Mkuzi Game Reserve

Year of compilation: 2001

Site description
Mkuzi Game Reserve is situated on the subtropical Mozambique coastal plain, c.330 km north of Durban and c.110 km north of Mtubatuba. The topography of the area is mainly flat or gently undulating, and is intersected by seasonal drainage lines alternating with low ridges. The western sector, which comprises the foothills of the Lebombo mountains, is rugged. The Mkuze river flows through an impressive gorge in the Lebombo mountains; the lower end of the gorge is located within the reserve.

The terrestrial vegetation is mainly lowveld of the tropical bush savanna, and is exceptionally diverse. The tall tree-savanna in the Lebombo mountains is characterized by Combretum, with grass dominating the understorey. Clay soils tend to be dominated by Acacia woodland, with associated Dichrostachys. Thickets on poorly drained, heavy black soils, are dominated by Acacia and Euclea, with occasional emergent trees of Spirostachys, Schotia, Pappea, Sideroxylon and Berchemia. Sandy soils support a completely different woodland, of Combretum, Acacia, Sclerocarya, Ziziphus and Terminalia.

The Tongoland sand-forest, around Kubube and Kumasinga hides, is a very specialized vegetation-type, unique to northern KwaZulu-Natal and southern Mozambique, which occurs in parallel strips on the white sandy soils of the fossil dunes. The canopy (up to 10 m high) is dominated by Newtonia, Cleistanthus, Dialium, Strychnos and Pteleopsis. There is a discontinuous subcanopy tree layer, and a well-developed shrub layer, but the substratum is poorly developed. Lianas are present.

The fig forest surrounding Nsumo Pan and the riverine forest adjacent to the banks of the Mkuze river are well developed and are dominated by Ficus and Trichilia; associated trees are Rauvolfia, Celtis, Blighia and Acacia. Flood-plain grasslands occur on seasonally inundated flats adjacent to the Mkuze and Msunduzi rivers. Characteristic plants are reed Phragmites, sedge Cyperus and grasses (Echinochloa, Eriochloa, Sorghum). The major pans, particularly Nsumo Pan, are nutrient-rich and characterized by floating vegetation such as Nymphaea, Nymphoides, Potamogeton and Trapa.

Key biodiversity
See Box and Tables 2 and 3 for key species. Mkuzi Game Reserve supports c.420 species of birds, the richest area for its size in the whole of South Africa. The Ediza–Hlonhlela–Nsumo pans comprise a very diverse mosaic of open water, marsh, flood-plain and wet grasslands and, in terms of diversity of habitats and potential for waterbirds, constitute a highly significant wetland system. The pans regularly support more than 20,000 waterbirds and certain species almost certainly aggregate in numbers that exceed the 1% threshold, although not enough detailed data are available to show this.Nsumo Pan is the only regular breeding locality for Pelecanus rufescens in South Africa. Several other species occur at the pan in good numbers, including Anastomus lamelligerus, Mycteria ibis (which breeds in most years, with up to 50 nests), and Chlidonias hybridus. The fig forest supports small populations of Scotopelia peli, Circaetus fasciolatus, Podica senegalensis and Gorsachius leuconotus. The Mkuze Gorge holds a small colony of Geronticus calvus, which forage primarily in grassland habitat outside the reserve, as the vegetation within Mkuzi is unsuitable. As one of the larger reserves in South Africa it holds populations of larger scavengers and terrestrial species, numbers of which have dwindled outside South Africa’s protected-area network. Mkuzi is a stronghold for Gyps africanus, holding perhaps 200 nesting pairs. It also holds small populations of Torgos tracheliotus, Trigonoceps occipitalis, Polemaetus bellicosus, Terathopius ecaudatus, Aquila rapax, Leptoptilos crumeniferus, Ciconia nigra, Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis and Bucorvus cafer. Gyps coprotheres, which breed elsewhere, are occasionally seen foraging in the reserve, particularly young non-breeding birds.

The sand-forest holds the nominate subspecies of Smithornis capensis (endemic to South Africa) as well as significant populations of several restricted-range species, including Apalis ruddi, Nectarinia neergaardi (200–300 breeding pairs) and Hypargos margaritatus. The Ilala palm specialist, Serinus citrinipectus, is also present in patches of palm-savanna throughout Mkuzi.

Non-bird biodiversity: Among plants, the Lebombos support many rare species, including the cycads Encephalartos ngoyanus and E. lebomboensis, as well as Pachypodium saundersii, Hemizygia ramosa, Pachycarpus lebomboensis and Polystachya zuluensis, while low-lying grassland holds Rhus kwazuluana, and the sand-forest holds Combretum mkuzense (LR/nt). Large mammals are well represented, and include Ceratotherium simum (LR/cd), Diceros bicornis (CR) and Acinonyx jubatus (VU); Loxodonta africana (EN) have recently been reintroduced to Mkuzi.

Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
The Mkuzi Game Reserve was established and proclaimed in 1912 and is administered by the KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Service. Prior to that, the Veterinary Department controlled it. During that regime, game eradication and spraying to control tsetse fly Glossina were the principal activities; these had a great impact on the reserve. In more recent times, Mkuzi was one of the key reserves that the KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Service (formerly the Natal Parks Board) used to re-establish the world’s population of Ceratotherium simum. The abundance of rhinos and the diversity of birdlife has made Mkuzi Game Reserve a major ecotourism destination. An indirect consequence of Mkuzi’s tourism-friendly nature has been habitat degradation. Mkuzi has never had much permanent water, and in order to retain animals at the hides beside the temporary pans, for viewing purposes, an artificial water-supply has been provided. The surrounding vegetation is now exploited throughout the year by animals that would otherwise have had to move to the permanent pans.

Since Cyclone Demoina, Nsumo Pan has been fed directly by the Mkuze river. Prior to that it was not in the main river channel, so was recharged only at irregular intervals by heavy floods. The intervening drying-down periods were exceptional for birds: now the pan is usually too full to have a bare edge, resulting in great diminution in bird numbers. The wandering course of the Mkuze river, although beyond all control, is cause for concern. Legally it marks one of the reserve boundaries. Disputes with neighbours over which are the correct boundaries are inevitable. Because of frequent flooding it is impossible to fence the ‘high-water’ mark on the distal bank, so incursions by cattle into the reserve occur. The recent acquisition of the few farms separating Mkuzi from Ozabeni has greatly increased the viability of both conservation areas.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2022) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Mkuzi Game Reserve. Downloaded from on 24/05/2022.