Blyde River Canyon

Year of compilation: 2001

Site description
Located approximately 8 km north of Graskop and 18 km south-west of Hoedspruit, the Blyde river canyon (700 m deep in places) stretches for nearly 20 km as it cuts a spectacular path through the granite of the great South African escarpment. The site includes the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve and the Swadini and Manoutsa portions of the Mpumalanga Drakensberg escarpment, which fall outside the reserve, and the forestry-owned areas of Mariepskop, Salique, Hebron, Welgevonden and Onverwacht State Forests. Marakalala (1,133 m) and Mogologolo (1,746 m) peaks, and their associated sheer cliff-faces to the north of the reserve’s border, dominate the landscape. At the confluence of the Blyde and Origstad rivers, in the northern portion of the reserve, an impoundment forms the Blydepoort Dam. The spectacular gorge is flanked by some remarkable peaks (up to 1,749 m).Large patches of Afromontane forest are found in valleys, along scarp basins, and in moist areas throughout the Blyde river canyon. Forest trees of general occurrence include species of Xymalos, Podocarpus, Trichocladus, Rhus and Halleria. Ferns, shrubs and small trees such as Rapanea are often abundant along the forest edges. Forest-related bush clumps occur on the edge of the escarpment, with woody species of Psychotria, Myrica, Vaccinium and Englerophytum dominating. Away from the moist gullies, the open tree-savanna is dominated by Terminalia, Combretum, Acacia, Ficus and Strychnos. Montane grassland dominates on open, exposed slopes where frost and fire are regular. Protea bushes dominate the woody component.

Key biodiversity
See Box and Tables 2 and 3 for key species. This is the only site in South Africa that supports breeding Falco fasciinucha. At least one pair inhabits the gorges and there is potential habitat for several more birds. The cliffs at Manoutsa hold over 660 pairs of Gyps coprotheres, making it the world’s fourth-largest colony. The gorges also hold breeding Ciconia nigra, Falco peregrinus and Bubo capensis. The surrounding grassland supports Turnix hottentotta, Sarothrura affinis, Saxicola bifasciata, Neotis denhami, Grus paradisea, Bucorvus cafer, Tyto capensis and Geronticus calvus, which breed within the reserve along the cliff gorges. The proteoid hillslopes hold Promerops gurneyi. The forest and forest edge support Stephanoaetus coronatus, Buteo oreophilus, Lioptilus nigricapillus, Tauraco corythaix, Bradypterus barratti, Telophorus olivaceus, Cossypha dichroa, Cercotrichas signata, Estrilda melanotis and Serinus scotops.

Non-bird biodiversity: Flora: the grassland in this reserve holds many localized South African endemic or near-endemic plant species. Well-represented are members of the Liliaceae, Iridaceae, Compositae, Lamiaceae and Orchidaceae. Spectacular species endemic to northern South Africa include Protea laetans (VU), P. rubropilosa, Aloe minima, Dombeya autumnalis, Gladiolus varius, G. vernus, Watsonia transvaalensis and Clivia caulescens. The cycad Encephalartos cupidus is endemic to the catchment of this river and also occurs within the reserve. The cycad E. inopinus is another rare and localized plant occurring within the reserve. Amphibians: the forests are known to hold highly localized populations of Bufo pardalis and Breviceps verrucosus. The fish Barbus treurensis (LR/cd) is restricted to a 4.5 km stretch of river on the Blyde river outside the IBA, where it is highly localized and threatened, having already lost most of its global range—this is the last remaining population. Reptiles: a new, as-yet-undescribed subspecies of the endemic Afroedura multiporis was recently found here. Lygodactylus nigropuncatus and L. ocellatus, endemic to the Soutpansberg and Mpumalanga/Swaziland Drakensberg, have been recorded in the reserve’s rocky montane grassland areas.

Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
The Mpumalanga Parks Board owns the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, which was proclaimed in 1965. The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) own Mariepskop, Salique, Hebron, Welgevonden and Onverwacht State Forests. The privately owned Manoutsa Raptor Conservancy is on the escarpment to the north of the reserve. The greatest threat in this region is afforestation of the escarpment grasslands with non-native Pinus and Acacia trees. Attention should be focused on monitoring and combating proposed afforestation. Surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery in Africa, this area has potential to become one of South Africa’s primary ecotourism hubs. The spectacular God’s Window and Bourke’s Luck Potholes, combined with the dramatic canyon, offer fantastic ecotourism opportunities. Potential development of additional recreational facilities within the park should be carefully considered. The active tufa waterfall in the reserve is threatened by water pollution from upstream villages.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2022) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Blyde River Canyon. Downloaded from on 25/05/2022.