The Kruger National Park (KNP) is situated in the southern section of the Mozambique coastal plain in the Lowveld of Limpopo and Mpumalanga. It is roughly rectangular in shape, stretching approximately 320 km from north to south and 65 km from east to west. The IBA includes several provincial and privately owned reserves that are adjacent to the park's western border: Klaserie Private Nature Reserve (64 000 ha), Timbavati Private Nature Reserve (53 000 ha), Groot-Letaba Nature Reserve (42 000 ha), Manyeleti Game Reserve (15 000 ha), Umbabat Game Reserve (about 10 000 ha) and Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve (65 000 ha).
The area is at an altitude of approximately 300 m a.s.l. and consists of flat, gently undulating plains that are occasionally broken by scattered inselbergs. The Lebombo Mountains are a ridge of low hills that dominate the park's eastern border and in places rise to form a west-facing escarpment up to 150 m high. North of Punda Maria and in the extreme south-west, outcrops of granite, sandstone and quartzite give rise to several low series of rugged koppies and hills.
The KNP is drained from west to east by two major river systems, the Komati and the Limpopo, which form the park's southern and northern borders respectively. Six large rivers – the Crocodile, Sabie, Sand, Olifants, Letaba and Luvuvhu – also dissect the park. All these rivers originate on the great South African escarpment to the west. Under natural conditions they are all perennial, but heavy water abstraction within their catchments now causes them to dry up annually. Other water sources within the IBA are pools, seasonal rivers, springs and pans, as well as artificial waterholes and dams.
The climate is characterised by two distinct seasons: a hot rainy season from October to March and a cool dry season from April to September. The KNP receives an average annual rainfall of 500–550 mm, with the highest amounts in the south-west (625–750 mm around Pretoriuskop) and the lowest in the north-east (375–600 mm in the vicinity of Pafuri). Annual average minimum and maximum temperatures are 4 °C and 34 °C respectively.
The KNP supports a wide diversity of habitats owing to the complex underlying geology of the region. Granitic soils dominating the western half and basaltic soils in the east are separated by a belt of sandy Karoo sediments. These soils give rise to a plethora of different types of deciduous woodland and savanna. Compounding this diversity is the fact that the KNP extends through three degrees of latitude, which results in the presence of various types of temperate and subtropical lowland savanna and woodland. While most of the vegetation consists of deciduous savanna, a large variety of structural features, ranging from dense forest to open shrubby grassland, also occur.
The KNP is known to support more than 490 bird species, about 57% of the species found in the entire southern African subregion. The diversity of birds can be attributed to the numerous different habitats and the ecotonal nature of the area. There are several important populations of widespread species that do not thrive outside large protected areas. In addition, the riverine forests constitute habitat corridors that are used by some species of the Drakensberg escarpment to move down to the Lowveld to escape the severe escarpment winters. The riverine forests also provide habitat for secretive, river-dependent species such as Pel's Fishing Owl Scotopelia peli, White-backed Night Heron Gorsachius leuconotus and African Finfoot Podica senegalensis.
The rivers, floodplains, pans, dams and vleis are important for many wetland-dependent and associated birds, such as Black Stork Ciconia nigra (which breeds in the gorges of the nearby Lebombo Mountains), Woolly-necked Stork C. episcopus, African Openbill Anastomus lamelligerus, Saddle-billed Stork Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis and White-crowned Lapwing Vanellus albiceps. When conditions are suitable, Pink-backed Pelican Pelecanus rufescens, Great White Pelican P. onocrotalus, Rufous-bellied Heron Ardeola rufiventris, Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus, Lesser Moorhen Gallinula angulata, Allen's Gallinule Porphyrio alleni, Lesser Jacana Microparra capensis, African Marsh Harrier Circus ranivorus, Chestnut-banded Plover Charadrius pallidus and Black Coucal Centropus grillii occur in small numbers. The seasonally flooded grasslands to the north of Shingwedzi hold Corn Crake Crex crex in summer.
Of the wide-ranging species that are rare outside South Africa's large national parks, Marabou Stork Leptoptilos crumeniferus, Hooded Vulture Necrosyrtes monachus, White-backed Vulture Gyps africanus, Lappet-faced Vulture Torgos tracheliotos, White-headed Vulture Aegypius occipitalis, Martial Eagle Polemaetus bellicosus, Bateleur Terathopius ecaudatus, Tawny Eagle Aquila rapax, Kori Bustard Ardeotis kori and Southern Ground-Hornbill Bucorvus leadbeateri are locally common in the KNP. Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres regularly forages in the park. Pallid Harrier Circus macrourus and African Grass Owl Tyto capensis occur in low numbers.
The varied woodland communities host a plethora of small accipiters, cuckoos, owls, kingfishers, bee-eaters, rollers, hornbills, barbets, robins, cisticolas, flycatchers, shrikes, starlings, sunbirds, weavers, finches and waxbills. The thicket and forest areas support Brown-headed Parrot Poicephalus cryptoxanthus and Gorgeous Bush-Shrike Chlorophoneus viridis, which are restricted to the East African Coast biome. The small patches of sandveld in the far north-east hold low numbers of Pink-throated Twinspot Hypargos margaritatus, while the Lala palm savanna, also in the north-east, supports Lemon-breasted Canary Crithagra citrinipectus.
Near Pafuri, in the extreme north, many species reach the southern limit of their Afrotropical range and are consequently extremely rare within South Africa, although they are considerably more common and widespread just outside the country's borders. Such species include Dickinson's Kestrel Falco dickinsoni, Racket-tailed Roller Coracias spatulata, Tropical Boubou Laniarius major, Mottled Spinetail Telacanthura ussheri and Böhm's Spinetail Neafrapus boehmi, as well as Grey-headed Parrot Poicephalus fuscicollis, which is found in the riparian forests and thickets of the far north. These species are of interest from a South African perspective, but are of little subregional or global conservation significance as the populations are small and peripheral.
Red-billed Oxpecker Buphagus erythrorhynchus is common and widespread, but Yellow-billed Oxpecker B. africanus was considered extinct until 1979. This species has recolonised the KNP naturally and is now considered an uncommon breeding resident, occurring throughout the park but especially in the northern half.
Globally threatened species are Cape Vulture, Southern Ground-Hornbill, Hooded Vulture, White-backed Vulture, Lappet-faced Vulture, White-headed Vulture, Kori Bustard, Crowned Eagle Stephanoaetus coronatus, Bateleur, Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius and Martial Eagle. Regionally threatened species are White-backed Night Heron, Saddle-billed Stork, Tawny Eagle, African Finfoot, African Grass Owl, Pel's Fishing Owl, Black Stork, Marabou Stork, African Pygmy Goose Nettapus auritus, Bat Hawk Macheiramphus alcinus, Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus, Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis, Half-collared Kingfisher Alcedo semitorquata and Lemon-breasted Canary.
Restricted-range and biome-restricted species include Arnot's Chat Pentholaea arnotti (restricted to the north of the park) and the uncommon Stierling's Wren-Warbler Calamonastes stierlingi, Gorgeous Bush-Shrike, Meves's Starling Lamprotornis mevesii and Lemon-breasted Canary. White-throated Robin-Chat Cossypha humeralis and Burchell's Starling L. australis are fairly common, while Kurrichane Thrush Turdus libonyanus, White-bellied Sunbird Cinnyris talatala and Brown-headed Parrot are common.
The KNP is one of the most important conservation areas in South Africa and holds the largest ungulate and predator populations in the country. It is also one of the world's last havens for large mammals. Many threatened species occur throughout the park, including important populations of white rhinoceros Ceratotherium simum, black rhinoceros Diceros bicornis, African wild dog Lycaon pictus, spotted hyaena Crocuta crocuta, African buffalo Syncerus caffer, roan antelope Hippotragus equinus, sable antelope H. niger, tsessebe Damaliscus lunatus, nyala Tragelaphus angasi, red duiker Cephalophus natalensis, suni Neotragus moschatus, elephant Loxodonta africana, hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius, cheetah Acinonyx jubatus, lion Panthera leo, leopard P. pardus, African wild cat Felis lybica, aardvark Orycteropus afer, southern African hedgehog Atelerix frontalis, aardwolf Proteles cristatus, pangolin Manis temminckii, honey badger Mellivora capensis and African striped weasel Poecilogale albinucha. Threatened bats include Welwitsch's bat Myotis welwitschii, aloe bat Eptesicus zuluensis and Sundevall's free-tailed bat Tadarida midas. The highly localised rough-haired golden mole Chrysospalax villosus and Juliana's golden mole Amblysomus julianae have been recorded in the park.
The endemic eastern purple-glossed snake Amblyodipsas microphthalma occurs on the deep alluvial soils of the Limpopo River valley. Other southern African endemics, such as Distant's thread snake Leptotyphlops distanti, Sabi quill-snouted snake Xenocalamus sabiensis, Sundevall's shovel-snout Prosymna sundevallii, two-striped shovel-snout P. bivittata, eastern green snake Philothamnus natalensis, southern brown egg eater Dasypeltis inornata, shield-nose snake Aspidelaps scutatus, Sundevall's garter snake Elapsoidea sunderwallii, Kalahari spade-snouted worm lizard Monopeltis leonhardi, De Coster's spade-snouted worm lizard M. decosteri, giant legless skink Acontias plumbeus, Lowveld dwarf burrowing skink Scelotes bidigittatus, Mozambique dwarf burrowing skink S. mossambicus, Limpopo dwarf burrowing skink S. limpopoensis, Cregoli's blind legless skink Typhlosaurus cregoi, golden blind legless skink T. aurantiacus, eastern coastal skink Mabuya depressa, blue-tailed sandveld lizard Nucras caesicaudata, Van Dam's girdled lizard Cordylus vandami, spotted dwarf gecko Lygodactylus ocellatus, Van Son's thick-toed gecko Pachydactylus vansoni, tiger thick-toed gecko P. tigrinus, common barking gecko Ptenopus garrulus and Transvaal flat gecko Afroedura transvaalica, are known to occur in the park.
Endangered reptiles include African python Python sebae natalensis and Nile crocodile Crocodylus niloticus. The KNP also holds populations of the more localised Lang's round-headed worm lizard Chirindia langi and Van Dam's round-headed worm lizard Zygaspis vandami, as well as Lowveld flat gecko Afroedura langi, which is restricted to the Olifants River valley.
Among the frogs, southern African endemics include mottled shovel-nosed frog Hemisus marmoratus, tinker reed frog Hyperolius tuberilinguis, golden leaf-folding frog Afrixalus aureus, delicate leaf-folding frog A. delicatus, dwarf puddle frog Phrynobatrachus mababiensis, ornate frog Hildebrandtia ornata, broad-banded grass frog Ptychadena mossambica, sharp-nosed grass frog P. oxyrhynchus, clicking stream frog Strongylopus grayii, knocking sand frog Tomopterna krugerensis, russet-backed sand frog T. marmorata and Natal sand frog T. natalensis. The shovel-footed squeaker Arthrolepis stenodactylus is a rare resident.
The orange-fringed largemouth Astatotilapia brevis, an endemic and endangered fish, has been translocated into the Crocodile River system from its natural range in the Nkomati River system. The highly localised Lowveld largemouth Serranochromis meridianus is restricted to the Sabi and Sand rivers in the KNP.
The most important threats to this IBA are located outside it. For example, some of its main rivers originate in Gauteng and the highlands of Mpumalanga or flow through industrial and agricultural areas where they become polluted. Excessive extraction upstream results in a low flow – or even none at all – in rivers that were once perennial. Eutrification results in excessive algal growth, some of which has proved toxic to certain life forms.
Storms, floods and droughts occur regularly, affecting vegetation. Some keystone riverine species, such as sycamore fig Ficus sycomorus, have declined drastically in the past two decades as a result of severe weather. The Olifants River lost the majority of its figs in the floods of 2000 and 2012, while the drought of 1994 killed most of the figs along the Luvuvhu River when it ceased to flow. The loss of extensive areas of riparian habitat due to flooding has led to a substantial reduction in available roosting sites for species such as Pel's Fishing Owl and White-backed Night Heron along the Olifants River. The increased frequency and intensity of flooding reduces the likelihood that these habitats will recover sufficiently to provide suitable habitat for these species in future.
Thickening of bush, and to a lesser extent bush encroachment, is a serious threat to many IBA trigger species, especially ground-living birds such as Secretarybird and Southern Ground-Hornbill.
The increase in the KNP's elephant population may pose additional risks for birds, especially some of the IBA's trigger species. There is conclusive evidence that the dual impact of elephants and the historical block-burning fire regime caused a significant decrease in the number of large trees, especially in certain areas. It is possible that large knob thorn trees Vachellia (formerly Acacia) nigrescens, which are the favourite nesting tree of trigger species such as White-backed Vulture and Wahlberg's Eagle, are going into a rapid decline because they are sensitive to bark stripping and are being toppled by elephants. Other keystone species that provide nesting sites, such as baobab Adansonia digitata, are also being impacted by elephants, especially in the drier northern areas and during periods of drought.
Much work has been done to reduce the risks posed by power lines to birds in the KNP. Eskom, EWT and SANParks have embarked on a campaign to mark power lines that have incidents of bird collisions. Pole structures have to be changed to lessen the likelihood of collisions and transformers have to be insulated to reduce the risk of electrocution. This project is ongoing and phases 2 and 3 will be implemented from 2015.
By the late 19th century most of the large mammal populations in South Africa had been severely decimated by uncontrolled hunting. Some species, such as white rhinoceros, became locally extinct. In 1898 the land between the Sabie and Crocodile rivers was proclaimed a government game reserve. By 1903, most of the current park had protected status, and in May 1926 the various local game reserves were united to form the KNP. It has been administered by the National Parks Board (now SANParks) since that time.
APNR is an association of privately owned nature reserves bordering the KNP. The fences between the KNP and APNR were removed in 1993. The APNR – and therefore the whole IBA – is not formally protected. Nevertheless, the reserves in APNR are managed as protected areas and are therefore extremely valuable from a conservation point of view.
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