General South African Environmental Links


South Africa is home to one-sixth of the world’s marine species with the Indian Ocean on the east coast and the Atlantic on the west coast. The country has more species of wild animals than Europe and Asia put together and a vast variety of endemic and migratory birds.

The vision of the Department of Environmental Affairs is to create a prosperous and equitable society living in harmony with the environment.

Government leads protection of the environment by example. At regional level, the provincial conservation agencies are major role players, and independent statutory organisations such as South African National Parks(SANParks) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) are valuable partners in the country’s total conservation effort.

South Africa has taken several concrete steps to implement the United Nations’ Agenda 21 on Sustainable Development. These include reforming environmental policies, ratifying international agreements and participating in many global and regional sustainable-development initiatives.

Environmental heritage

South Africa has between 250 000 and a million species of organisms, many of which occur nowhere else in the world.

While South Africa occupies about 2% of the world’s land area, it is estimated that the country is home to 10% of the world’s plants and 7% of the reptiles, birds and mammals.

The southern African coast is home to almost 15% of known coastal marine species, providing a rich source of nutrition and supporting livelihoods of coastal communities.

In terms of the number of endemic species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, South Africa is ranked as the fifth-richest country in Africa and the 24th-richest in the world. It is one of only 17 countries that collectively contains two thirds of the world’s biodiversity.

The National Spatial Biodiversity Assessment [PDF] by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Sanbi revealed that 34% of South Africa’s ecosystems were threatened, with 5% critically endangered; while 82% of the 120 main rivers were threatened; and 44% critically endangered. Of the 13 groups of estuarine biodiversity, three were in critical danger and 12% of marine biozones were under serious threat.

South Africa’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan [PDF] aims to guide conservation and the management of biodiversity to ensure sustainable and equitable benefits for all communities.

The country’s three globally recognised biodiversity hotspots are:


The coastline meets the Atlantic, Indian and Southern oceans, which provide exceptional habitats ranging from cool water kelp forests to tropical coral reefs.

The Cape Floral Kingdom has the highest recorded species diversity for any similar-sized temperate or tropical region in the world. It is a world heritage site.

Biodiversity is protected and promoted through institutions and initiatives such as the:

Important dates

World Wetlands Day 2 February
National Water Week 19 to 25 March
Earth Day 20 March
World Water Day 22 March
World Meteorological Day 23 March
World Environment Day 5 June
World Oceans Day 8 June
World Desertification Day 17 June
National Arbour Week 1 to 7 September
International Day for the Protection of the Ozone Layer 16 September
World Tourism Day 27 September
World Habitat Day 4 October
National Marine Day 20 October


There are eight major terrestrial biomes, or habitat types, in South Africa. These biomes can, in turn, be divided into 70 veld types.

The biomes are the Savanna, Nama-Karoo, Succulent Karoo, Grassland, Fynbos, Forest, Thicket and Desert. The Fynbos Biome is one of only six floral kingdoms worldwide.

Did you know

South Africa, as a biodiversity-rich country, is committed to the conservation and sustainable management of biological resources, and is signatory to the following biodiversity-related multilateral agreements:

  • Convention on Biological Diversity
  • Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety
  • Ramsar Convention
  • Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species
  • Convention to Combat Desertification
  • Convention on Migratory Species.

Conservation areas

There are a number of management categories of protected areas in South Africa, which conform to the accepted categories of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

South Africa has a long-term strategy to expand the conservation areas under formal protection from 6% to the international standard of 10% of the total area of the country. The Department of Environmental Affairs has developed mechanisms for the establishment and expansion of protected areas.

The department has committed significant financial resources towards the expansion of formal protected areas, bringing the number of national parks to 19, and the total formal conservation estate to four million hectares. Since 2004, the department has declared four new marine protected areas (MPAs), increasing the total coastline under protection to 20%.

Scientific reserves

These are sensitive, undisturbed areas managed for research, monitoring and maintenance of genetic sources. Access is limited. Examples are Marion Island and the Prince Edward islands near Antarctica.

Did you know

At the end of August 2010, the fourth People and Parks Conference took place in KwaZulu-Natal under the theme: Conservation for the People with the People. At the same time, the National Co-Management Framework was launched and various issues of transformation in
the biodiversity and conservation sector were addressed.

Commercial and tourism-conservation development and the involvement of local communities are regarded as performance indicators. These areas include national parks, provincial parks, nature reserves and indigenous state forests proclaimed in terms of the National Environment Management: Protected Areas Act, 2003 [PDF].

South Africa is in the process of establishing transfrontier conservation areas (TFCAs) in cooperation with its neighbouring countries.

The conservation status of the areas within these TFCAs varies from national parks, private game reserves and communal natural-resource management areas to hunting concession areas. Though fences, highways, railway lines or other barriers separate the constituent areas, they are managed jointly for long-term sustainable use of natural resources.

TFCAs aim to facilitate and promote regional peace, cooperation and socio-economic development. The success of TFCAs depends on community involvement. In turn, TFCAs are likely to provide local communities with opportunities to generate revenue.

The National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Amendment Act, 2004 (Act 8 of 2004) [PDF] protects South Africa’s biosphere reserves, which are generally formed around existing core conservation areas.

Biosphere reserves include outstanding natural beauty and biological diversity, exist in partnership with a range of interested landowners and can incorporate development, as long as it is sustainable, while still protecting terrestrial or coastal ecosystems.

South Africa added a sixth biosphere reserve to its register when the Vhembe region of Limpopo became one of 22 newly proclaimed reserves by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco). The 22 new biospheres, located in 17 countries, were added to Unesco’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves during the 21st session of the International Coordinating Council of the Man and the Biosphere Programme. The total stands at 553 sites in 107 countries.

The other biosphere reserves are:

Did you know

The Agulhas Biodiversity Initiative and the Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Development (BCSD) Project, two Cape Action for People and the Environment (CAPE) projects, received top ratings for project implementation from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for 2009. These projects were funded by the Global Environment Facility through the World Bank and the UNDP. The South Africa National Biodiversity Institute’s Fynbos Programme provides coordination for both the CAPE partnership and the BCSD Project.


Wetlands include a wide range of inland and coastal habitats – from mountain bogs, fens and midland marshes to swamp forests and estuaries, linked by green corridors of streambank wetlands.

By February 2010, about 115 000 wetlands covering over four million ha comprising close to 4% of the country’s total surface area were mapped in South Africa. These wetlands are part of the natural infrastructure for gathering, managing and delivering water for human use.

The Working for Wetlands Programme focuses on wetland restoration, while maximising employment creation, support for small, medium and micro-enterprises and skills transfer.

Many wetland plants have medicinal value. In South Africa, traditional medicine is the preferred primary healthcare choice for about 70% of the people. Wetlands provide some of the 19 500 tons of medicinal plant material, which are used by some 28 million South Africans every year.

Sanbi manages the Working for Wetlands Programme, with its offices based at the Pretoria National Botanical Garden. The National Inventory Project, the first systematic assessment of the extent of South Africa’s wetland resources, maps a total of 121 642 individual wetlands, which accounts for 7% of the country’s surface area. Working for Wetlands rehabilitated 91 wetlands, employed 1 710 people and provided 28 547 training days during the year.


Did you know

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a world heritage site that i spans 332 000 ha along the north-eastern coast of South Africa, received a US9-million grant (about R65,7 million) in March 2010 for empowerment projects in the area. The grant came from the Global Environment Facility through the World Bank. Isimangaliso, which means “miracle and wonder”, contains three major lake systems, eight interlinking ecosystems, 700-year-old fishing traditions, most of South Africa’s remaining swamp forests, Africa’s largest estuarine system, 526 bird species and 25 000 year-old coastal dunes – among the highest in the world.

Botanical gardens

The South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) manages eight national botanical gardens in five of South Africa’s nine provinces. The gardens collectively attract over 1,25 million visitors a year, are signatories to the International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation and founding members of the African Botanic Gardens Network.

The largest garden is Kirstenbosch, situated on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain in Cape Town.

The Pretoria National Botanical Garden houses the National Herbarium of South Africa, the largest in the southern hemisphere.

Did you know

In October 2010, a delegation comprising senior government officials within the environmental sector from national and provincial departments and conservation authorities, led by the Department of Environmental Affairs, attended the 10th meeting of the 10th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan. South Africa supported recommendations that articulate the role of biodiversity in climatechange mitigation and adaptation.

Marine protected areas

The MPAs are modelled on the success of the Isimangaliso Wetland Park– with strict zoning of both marine and coastal protected areas. The four MPAs are: Aliwal Shoal on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal, the coastal and marine environment next to Pondoland in the Eastern Cape, Bird Island at Algoa Bay and the Cape Peninsula in the Western Cape.

Some of the protection measures implemented in the MPAs are restrictions for people who want to fish, as well as restrictions for stowing fishing gear when fishing from a vessel.

Did you know

Durban hosted the 17th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP17) in December 2011. The South African Government regards climate change as one of the greatest threats to sustainable development. Government also believes that climate change, if un-mitigated, also has the potential to undo or undermine many of the positive advances made in meeting South Africa’s own development goals and the Millennium Development Goals.

Source: Pocket Guide to South Africa 2010/11
Editor: D Burger. Government Communication and Information System