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.The park forms a critical part of the Lesotho highlands Endemic Bird Area, as it holds important populations of all three restricted-range species: Chaetops aurantius and Serinus symonsi are common and widespread within the park, especially above 2,000 m, while Anthus hoeschi is found at very high altitude, mostly above 3,000 m, where it is a locally common breeding migrant. The climax grassland areas with moist vleis and marshes support Grus paradisea, G. carunculatus, Balearica regulorum, Geronticus calvus, Neotis denhami, Circus ranivorus, Turnix hottentotta, Anthus brachyurus and A. chloris, the latter particularly common between 2,000 and 2,300 m.South Africa’s main population of Sarothrura affinis is found in the Drakensberg region, where it may be locally numerous. Rocky outcrops are the favoured haunts of Bubo capensis, Geocolaptes olivaceus, Saxicola bifasciata, Anthus crenatus and Monticola explorator, while Circus maurus hunts over any relatively open grassland. The Protea woodland holds Promerops gurneyi, and the thicket and forest patches in the kloofs and gullies are home to Cossypha dichroa, Lioptilus nigricapillus, Bradypterus barratti and Serinus scotops.
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.
Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
Most of the region has been declared Wilderness Area, Nature Reserve or Game Reserve. The major part of it is owned and administered by the KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Service and the KwaZulu-Natal government. Some small areas are demarcated as State Forest land and are administered by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF). The area is extremely rich in Khoisan rock art and archaeological findings, and is highly significant from a cultural heritage perspective.The Natal Drakensberg is regarded as the most important mountain catchment in South Africa because of the high yield and quality of water that flows from it. The wetlands within this area have been designated as a Ramsar Site, as they play a key role in the hydrological cycle. Various farming communities, villages, and a number of large towns are directly dependent on these rivers and their catchments for water supplies.Poisonings pose the greatest threat to the colonies of Gyps coprotheres that remain in the Drakensberg. Up to 34% of farmers in the areas adjacent to the park have been shown to use poisons that are potentially lethal to Cape Vultures. It is imperative that farmers using poisons are made aware of the dangers that poisoned carcasses pose to vultures. Another threat faced by vultures is a depleted food supply, which can result in bone abnormalities. The establishment of more vulture restaurants along the Drakensberg escarpment could alleviate this problem. Restaurants may also encourage vultures to remain within the park during foraging forays, thus reducing their exposure to poisoned carcasses on private property neighbouring the park. Collisions with man-made structures outside the IBA, human encroachment and environmental pollution are other minor sources of threat to the survival of these colonies.
BirdLife International (2021) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Maloti Drakensberg Park. Downloaded from
http://www.birdlife.org on 04/03/2021.