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This huge, crescent-shaped park, which forms part of southern Africa’s eastern escarpment, extends for c.200 km along most of KwaZulu-Natal’s south-western border with Lesotho. The border follows the watershed above the Drakensberg escarpment, which is a continuous, abrupt and rugged scarp or mountain wall with many sheer cliffs (some over 500 m high) and several peaks over 3,000 m. The cliffs are capped by extensive, horizontally bedded basalt lava slabs, which create a high-altitude plateau lying between 1,830 and 2,440 m. The basalt is deeply incised by the tributaries of the three largest rivers in KwaZulu-Natal, the Tugela, Mkhomasi and Mzimkulu. At lower altitudes, the cliffs give way to grassy slopes that form a large terrace of variable width, interspersed with bands of exposed basalt. Lower still the grassy terrace falls away as cave sandstone cliffs are dissected by rivers and streams to form valleys, gorges and inselbergs. These two lines of cliffs, the larger basalt cliffs and the lower sandstone cliffs, run the entire length of the Natal Drakensberg.Three primary vegetation zones occur: the montane zone (1,280–1,830 m), the subalpine zone (1,830–2,865 m) and the alpine zone (2,865–3,500 m). The montane belt extends from the valley floors up to the lowermost basalt cliffs. Grassland dominates, but on most spurs and crests there is Protea parkland. The grassland continues up into the subalpine belt, with species of Helichrysum and Senecio, but grades into climax heath in the alpine belt, dominated by Erica, Chrysocoma and Helichrysum. The park holds almost all of the remaining subalpine and alpine vegetation in KwaZulu-Natal. The summits are generally rocky, with patches of bare, shallow soil and rock sheets near the escarpment. Throughout the area, scrub and/or small trees develop in fire-protected areas and, in the montane belt, patches of tall evergreen forest survive on mesic streambanks and in deep kloofs where fire is excluded, dominated by trees of Podocarpus, Olinia, Kiggelaria and Scolopia.
See Box and Tables 2 and 3 for key species. The park is one of the world’s primary breeding strongholds of Gyps coprotheres; it is thought to hold over 1,325 birds, comprising at least 215 breeding pairs. The birds forage over a wide area, with some estimated to travel to carcasses up to 54 km away from their breeding colonies, suggesting a foraging range of some 9,200 km². Other widespread cliff-nesting species include Buteo rufofuscus, Falco biarmicus and Ciconia nigra; the latter forages in or near streams and vleis. The alpine heath supports Parus afer, Cercomela sinuata and Sylvia layardi.
Non-bird biodiversity: The alpine floral communities found in the Lesotho and Drakensberg mountains are unique in southern Africa and they hold over 300 endemic plant species, including Protea nubigena; it is likely that many species remain to be discovered. The park supports a substantial proportion of the global range of the endemic cycad Encephalartos ghellinckii. Among mammals, near-threatened species include Hyaena brunnea (LR/nt) and restricted-range species include Mystromys albicaudatus (VU). Among frogs, the regionally endemic Heleophryne natalensis, Rana vertebralis, Strongylopus hymenopus and Arthroleptella hewitti occur, as do Rana dracomontana (LR/nt) and Leptopelis xenodactylus (VU). Among reptiles, the regionally threatened Bradypodion dracomontana and the range-restricted Pseudocordylus langi (LR/nt) and P. spinosus (LR/nt) are known from the park, and a new snake, Montaspis gilvomaculata, was described as recently as 1991.
BirdLife International (2017) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Maloti Drakensberg Park. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 13/12/2017.