In the north of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, there is an area of breath-taking beauty and wonder. It is home to diverse riverine and estuarine habitats, variable savannah and foothill grasslands, and the highly specialized and threatened dune forests and sand forests. It is a place where flamingos and pelicans gather in their hundreds, where eagles soar and rhinos roam with elephants, and where lions hunt antelope as herds of zebra and giraffe look on.
Once elephants roamed these coastlines earning it the moniker “The Elephant Coast”, with more than 200km of continuous coastline now protected for conservation. Vast herds of wildebeest, zebra, and antelope once swept through in massive migrations the likes of which we no longer see today. This jewel of conservation is part of the Maputaland Centre of Endemism, Africa’s second richest floristic region and a key component of the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany World Biodiversity Hotspot.
Six of the eight terrestrial biomes and three of the six marine bioregions of South Africa are within this hotspot. One type of forest, three types of thickets, six types of bushveld and five types of grassland are endemic to the hotspot. Further a unique succulent flora and its forests have the highest species richness of any temperate forests on the planet. About 80 percent of South Africa’s remaining forests fall within this hotspot with at least 598 tree species in less than 30,000 km². The freshwater systems are some of the most diverse in Southern Africa with dumbfounding species richness. Finally, the adjacent marine environment is equally diverse with a range of unique reef types, waters that are a centre of diversity for sharks, rays and skates, include five of the seven world’s turtle species, and contain an extraordinary number of marine endemics.
It includes some of the rarest geological, ecological, wildlife, botanical, and natural heritage in Africa. It is an area of world-renowned reserves, RAMSAR wetlands, Important Bird Areas (IBAs), thriving wildlife populations, endangered vegetation types, and multiple threatened and endemic species. This is what we believe is worth saving. This is Maputaland.
Maputaland is the largest and most northern section of the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany World Biodiversity. It is geologically young and comprises a unique environment on the African continent where biological evolution (speciation) is still in a very active phase and is the reason why so many endemic plant taxa comply with the concept of neo-endemics.
The South African section of Maputaland is located in the uMkhanyakude District Municipality in the far Northern region of KwaZulu-Natal Province in South Africa (32,014489; -27,622242). This district extends from the Mfolozi River in the South, along the Indian Ocean in the east up to the Mozambique border in the North, into which it extends, and eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) in the extreme north west. It is home to almost 700 000 people and is 12 818 km². The District is the 2nd largest District in KwaZulu-Natal.
This is also home to some of the most impoverished communities in South Africa. Communities with unimaginable pre-Covid unemployment rates and who face insurmountable barriers improving their lot in life. Communities who still largely live off-the-land by necessity, mostly using traditional methods that we are now turning to, to save humanity from the mess we have created. Communities who know their land and who have decades long track records of working with conservation groups, but still face incredible challenges and little opportunity. Knowing how to live with nature and listen to the land, and repairing ailing Ecosystem Service processes – these are lesson for us to learn and actions we need to take. This is a region that largely depends on tourism to survive, an industry that has now been left desolate after the Covid-19 pandemic. This has further worsened the local situation. A region crying out for change and with people willing to embrace something new that can help determine a future that they have a say in.
Yet this is a community of vibrancy, resilience, creativity, and untapped talent. People who smile and make music despite having limited opportunities. People who have a burning desire to hope and to make dreams come true. People who need opportunities. People tied to the land and the environment and without whose support conservation cannot win.