Our Grassland Biome (a region of similar climate and vegetation) spans the central interior of Mpumalanga, Gauteng, North West, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State and Eastern Cape provinces, covering 349 174 km2, which makes up 16.5% of South Africa's land surface. South Africa has four types of grasslands: Mesic Highveld Grassland, Dry Highveld Grassland, Drakensberg Grassland and Sub-Escarpment Grassland. In spite of the name, in healthy grasslands only one in six plants is a grass, while the others are forbs (bulbs and herb-like wild flowers). With 3370 plant species, our grassland wild flowers include some of our most exquisite, rare and even world-famous species. To make us even more 'proudly South African', the Grassland Biome is one of only three endemic (found nowhere else in the world) biomes in South Africa. The Drakensberg Alpine Region is one of the world's plant 'hot spots' because of its high plant diversity and endemism, just like the Cape's Fynbos.
Of South Africa's 841 bird species, 350 occur in the Grassland Biome. This includes 29 species of conservation concern (i.e. declining in numbers), 10 endemics, and as many as 40 specialist species that are exclusively dependent on grassland habitat. Threatened grassland bird species range from LBJs (such as Yellow-breasted Pipit, Rudd's Lark and Botha's Lark) to the larger charismatic species (such as Secretarybird, Denham's Bustard, African Grass-Owl and Southern Bald Ibis). This is why the grasslands hold our priority Important Bird Areas (IBAs).
Value and importance of grasslands
Grasslands provide essential ecosystem services, with an estimated valued of over R9.7 billion annually! These important ecological functions and services include water catchment management (collecting rain water, funnelling it into rivers, cleaning the water in wetlands and sending it to our dams for drinking) and carbon sequestration (storing carbon that would otherwise add to greenhouse gases that exacerbate climate change). Predications are that the eastern grasslands will play a critical role in water security in the face of climate change.
Grassland conservation status and threats
Only 2.8% of the Grassland Biome is currently formally protected in nature reserves and national parks, mostly in the Drakensberg Mountains. It is frightening that 65% of grassland habitat is already irreversibly transformed. Grasslands are heavily exploited for urban and agricultural development, commercial forestry and mining. South Africa is among the top five coal producing countries in the world. Most of our coal is mined on the Mpumalanga Highveld, in the heart of the grasslands. About 40% of our coal comes from open-cast mining, which has devastating consequences for biodiversity, especially in wetlands within the Grassland Biome. Half (6.4 million) of South Africa's beef cattle and 58% (13 million) of sheep are farmed in grasslands, making it a major food production area for South Africa. However, livestock over-grazing (high stocking rates and grazing intensity) and unnatural fire regimes (burning too often and at the wrong time of year) also pose serious threats to the Grassland Biome, especially to the grassland specialist species. Clearly the Grassland Biome is one of our most threatened biomes and in most urgent need of conservation action.
Conservation action in the Grassland Biome
In 2010, BirdLife South Africa decided to focus a lot of its conservation efforts on the threatened Grassland Biome, with the vision to protect and conserve the endemic and threatened bird species that occur in grasslands, mostly through education, advocacy and conserving species and IBAs. Other like-minded conservation organizations have also identified the grasslands as a centre in need of conservation. BirdLife South Africa's dedicated Grasslands Programme is working tirelessly with government departments, other NGOs, landowners and local communities to get critical sites protected.