Located in eastern Mpumalanga just south of Barberton, this IBA abuts Swaziland's Malolotja Nature Reserve. The area includes some of the most rugged mountain terrain in all of southern Africa, as Songimvelo is located along South Africa's eastern Drakensberg escarpment. The eastern highlands, which form the border with Swaziland, are dominated by two high peaks, Mlembe (1 851 m a.s.l.) and Sibubule (1 750 m a.s.l.).
The reserve is bisected by the deeply eroded Lomati and Komati rivers, which have carved numerous cliffs, deep gorges and valleys. Its northern boundary is formed by a range of east–west trending mountains that are also the watershed of the Komati River. The river's valley stretches from the foothills of the mountains in the west to the southern section of the eastern highlands before it enters Swaziland. Its main tributaries are the Mtsoli River and three perennial streams: Theespruit, Sandspruit and Londozispruit.
The area has warm, wet summers with frequent mists. The winters are dry, with mild to warm days. Temperatures often fall below zero at night, bringing frost. Adjacent to the rugged mountains, deep river valleys and gently rolling grassland plains dominate the landscape. The vegetation is divided into Mountain Sourveld and Lowveld Sour Bushveld, with Fynbos relics on the escarpment. Streambank scrub occurs patchily along clear, fast-flowing mountain streams. Various types of mixed woodland are found throughout the area. Patches of fynbos and proteas occur on steep, rocky, south-facing slopes at altitudes above 1 200 m a.s.l. The sheltered valleys and kloofs in high-altitude areas hold pockets of Afro-temperate forest that are linked to riparian forest via thickets. Other habitat types include rocky outcrops and sheer cliffs that form part of the Drakensberg escarpment.
More than 300 species have been recorded in the reserve. Southern Bald Ibis Geronticus calvus may breed on some cliffs, as they breed in the neighbouring Malolotja Nature Reserve in Swaziland. Red-winged Francolin Scleroptila levaillantii, Denham's Bustard Neotis denhami and White-bellied Korhaan Eupodotis senegalensis are resident. Other grassland species of interest include Black-winged Lapwing Vanellus melanopterus and Broad-tailed Warbler Schoenicola brevirostris. Buff-streaked Chat Campicoloides bifasciata is found on exposed rocky grassland slopes and Gurney's Sugarbird Promerops gurneyi is regular.
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus occasionally passes through the area. Other interesting species are Black-bellied Bustard Lissotis melanogaster, Bearded Woodpecker Dendropicos namaquus and Gorgeous Bush-Shrike Chlorophoneus viridis.
The riverine frontage holds breeding White-backed Night Heron Gorsachius leuconotus, African Finfoot Podica senegalensis, Half-collared Kingfisher Alcedo semitorquata and Mountain Wagtail Motacilla clara. The associated forest is home to Bat Hawk Macheiramphus alcinus and Crowned Eagle Stephanoaetus coronatus. Other forest species include Forest Buzzard Buteo trizonatus, African Cuckoo Hawk Aviceda cuculoides, Tambourine Dove Turtur tympanistria, Lemon Dove Aplopelia larvata, Knysna Turaco Tauraco corythaix, Bush Blackcap Lioptilus nigricapillus, Orange Ground Thrush Zoothera gurneyi, Chorister Robin-Chat Cossypha dichroa, Barratt's Warbler Bradypterus barratti, Olive Bush-Shrike Chlorophoneus olivaceus, Black-bellied Starling Notopholia corrusca, Olive Sunbird Cyanomitra olivacea, Swee Waxbill Coccopygia melanotis, Green Twinspot Mandingoa nitidula and Forest Canary Crithagra scotops.
Globally threatened species are Southern Bald Ibis, Crowned Eagle, Bush Blackcap and Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius. Regionally threatened species are African Finfoot, White-bellied Korhaan, Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus, Half-collared Kingfisher and Orange Ground Thrush. Restricted-range and biome-restricted species are Southern Bald Ibis, Forest Buzzard, Knysna Turaco, White-throated Robin-Chat Cossypha humeralis and White-bellied Sunbird Cinnyris talatala, all of which are uncommon. Grey Cuckooshrike Coracina caesia, Kurrichane Thrush Turdus libonyanus, Buff-streaked Chat, Chorister Robin-Chat, Barratt's Warbler, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler Phylloscopus ruficapilla, Gorgeous Bush-Shrike, Olive Bush-Shrike, Swee Waxbill, Forest Canary, White-starred Robin Pogonocichla stellata and Gurney's Sugarbird are fairly common.
Songimvelo holds most of the global population (300 individuals) of Heenan's cycad Encephalartos heenanii and the bulk of the remaining global population of Barberton cycad E. paucidentatus. The highly localised endemic Incomati rock catlet Chiloglanis bifurcus occurs in the Crocodile River tributary of the Incomati River System, very near the reserve. The natural range of the orange-fringed largemouth Astatotilapia brevis is restricted to the Lomati and Komati rivers, both of which run through the reserve. This site falls within the range of the endemic and threatened yellow-striped reed frog Hyperolius semidiscus, which probably occurs within the marginal vegetation of the reserve's rivers. Forested rivers may hold the Natal ghost frog Heleophryne natalensis.
The endemic yellow-bellied house snake Lamprophis fuscus and Swazi rock snake L. swazicus probably occur in the savanna portions of this reserve, which is within the range of several other extremely rare species, such as the striped harlequin snake Homoroselaps dorsalis. Other endemics probably occurring here include Natal purple-glossed snake Amblyodipsas concolor and southern brown egg eater Dasypeltis inornata in the forested gorges, and short-headed legless skink Acontias breviceps in the montane grassland. The endemic giant legless skink A. plumbeus occurs in the forests, while the montane dwarf burrowing skink Scelotes mirus, spotted dwarf gecko Lygodactylus ocellatus and Warren's girdled lizard Cordylus warreni have been recorded in rocky montane grassland areas.
Laminate vlei rat Otomys laminatus, endemic to high-altitude escarpment grassland areas of eastern South Africa and Swaziland, occurs here, and the reserve is within the range of the poorly known rough-haired golden mole Chrysospalax villosus.
This IBA was mostly farmland before being proclaimed a protected area and people and cattle have remained in it afterwards. Cattle are among the biggest threats to the reserve, with the herds concentrated around Kromdraai, Overberg and along Josefsdal main road (Steyn 2003). The land was heavily overstocked with cattle, exceeding its natural carrying capacity, and this led to the forced culling of game (mostly zebra, impala and blesbok) by MTPA in 2010 to alleviate the grazing pressure on the vegetation.
Other threats include illegal settlements (homesteads), the planting of crops (mostly subsistence maize), the harvesting of thatching grass, sand mining and the construction of an unplanned fence that runs diagonally through the middle of the Central Plains Area.
About 80% of the reserve burns annually, particularly in high-lying areas, and this is most probably the biggest threat to this IBA and its trigger species.
Threats to the Panhandle section of the reserve come from invasive alien plants and old mines. The Lomati River, which runs from the neighbouring SAPPI plantations through the Panhandle into Swaziland, has facilitated infestation by blue gums Eucalyptus spp. and pines Pinus spp. in the streambeds. Mining is a past, current and future threat. Stibnite and stibiconite (antimony) were mined between 1906 and 1917 in the Mali mine at Soodorst. Gold was historically mined at the Onverwacht and Komati Lily mines. The Von Brandis gold mine on the farm Soodorst was discontinued around 2005–2006 and the African Chrysotile Asbestos mine at Msauli on the farm Diepgezet in 2001. There are currently no legally active mines in the reserve, but the number of legitimate mining claims or applications is not known. Illegal sand mining or quarrying, especially the removal of river sand, is an issue that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Since this IBA was established in 1998, the protected area's name has changed from Songimvelo Game Reserve to Songimvelo Nature Reserve, reflecting its provincial nature conservation management status. The reserve is divided into two sections: the Central Plains Area (approximately 34 000 ha, of which about 31 000 ha is fenced) and the Panhandle (13 518 ha) to the north-east. In the Mpumalanga Biodiversity Conservation Plan Handbook (Ferrar and Lötter 2007), Songimvelo Nature Reserve is listed as being 49 045.5 ha.
The reserve is now a key component of the Songimvelo–Malolotja Transfrontier Conservation Area, a cross-border initiative with Swaziland that was formally accepted as the fifth TFCA in southern Africa during a trilateral ministerial meeting on 2 November 2004 (Peace Parks Foundation 2006). The total TFCA area is 91 215 ha. At approximately 18 000 ha, the adjoining Malolotja Nature Reserve is the largest proclaimed protected area in Swaziland. The Barberton Mountainlands (including Songimvelo) has been nominated for World Heritage Site status based on its biodiversity value, geological uniqueness and archaeological value.
Songimvelo is still the largest provincial nature reserve in South Africa. However, large numbers of people were removed from the area to create the reserve and of these about 25 families have continued to live inside its boundary under agreement with MTPA. Following the successful land claim for the entire reserve by the Songimvelo community (represented by 26 families and about 9 000 claimants), ownership has been transferred to the Songimvelo Communal Property Association. The reserve is now co-managed by the association and MTPA.
Anon. 2009. Songimvelo Nature Reserve excision proposal – environmental impact assessment. January 2009. V&L Landscape Architects.
Barnes KN (ed.). 1998. The Important Bird Areas of southern Africa. Johannesburg: BirdLife South Africa.
Barnes KN (ed.). 2000. The Eskom Red Data Book of birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Johannesburg: BirdLife South Africa.
Enviro News. 2012. Swaziland’s Ngwenya mine extracts its ore and exacts its price. Brief No. 261. Available at http://mg.co.za/article/2012-08-31-00-swazilands-ngwenya-mine-extracts-its-ore-and-exacts-its-price
Ferrar AA, Lötter MC. 2007. Mpumalanga biodiversity conservation plan handbook. Nelspruit: Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency.
Hughes DA. 1966. Avifauna of the Barberton District, eastern Transvaal. South African Avifaunal Series 40.
Lawson PC. 1982. KaNgwane bird survey. Bokmakierie 34: 26–28.
Lawson PC, Edmonds JA 1983. Birds of KaNgwane. Southern Birds 11.
Ledger J. 1981. KaNgwane bird survey. Bokmakierie 33: 84–87.
Mucina L, Rutherford MC (eds). 2006. The vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Strelitzia 19. Pretoria: South African National Biodiversity Institute.
Peace Parks Foundation. 2006. Songimvelo–Malolotja Transfrontier Conservation Area: integrated tourism master plan. Final report. V&L Landscape Architects.
Steyn A. 2003. Condensed management plan for Songimvelo Nature Reserve. Final version May 2003. Nelspruit: Mpumalanga Parks Board.
Vickers K. 2006. Assessing the relative contribution of conservation areas to the protection of key biodiversity features in Mpumalanga, South Africa. Unpublished MSc Thesis, University of Cape Town, South Africa.