Located approximately 100 km north of the town of Mkuze, Ndumo Game Reserve is situated on the Zululand coastal plain. It nestles at the eastern foot of the Lebombo Mountains, at the junction of the Pongola and Usuthu floodplain systems. The Pongola River runs through the reserve from south to north, while the Usuthu River forms the northern border. This is also the international border with Mozambique. The topography is very flat with a few small hills; the area is mostly low-lying, the altitude ranging from 22 to 120 m a.s.l. There are two major semi-permanent floodplain pans and many smaller permanent and ephemeral pans in the reserve. Ndumu Hill is composed of red sands, while east of it, and mostly at 30 m a.s.l., another sandveld area is made up of undulating pallid sands. The climate is subtropical: the annual temperature ranges from an average minimum of 17 °C to an average maximum of 28 °C, and rain falls mostly in summer (October–March) and averages 633 mm p.a. An interesting component of the reserve is the floodplain vegetation. A number of different woodland habitats dominate and there is very little open grassland. In places there are relict patches of well-developed sand forest.
The rivers, floodplains, pans, dams and vleis are important for many species associated with and dependent on wetlands. Black Stork Ciconia nigra regularly forages in the various wetlands in Ndumo and breeds in the gorges of the nearby mountains. The reserve's wetlands also support Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus, Pink-backed Pelican P. rufescens, Woolly-necked Stork Ciconia episcopus, African Openbill Anastomus lamelligerus, Saddle-billed Stork Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis, Caspian Tern Sterna caspia, African Marsh Harrier Circus ranivorus, Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus, Lesser Flamingo Phoeniconaias minor, Rufous-bellied Heron Ardeola rufiventris, White-backed Night Heron Gorsachius leuconotus, Baillon's Crake Porzana pusilla, Lesser Moorhen Gallinula angulata, Allen's Gallinule Porphyrio alleni, Lesser Jacana Microparra capensis and Black Coucal Centropus grillii.
The riverine forest holds Pel's Fishing Owl Scotopelia peli and African Finfoot Podica senegalensis. African Grass Owl Tyto capensis, Black-winged Lapwing Vanellus melanopterus and occasionally Senegal Lapwing V. lugubris occur throughout the grassland areas. Ndumo is one of the few reserves in KwaZulu-Natal that holds most of its original complement of raptors, including small populations of White-backed Vulture Gyps africanus, Lappet-faced Vulture Torgos tracheliotos, White-headed Vulture Aegypius occipitalis, Martial Eagle Polemaetus bellicosus, Bateleur Terathopius ecaudatus, Southern Banded Snake Eagle Circaetus fasciolatus and Tawny Eagle Aquila rapax. Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres, Hooded Vulture Necrosyrtes monachus and Pallid Harrier Circus macrourus occasionally visit the reserve in small numbers.
The bushveld and riverine forest support Red-crested Korhaan Lophotis ruficrista, White-throated Robin-Chat Cossypha humeralis, Burnt-necked Eremomela Eremomela usticollis, Gorgeous Bush-Shrike Chlorophoneus viridis, Rudd's Apalis Apalis ruddi, Black-bellied Starling Notopholia corrusca and Grey Sunbird Cyanomitra veroxii. The sand forest holds Neergaard's Sunbird Cinnyris neergaardi and Pink-throated Twinspot Hypargos margaritatus.
Globally threatened species that frequent the reserve are Southern Banded Snake Eagle, Neergaard's Sunbird and White-backed Vulture; in the case of the vulture, up to 100 individuals have been recorded at the feeding area but no pairs are known to breed. The extensive list of regionally threatened species includes Great White Pelican (up to 400 individuals have been recorded), Tawny Eagle, African Marsh Harrier (at least two pairs are known), African Finfoot, Caspian Tern, African Grass Owl, Pel's Fishing Owl, Marabou Stork Leptoptilos crumeniferus, African Pygmy Goose Nettapus auritus, Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus, Lesser Jacana, Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis, Half-collared Kingfisher Alcedo semitorquata and African Broadbill Smithornis capensis.
Nyamiti Pan on the reserve is one of three known breeding sites for Pink-backed Pelican, with 50–100 breeding pairs and 100–300 individuals. Yellow-billed Stork Mycteria ibis also breeds at the pan, with 200–250 breeding pairs and 500–700 individuals recorded. Common biome-restricted and restricted-range species include Kurrichane Thrush Turdus libonyanus, White-throated Robin-Chat Cossypha humeralis, Gorgeous Bush-Shrike, Black-bellied Starling, White-bellied Sunbird Cinnyris talatala, Rudd's Apalis and Pink-throated Twinspot.
Large mammals are well represented in Ndumo and include endangered species such as white rhinoceros Ceratotherium simum, black rhinoceros Diceros bicornis, red duiker Cephalophus natalensis, aardwolf Proteles cristatus, suni Neotragus moschatus, leopard Panthera pardus and serval Felis serval. Nile crocodile Crocodylus niloticus also occurs. Many distinctive and interesting trees, such as Combretum imberbe, Sterculia rogersii, Pterocarpus rotundifolius, Lonchocarpus capassa and Faidherbia albida are at their southernmost limit here. The reserve also contains a single, large and old specimen of Entandrophragma caudatum, a tree far removed from its nearest kin.
Ndumo was first proclaimed a reserve in 1939 and for many years was administered by the Natal Parks Board. In 1986 control passed to the KwaZulu Bureau for Natural Resources. With the subsequent amalgamation of that body with Natal Parks Board, the new organisation, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, took over management. Unfortunately, the reserve faces many major threats, the most worrying of which is the invasion of its eastern sections by communities from the Mbongweni Corridor. The first invasion took place in 2008 and it is estimated that 14% of the reserve along the Pongola River floodplain has been affected. Further incursions into the reserve took place in October 2014. Communities enter the reserve and practise slash-and-burn agriculture, which has led to the destruction of the mature riverine forests and portions of the floodplain. Poaching and illegal fishing with gill nets take place, and cattle also graze in these sections. The fence has been destroyed on two occasions. The invasion of the reserve threatens greater conservation initiatives in the area, specifically the Lubombo–Ndumo–Tembe–Futi Transfrontier Conservation and Resource Area, which was created through a protocol signed by the governments of South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland. The invasion and destruction of the eastern parts of the reserve and the apparent inability of the relevant government departments to act are a concern and leave the future of this reserve in serious jeopardy. There are also concerns that these acts may lead to similar actions being taken by other communities in the region.
Invasive alien plants – notably Chromolaena odorata, Ricinus communis, Lantana camara, Psidium guajava and Melia azederach – are a major threat in both the woodland and wetland areas. They became an issue after Cyclone Demoina in 1984 and are a recurring problem on the floodplain. The Pongola is permanently infested with water hyacinth Eichhornia crassipes. An introduced species of freshwater crayfish, the Australian redclaw Cherax quadricarinatus, has also been identified and there are concerns regarding the impact this species may be having on the ecosystem.
The Pongola River floodplain and its associated pans and wetlands are impacted by the Pongola Dam, which has completely altered the ecological functioning of the system. Water is released from the dam in late September and again in January to benefit subsistence farmers who plant two crops per season along the course of the river. The water released is cold and unproductive, and in flooding the wetlands of Ndumo it forces many of the waterbirds and waders to leave the reserve.
Ndumo Game Reserve is a formally protected area and a listed Ramsar site. Conservation initiatives under way include alien plant eradication, burning regimes, anti-poaching patrols and the monitoring of important species. However, the eastern sections are in effect no longer managed as part of the reserve.
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