areas were established by the state as mountain water reserves and nature reserves (see Protected Areas section). Small towns across the region gradually expanded their footprint. Much more recently, especially in the last 15 years as South Africa re-entered the global economy following the end of apartheid, there has been a dramatic increase in alternative land uses, including the rise of residential golf estates along the coast, and game farming inland, as well as rapidly expanding urban settlements.

Present land use is best explained based on the GCBR’s zonation map.

All the statutory protected areas, land owned by WWF-SA, private land protected under the Mountain Catchment Areas Act, 1970 (Act 63 of 1970),  Stewardship sites (Contract Nature Reserves and Biodiversity Agreement Sites registered in terms of the Western Cape Nature Conservation Board Act, 1998 (Act 15 of 1998)) and Zoned Open Space III areas (private land protected under Land Use Planning Ordinance (Ordinance 15 of 1985)form part of the Core Areas of the GCBR (see Protected Areas section of website).

The designated Buffer areas are those areas which are still in a natural or near natural state, and comprise the larger proportion of land in the biosphere reserve, particularly across the inland Klein Karoo region. 

Much of this area is privately owned, and zoned as agricultural land. It is mainly used for domestic stock grazing and game farming. In some cases, land is owned by city dwellers who value the peace and quiet of the area and use it as a weekend or holiday escape. In addition, two specialised products are harvested from natural vegetation in the buffer areas: high quality thatch (Thamnochortus insignis) and aloe sap (Aloe ferox). Finally, tourism is an important activity in the buffer areas (see also Tourism section of website). The beaches along the coast are very popular as summer holiday destinations. The famous Cango Caves in the inland area attracts about 300 000 visitors per year.

Possible adverse effects on the buffer zone of uses or activities occurring within or outside the buffer zone in the longer terms:

There are many threats to the vegetation types in these areas, and to the linkages required between them. Notable among these are unsustainable grazing practices, the spread of alien vegetation and inappropriate fire regimes (Lombard et al. 2004), illegal ploughing and significant water over-abstraction, affecting aquatic communities.

  • Grazing pressures. Most of the Succulent Karoo and Subtropical Thicket vegetation is extensively grazed by small stock and ostriches, often well beyond the carrying capacity of the natural vegetation. Ostrich densities pose the bigger problem, especially around Oudtshoorn and Calitzdorp. Whereas the impacts of small stock on the veld may be reversible, the impacts of heavy ostriches on natural vegetation and on the soils are often worse. A lichen/moss layer forms a crust on Little Karoo soils and this helps to trap water, but the ostriches remove this layer. These problems are starting to be addressed by the local ostrich business chamber, which is working together with CapeNature to improve stock management practices to be more sustainable. The proposed biosphere reserve will be well positioned to promote and support these kinds of initiatives.
  • Fire frequency. In many areas, but especially in Renosterveld and Fynbos, natural fire regimes are no longer operative. Landowners often are not well informed in terms of the correct fire management needs of different areas of natural vegetation.  In some cases, land areas are not burned at all, or burned very frequently and then used as grazing for domestic stock. The latter is particularly bad, as many of the species require unhindered growth for the first two years after a fire. It also inhibits important bird movements in the fynbos areas (see text box). Within the Langeberg area, many private farms were never part of a catchment management programme, and as a result no fire management plan exists for the greater region.
  • Alien plants. In addition to those highlighted under section 16.1, the buffer zone is also affected by many riverine alien plants, for example, the Ceylon’s roos (Nerium oleander) that is extremely expensive and difficult to eradicate. Restricted to floodplains and perennial water streams, it is highly toxic to all other biodiversity (in and out of the water), and also shades the water. Other riverine aliens include Schinus molle (the pepper tree) and Arundo donax (the Spanish reed). These invade the floodplain and alter the flood patterns, by blocking up the river system and causing floods into surrounding lands. Tamarix chinensis and T.  paniculata also block the flow of river floodwaters. Finally, all of the Australian acacias displace biodiversity, extract water and create a serious fire threat. Private landowners often do not have the financial means to combat the spread of alien plant species on their land.
  • Game fencing. In large parts of the buffer zone landowners have changed to game farming. Most of these farms have been enclosed by game fencing (often higher than 2m and electrified in some cases). These form a serious barrier for the natural migration of fauna. On some game farms extra-limital game species (indigenous to South Africa, but not to the GCBR) have been introduced to increase the productivity of venison. These game species hold a threat to the natural vegetation, as the local plants are not adapted to their feeding behaviour or the densities of game species. Electric fencing also inhibits the movement of important dispersers such as leopard tortoises. These animals are often killed by electric fences, yet are important dispersers of succulent plants (especially the endemic species restricted to quartzite outcrops).

The establishment of game farms and lifestyle estates can pose numerous challenges. However, if correctly implemented (e.g. removal of inappropriate fences, plants and animals, and the re-introduction of locally indigenous game at suitable stocking densities) such changes in land use can significantly improve the integrity of natural ecosystems. With careful planning and coordination, they can also provide much needed economic opportunities to local communities in “grass-root” level tourism, e.g. guided hiking, local arts and craft enterprises etc.

There is employment creation potential in the conservation, restoration and maintenance of natural ecosystems on private agricultural land. An immediate opportunity is restoration of degraded Subtropical Thicket vegetation. Approximately 30 000 ha of Subtropical Thicket (specifically Spekboomveld) has been severely degraded. Spekboom (Portulacaria afra) is rapidly gaining a reputation for its ability to capture carbon. Global carbon trading – a mechanism to reduce climate change by the capture of carbon from certain types of newly planted vegetation – gives economic value to carbon. The central premise is that farming carbon (planting spekboom) can become a more sustainable and more profitable venture for landowners than present unsustainable stock farming practices. Three pilot restoration projects have already been completed in collaboration with LandCare and CapeNature. The scope for additional work in this area is significant, and becomes especially attractive if it can be combined with land reform efforts by assisting emerging black farmers to enter into the carbon economy. 

Typical degradation in Spekboom vegetation (left)

Spekboom restoration at Dysselsdorp supports employment and skills development (right)
(Photos: Jan Vlok)

 The Transition (Transformed) areas of the GCBR include all areas that have been mapped as having no natural vegetation remaining. These include large tracts of intensively cultivated agricultural land, urban settlements and a very small amount of industrial development. There are also limited forestry activities, with only Pinus species being cultivated, restricted to the higher rainfall areas along the coastal mountain ranges.

By far the greater part of the transition area is zoned as agricultural land. In contrast to the extensive grazing practices on agricultural land in the buffer zone, here one finds highly intensive farming enterprises. Types of farming are shown in the map below.

Types of farming in the GCBR domain (source: Lombard et al.  2004). 

Wheat production is widespread across the coastal region from Albertinia to Swellendam and has transformed a large percentage of the Renosterveld vegetation of the Gouritz domain. Fruit and hops orchards and vineyards occur mostly along the base of mountains where ample fresh water is available.  Intensive production of lucerne is mainly limited to the riverine areas of Oudtshoorn and Calitzdorp, where large tracts of Succulent Karoo vegetation have been transformed. Also included in this area is intensive grazing land, especially ostrich feedlots which have been completely denuded of their natural vegetation.

The urban areas of the biosphere reserve are not very extensive. There are two significant towns, Mossel Bay and Oudtshoorn (with populations of around 118 000 and 80 000 respectively), and several smaller settlements of varying sizes (ranging from a few hundred to around 10 000 residents) (Eden District Municipality 2009). Nevertheless, these urban centres account for the great majority of human population in the area, in excess of 80% of overall population, and are experiencing rapid growth. They therefore exert disproportionate pressure on environmental resource flows and processes in their surrounding hinterlands. While conservation efforts often tend to be biased towards land use practices in rural landscapes, this growing impact of urban centres should not be neglected. The biosphere reserve therefore intends to work on both rural and urban dimensions of sustainable resource use in a bid to reduce these pressures in a balanced way.

Possible adverse effects of uses or activities on the transition areas:

Intensive agriculture and urban settlements place significant strain on environmental resources in the region. Of critical concern to both are impacts related to excessive water abstraction and inadequate flood control.

The risks associated with groundwater abstraction from deep aquifers are a major concern. Excessive water abstraction from aquifers results in a chain reaction: surface water dries up, vegetation changes in structure, and this in turn changes the water infiltration rate through the soil. All high value agricultural developments are directly linked to perennial clean water coming from the mountains and they are sustainable only if surface water is used (weirs, and not boreholes). Yet, many farmers along the southern end of the Kammanassie have gone bankrupt because surface water has dried up, owing to unsustainable deep-water extraction, and their weirs do not supply sufficient water to grow lucerne, for example.

Protection of the water catchments and reduction in deep water abstraction is thus imperative, to ensure a perennial supply of clean water coming off the mountains. If the mountain streams dry up, the whole environmental (and agricultural) system collapses. This is harmful not only to agriculture. It poses a direct threat to human settlements across the region, many of which depend on streams and rivers for their water supply. Most local rivers are replenished by underground water sources, and uncontrolled tapping can ultimately lead to the same rivers drying up completely. The problems inherent in this scenario became critically obvious in 2009 and 2010 when many towns especially along the coast came dangerously close to running completely dry, and extreme measures became necessary to prevent a collapse of the urban systems. Although severe drought played an important role in this unfolding crisis, adapting to drier conditions is becoming imperative, and answers to this challenge must be found both in the supply side (by acting against uncontrolled water extraction) and in demand side (by vastly increasing efficiencies in water use). The biosphere reserve must engage to influence both sides of this issue.

The same scenario applies to wetlands, which can be severely damaged if dried out. The importance of wetlands is often underestimated, yet their sustainability has far reaching implications for water quantity and quality. Not only do wetlands retain water and significantly reduce flooding; they also act as highly efficient filtering systems, saving millions of rands as a natural alternative to elaborate engineering services. 


Though considerably smaller in terms of territorial coverage, urban settlement constitutes the second major land use in the transition zone, particularly in the coastal areas of the biosphere reserve. Here, higher income groups and retirees from outside the area as well as people from overseas in search of “first world” lifestyle opportunities are attracted to the scenery and climate, and the well maintained infrastructure relative to other areas in South Africa. This phenomenon is linked especially to the proliferation of golf estates along the coast. In addition, the town of Mossel Bay has seen a major inflow of economic migrants from the much poorer Eastern Cape Province in search of employment opportunities. These driving factors underlie a rapid urbanisation which in turn places great strain on the region’s environmental resources. It has led to a direct loss of productive agricultural land, fragmentation and loss of natural habitat, while threatening the integrity of remaining natural systems and ecosystem services (Eden District Municipality, 2008). Key issues here include:

  • Increased abstraction of water: growing urban areas demand increasing quantities of bulk water for drinking, sanitation and other requirements (e.g. gardens, golf courses, industries). The surface water resources of the region are already fully utilised, and further abstraction directly threatens the integrity of aquatic ecosystems.
  • Energy and waste: Urban growth results directly in rising levels of solid waste and sewage, with associated landfill expansion and negative impact on surface and groundwater quality. Also, energy consumption per person tends to increase, with substantial inefficiencies and stark inequities in consumption between rich and poor households.
  • Loss of habitat and productive agricultural land. Low density urban sprawl results in direct loss of natural habitat and productive agricultural land.
  • Inefficient transport: Urban sprawl results in increased distance between people’s places of residence and employment, increasing transports costs and working against efficient public transport systems.
  • Biodiversity: Typically perceived as the exclusive domain of environmentalists, biodiversity’s value to the economy and human well-being in urban centres is not well-understood. It underpins the region’s ecosystems, and these in turn provide an irreplaceable source of goods and services for local residents and economy.

Like elsewhere in South Africa, key ecological thresholds in the Gouritz domain are being breached by the prevailing approach to growth and development. This results in rising costs for a wide range of public and private operators, and for households. Many problems that top the agenda of local municipalities – rising water and energy prices, water shortages, shortage of landfill space, polluted rivers, degraded environments and overflowing sewage treatment plants – are rooted in unsustainable resource use and a burgeoning population. Faced with the challenge of expanding services such as energy, waste, water and sanitation to ever-growing urban populations, local municipalities are increasingly confronted with these ecological thresholds and with the need to make more efficient use of existing resources - doing more with less. Human needs continue to expand, while the ecosystems which support us are finite and being seriously eroded. To eradicate poverty, growing consumption especially of poorer households is inevitable – in fact, it is necessary – but this growing consumption and the production systems that feed it must be decoupled from rising levels of natural resource use. Significant opportunities exist to move in this direction by employing new technologies and systems (Crane and Swilling 2007, 2008). The biosphere reserve will position itself to work with local municipalities in support of more sustainable human settlement practices.  

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