*For terrestrial species only, recorded in The Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Biodiversity Hotspot.
**Threatened Species = Critically Endangered + Endangered + Vulnerable
World Biodiversity Hotspots are home to thousands of irreplaceable species that are facing multiple, urgent threats. To be classified as a hotspot:
The Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany World Biodiversity Hotspot (MPA Hotspot) contains 8 100 plant species of which 1 900 are endemic, 83 are Critically Endangered, 128 Endangered, and 323 Vulnerable. It is a highly threatened and important region and Africa’s second most biodiverse floristic region.
Within the MPA Hotspot we find the iSimangaliso Wetland Park UNESCO World Heritage Site, five RAMSAR sites and ten Important Bird Areas.
Maputaland is the most northern and largest portion of this hotspot and is classified as a Centre of Endemism. This includes truly unique vegetation such as the Sand Forest, Dune Forests and Maputaland Woody Grasslands.
Sand Forest is a subtropical dry lowland forest, on deep sands with low rainfall, that occurs in discrete patches and is generally restricted to ancient coastal dunes. It is critically endangered, and is South Africa’s most threatened vegetation type with less than 5 000 football fields of area remaining. More than 70% of it has been destroyed by human activity. It is a rare and unique forest type with abundant woody species and many other unusual species associated with it.
Dune Forests are a subtropical forest type that was once found almost continuously along the coastal dunes of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Much of theses forests have been degraded by human activity and the habitat type is seriously threatened by human population pressure, development, and in particular titanium mining.
Maputaland Woody Grassland is distinctive due its richness of geoxylic suffrutices (or “underground trees”) and herbaceous flora. Only the uppermost leaves and branches are visible of a geoxylix suffrutice – we only see the canopy of this forest. The rest of the tree is submerged deep below the sandy soil. This adaption protects the trees from environmental threats. They cannot easily be killed except by habitat destruction, and can have estimated ages of 13,000 years or more.
The freshwater systems are some of the most diverse in Southern Africa, with exceptionally high species richness and includes Africa’s largest estuarine system. 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 contains an extraordinary number of marine endemics. Maputaland can be said to includes some of the rarest geological, ecological, wildlife, botanical and natural heritage in Africa. We are constantly finding new species and new distributions. Yet this is all under constant threat.
Commercialised and syndicated poaching is a serious threat to many species of the region. Poaching syndicates target a broad variety of animals and plants. Rhinos are poached for their horns and is an armed conflict between military trained poachers and rangers. Plants are trafficked in high volumes due to their uniqueness, and even reptiles and spiders form part of the illegal pet trade. Fishing trawlers from Asia also target the marine areas and fish stocks with great detriment to the populations. In many cases these activities fund terrorist organisations and rogue nations needing hard currency.
Subsistence Poaching and over harvesting also accounts for biodiversity losses particularly as the populations have grown so much, and the resources have shrunk – the impacts are no longer sustainable. Many people living on and around the land are extremely vulnerable and impoverished and still subsist in many cases.
Destructive Farming methods have had a great impact on the soils, releasing carbon into the atmosphere, leaching toxins into the water systems, and causing dire habitat destruction and losses particularly for specialised systems like the sand forest. More than 30% of the land has been converted to timber production. There are both legal and illegal plantations scattered throughout the region, and the eucalyptus tree are exotic and are extremely water dependent. These trees and plantation are having major impacts on the water cycle and directly leading to large water bodies drying up, and the Maputaland aqueduct facing existential threats which would be catastrophic.
Ecosystem Services have been greatly disrupted and water availability and quality, air quality, soil health, available pastures and grazing, and indigenous crops have all declined alarmingly. Climate change is being experienced at a local level due to habitat losses, and space for wild animals has become disconnected, broken, and patchy, and supporting a fraction of the species that should be here.
Human development has led to complete transformation of habitat, leaving only small isolated fragments and grossly disrupted ecosystem functioning in the form of elevated soil erosion into freshwater systems, extreme loss of habitat and species, and expansion of invasive alien species. In the informal areas there is often high demand and dependency on products from natural systems such as fuel wood and charcoal, wildlife and plant products, and medicinal plants.
The poor socioeconomic standing of the communities in the region has started to put even greater pressure on the system, and funding usually allocated to conservation has dried up and being redirected to human needs usually with a short term outlook and very often being lost due to corruption. The system is at a breaking point and is buckling under the pressure.
Rural economies in Africa are facing multiple challenges, and the situation is no different in Maputaland. The majority of people are almost solely dependent on micro- and small-scale farming to make a living and to feed themselves but are experiencing a continuously diminishing production output from the land they farm. The diminishing outputs of production are attributed to a lesser portion of productive land available for food production, reduced productivity from degraded soil, and decreasing and disrupted rainfall patterns due to ecological degradation.
Since the population in the region has been growing steadily since 1994, the need for space, educational and employment requirements and infrastructure have increased accordingly. It has also led to a youthful population with 51% of the population being under 18 years of age in 2016, which is also the median age in the region. Tourism, farming, trade, governmental structures and transport are the primary sectors of employment in the district, but there are very limited opportunities with few formal employment positions available in the area. Since the land in the area is not very arable, agricultural practices have also been limited historically, in both subsistence and profit-targeted enterprises. The lack of employment options is paired with underdeveloped financial literacy, especially among less-educated individuals.
The district was found to be the second-most deprived in South Africa in terms of socioeconomics, based on an unemployment rate of over 83% in 2018, and with over 70% of the population surviving on roughly ZAR26.30 per day. A study conducted in uMkhanyakude found that only 17% of the population did not struggle to cover their monthly running costs at least once within the previous 12 months. This has likely been greatly exacerbated through the Covid-19 pandemic as tourism has collapsed in the area. Large parts of the community face great struggles, as the means to afford food, education and healthcare are severely impacted.
The severe challenges people are facing in the area in terms of low incomes, exceedingly high unemployment and significant agrarian dependencies results in further stress on the environment. The relationship between communities and conservation areas is therefore often strained. While Conservation has brought new employment opportunities, they have in no way matched the need for such in the whole region. Combined with malfunctioning settlement planning and constant population growth, the pressure on land areas designated for conservation is growing simultaneously with the enormous pressure on livelihoods for people. In addition, the South African government’s recently approved policies of land reform without compensation, which has caused the rift between communities and conservation areas to grow even further.
In 1800 the population of modern day South Africa numbered approximately 1.44 million. By 1900 this had increased to 4.71 million. During the 20th century there was exponential growth and the 2020 estimate stands at 59.31 million. This is an increase of over 4 000% in the last 220 years.
In keeping with the trends worldwide, this significant growth was largely due to industrialization, advances in medicine and health, and the spread of vaccinations which allowed for lower child mortality rates and increased life expectancy amongst adults. The increase in population in South Africa cannot simply be viewed comparatively to global trends, but the complicated history of the continent and country specifically needs to be taken into account.
Tsetse and Malaria
Nagana and Human African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) were common diseases in Maputaland spread by the tsetse fly. Malaria, yellow fever and typhoid fever were also extremely prevalent especially during the summer months, and this made the region unfavourable for settlement. These diseases were largely eradicated or brought under control eventually, but through extremely destructive methods.
Currently the land is mostly inhabited by the Mabudu-Tembe and Zulu people. There exists a fascinating and complex history of the region before and during the formation of the Zulu nation, and the how the once dominant Tembe tribe were later compelled to pay tribute to (but never conquered or ruled by) the Zulu nation, as well as the traditional links to the Swazis. These ructions impact the region even until this day.
Colonial conquest and the later implementation of apartheid caused incredible damage to the functioning societies that existed in the region, and forced removals to make way for farmers, and the campaigns to stamp out tsetse flies by destroying much of the existing wildlife are scars that have not healed – both for the people and for the land. This history alone is a huge challenge to overcome.
Lack of Opportunity and Education
The region not only has an exceptionally high unemployment rate, but there exists very few pathways for talented and motivated individuals to follow. Opportunities are few and far between and access to decent education is limited with more than half the people not having a secondary education, and the primary education not being of a high standard. Those few opportunities that do exist usually lie in tourism, as farm labourers, or in the government or transport industry. People are not able to find work in careers they choose but are rather limited by a few options that are available.
Political Will, Corruption and Service Delivery
Without delving too deeply into this complicated and sensitive issue, politics can often play a negative role in the lives of the rural citizen. Not unique to South Africa, different parties may fill different levels of power and actively work against each other at the expense of the people in most need. Sadly, corruption has been historically rampant, and funds allocated through governance structures spent irregularly and projects not completed or sometimes even started. Service delivery and maintenance of existing infrastructure has also been very poor as short term gains have been preferred over sustainable long term investments. There does appear to be a desire to amend this but it will take serious political will and time.
Broken Promises and Failed Projects
Africa is littered with failed projects and broken promises despite even the best of intentions. The reasons vary but often have common causes such as projects not being needs based (i.e. wanted by the communities themselves and parachuted in), poorly funded especially regarding maintenance programmes, and poor communication between stakeholders often not taking cultural aspects into account. Another major issue has been the lack of stakeholder involvement from the beginning of the projects as well as having equal power structures within the project. Taking the time to engage and slowly discuss any project and build relationships first is an investment rather than the “end results” approach often driven by Western values.
Decades of these failures along with multiple promises of a better future (particularly during voting season) have understandably left communities with little faith and good will towards any new project. Crossing these bridges and restoring trust, hope, and then belief is a critical step that requires patience.
We believe that there are ways to solve and mitigate the environmental, social, and economic pressures on the entire system. Not only can we prevent this downward spiral, but we can reverse, restore, and rehabitate much of the region and in such a way that it improves the lives of those people so critical to its survival.