The Camdeboo National Park (formerly the Karoo Nature Reserve IBA) is unusual in that it virtually surrounds the historic town of Graaff-Reinet, with both the park and the town falling within the IBA. Located in the southern foothills of the arcing Sneeuberg range on the central Great Karoo plains, the park is largely mountainous, ranging in altitude from 805 m a.s.l. at the Sundays River to the impressive peaks of Spandaukop (1 316 m a.s.l.), Valley of Desolation (1 399 m a.s.l.) and the tallest in the region, Drie Koppe (1 565 m a.s.l.), in the east. The northern edge of the Camdeboo Plain is located within the park. This plain forms a large basin that is sharply dissected by the Sundays River and its tributaries, the Vöel, Melk, Klip and Swart rivers. The Nqweba Dam, on the Sundays River, also lies within the park and covers 1 000 ha when full.
The landscape is typical of the Karoo, with dolerite sills capping steeply sloping sandstone koppies. Deep alluvial soils are subject to erosion on the valley floors. The annual average minimum and maximum temperatures are 11 °C and 24 °C respectively, but they do not reflect the range, which can be extreme: from -3 °C on some peaks in winter to more than 43 °C on the plains in summer. This region is semi-arid and the average annual rainfall of 366 mm falls mainly in summer and autumn in the form of orographic thundershowers.
The park’s vegetation is transitional between the characteristic scrub of the Great Karoo and the typical thornveld and bush clumps of the Eastern Cape, which accounts for the considerable diversity of veld types found here. The vegetation on the lower slopes of the mountains, especially the north-facing slopes, comprises dense stands of succulent mountain scrub characterised by spekboom Portulacaria afra. Bushes that seldom exceed 70 cm in height dominate the scrub vegetation, which covers much of the plains and lower escarpment. Extensive overgrazing by merino sheep since the middle of the 19th century has resulted in the conversion of sections of grassland into karroid scrub.
More than 249 bird species have been recorded in the Camdeboo National Park’s diverse array of habitats. The avifauna is not typical of the Great Karoo because a considerable number of eastern bushveld birds reach their western limits here. Many of the Karoo endemics are restricted to the western portion of the Karoo and the park does not hold as many Namib-Karoo biome-restricted assemblage species as do the parks further west. Despite this, it supports many important populations of threatened species, typical Namib-Karoo species and many other arid-zone birds.
The lowland karroid plains are particularly good for Kori Bustard Ardeotis kori, Ludwig’s Bustard Neotis ludwigii and Denham’s Bustard N. denhami. This is one of the few areas in South Africa where all three bustard species are sympatric. The plains also hold Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus, Karoo Korhaan Eupodotis vigorsii and Rufous-eared Warbler Malcorus pectoralis. Martial Eagle Polemaetus bellicosus is occasionally seen quartering the plains.
The belts of riverine Vachellia (formerly Acacia) karroo woodland hold Namaqua Warbler Phragmacia substriata and, together with the thicket and scrub on the slopes, provides food, shelter and breeding habitat for many species, including Layard’s Tit-Babbler Sylvia layardi, Grey Tit Parus afer and Scaly-feathered Finch Sporopipes squamifrons. These riverine belts are of particular importance in the Great Karoo because they act as corridors along which many species are able to move in otherwise unsuitable terrain. The Cape Rock Thrush Monticola rupestris, Pale-winged Starling Onychognathus nabouroup and Ground Woodpecker Geocolaptes olivaceus occur in rocky gorges and kloofs. The associated cliffs also hold breeding Booted Eagle Hieraaetus pennatus and Verreauxs’ Eagle Aquila verreauxii, which regularly nest near the Valley of Desolation.
Other arid-zone species occurring within the park are Pale Chanting Goshawk Melierax canorus, Fairy Flycatcher Stenostira scita and White-throated Canary Crithagra albogularis. Black-headed Canary Serinus alario occurs seasonally whenever there is seeding grass and water. Lesser Kestrels Falco naumanni have a large roost near Graaff-Reinet’s railway station and are frequently seen hawking over the park.
The Nqweba Dam is occasionally used by Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus and Lesser Flamingo Phoeniconaias minor. Both African Grass Owl Tyto capensis and Baillon’s Crake Porzana pusilla have occurred historically. Although neither has been recorded recently, there is plenty of suitable habitat in the marshy areas around the dam and it is thought that they may still occur here.
Globally threatened species are Blue Crane, Kori Bustard, Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius, Ludwig’s Bustard, Martial Eagle and Black Harrier Circus maurus. Regionally threatened species are Verreauxs’ Eagle, Karoo Korhaan and Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus. Biome-restricted species that are common in this IBA include Pale-winged Starling, while locally common species include Namaqua Warbler, Layard’s Tit-Babbler, Karoo Chat Cercomela schlegelii and Black-headed Canary. Sickle-winged Chat C. sinuata is an uncommon species. Lesser Kestrel (8 000–10 000 individuals) is a congregatory species.
The plain mountain adder Bitis inornata has a minuscule range and is confined to the Sneeuberg near Graaff-Reinet; it may occur within Camdeboo National Park. The park supports Karoo dwarf chameleon Bradypodion karrooicum, Boulenger’s padloper Homopus boulengeri, greater padloper H. femoralis, tent tortoise Psammobates tentorius, angulate tortoise Chersina angulata, spotted house snake Lamprophis guttatus, Cape crag lizard Pseudocordylus microlepidotus, Cape thick-toed gecko Pachydactylus capensis, Bibron’s thick-toed gecko P. bibronii, spotted thick-toed gecko P. maculatus and Marico thick-toed gecko P. mariquensis. The park also occurs within the range of the following species and is likely to support most of them: Cape rock elephant shrew Elephantulus edwardii, Grant’s rock mouse Aethomys granti, Karoo sandveld lizard Nucras livida and Burchell’s sand lizard Pedioplanis burchelli.
It is conservation policy to restock the park with game species that roamed these plains prior to human intervention. Threatened endemic species such as Cape mountain zebra Equus zebra, black wildebeest Connochaetes gnou and blesbok Damaliscus dorcas phillipsi have already been re-introduced, while the threatened black-footed cat Felis nigripes, aardwolf Proteles cristatus and aardvark Orycteropus afer occur naturally in the park.
The declaration of this IBA as a national park affords the area the highest level of legislative protection in South Africa. Combined with sound management and capacity, this high level of protection greatly reduces the number of threats impacting on the IBA. However, a few threats are still evident, and in particular these affect the IBA trigger bird species in the landscape surrounding the park. The park and farmland around it hold important habitat for South Africa’s three bustards, Blue Crane, Martial Eagle and Secretarybird. All these threatened species are large and wide-ranging and they depend on the private land around the park, which is subject to overgrazing and resultant habitat degradation. The park in isolation would probably not support viable populations of these wide-ranging birds and it is therefore essential to engage with the landowners in the surrounding farming landscape and encourage appropriate land management in order to ensure that these species can persist within and outside of the IBA. Threats in the surrounding farmland include persecution on private land due to human–wildlife conflict and, for large species, road-kills and collisions with power lines. Poisons and pesticides that affect raptors are also used in the farming areas. Lesser Kestrels have been observed taking locusts in the midst of spraying operations. The effects of pesticides on this threatened species are currently unknown.
A major threat to the ecology of the Karoo region, and therefore this IBA and its trigger species, is the potential extraction of natural gas by means of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking. This process can have dire consequences for the ecology of an area as water sources, especially underground aquifers, are likely to be polluted and vegetation will be removed to accommodate machinery and infrastructure. Many civil society groups and environmental lobbyists are actively fighting the prospect of fracking in the Karoo.
WWF-SA (formerly the Southern African Nature Foundation) purchased this land in 1976 and the Karoo Nature Reserve, under the control of the Directorate of Nature Conservation of the Eastern Cape Province, was proclaimed in 1983. The IBA’s protected status was improved in 2005 when the reserve became the Camdeboo National Park. The national park has subsequently been expanded to include large areas to the south and east of Graaff-Reinet.
SANParks has budget available for the management of the national park, and the conservation management of the IBA, including financing, logistical and ecological activities, is thus sound. In addition, the landscape extending east of the IBA to the Mountain Zebra National Park is now receiving improved conservation action through the implementation of the Camdeboo–Mountain Zebra Corridor Project by the Wilderness Foundation in partnership with SANParks. This initiative aims to contract private landowners into biodiversity stewardship agreements, thus preventing unsustainable developments such as fracking or other forms of mining. The engagement with the private landowners will also lead to better land management across the landscape while maintaining current land uses such as farming and retaining the cultural heritage of the Karoo landscape. The expansion of the national park and the development of the corridor are essential steps to addressing the threats described above.
Camdeboo National Park is easily accessible to the public and includes the well-known Valley of Desolation, a scenic site that attracts many visitors to view the sweeping panorama over the Plains of Camdeboo. The park also fulfils an important educational function through its environmental centre, which was established to promote an environmentally responsible lifestyle among South Africans and has an education officer and various facilities.
Allan DG. 1989. Strychnine poison and the conservation of avian scavengers in the Karoo, South Africa. South African Journal of Wildlife Research 19: 102–106.
Allan DG. 1994c. Cranes and farmers. Endangered Wildlife Trust, Johannesburg.
Allan DG. 1995b. Habitat selection by Blue Cranes in the Western Cape Province and the Karoo. South African Journal of Wildlife Research 25: 90–97.
Martin R, Martin J, Martin E. 1991. The Karoo Nature Reserve, Graaff-Reinet. Birding in Southern Africa 43: 105–108.
Masubelele ML, Foxcroft LC, Milton SJ. 2009. Alien plant species list and distribution for Camdeboo National Park, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. Koedoe 51(1): 1–10.
Masubelele ML, Hoffman MT, Bond W, Burdett P. 2013. Vegetation change (1988–2010) in Camdeboo National Park (South Africa), using fixed-point photo monitoring: The role of herbivory and climate. Koedoe 55(1): 1–16.
Palmer AR. 1989a. The vegetation of the Karoo Nature Reserve, Cape Province. I. A phytosociological reconnaissance. South African Journal of Botany 55: 215–230.
Palmer AR. 1989b. The vegetation of the Karoo Nature Reserve, Cape Province. II. A preliminary systematic plant species list. South African Journal of Botany 55: 231–239.
Pepler D. 1994a. The endangered Lesser Kestrel: current research – Part 1: Spain. Birding in Southern Africa 46: 53–57.
Pepler D. 1994b. The endangered Lesser Kestrel: current research – Part 2: Russia and Kazakhstan. Birding in Southern Africa 46: 79–82.