KwaZulu-Natal Mistbelt Forests

Year of compilation: 2001

Site description
The mistbelt forms an irregular band through the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, extending from Weza in the south-west to Ngome in the north-east. It once had a large grassland component, which is now almost entirely transformed by agriculture and commercial timber. The forest component consists of a series of patches occurring mainly on southern slopes where evaporation is less and the effects of fire reduced. Before colonial settlement in the 1800s these forests were larger and more numerous, and many may have been contiguous.

Mistbelt forest represents a southern extension of the Afromontane forests of tropical Africa. In KwaZulu-Natal most of these forests occur between 1,200 and 1,400 m, but may extend as low as 560 m or as high as 1,720 m This habitat has as its unifying feature, in the climax stage of succession, the dominance of Podocarpus trees (three species are present in KwaZulu-Natal). In the early stages of forest succession, trees of Celtis and Kiggelaria are typical. Common mistbelt trees in later stages are of Combretum, Calodendrum, Zanthoxylum, Scolopia, Vepris, Ekebergia and Halleria. Ilex, Ficus and Prunus are more common alongside streams.

Because of the scattered nature of mistbelt forests, none of which is outstandingly better than the others, it is difficult to single out individual blocks as IBAs; equally, it is impractical to designate them all, since the total number must run into thousands. The forest patches function in unison as a single ecological unit. Therefore the selection criteria adopted for inclusion in this blanket IBA are a minimum patch size of 50 ha and the presence of the bird species that is the best indicator of climax forest, Poicephalus robustus robustus. The IBA thus comprises 23 such forests, of which 12 are State Forests (3,832 ha), nine are privately owned (2,772 ha), and four have mixed ownership (5,344 ha). There are a further 42 forests in the mistbelt that individually exceed 50 ha in extent, and which total 9,071 ha, but they are not listed here because they do not support Poicephalus robustus robustus.

Key biodiversity
See Box and Tables 2 and 3 for key species. The forests hold many important species, including the largest remaining population of the threatened Poicephalus robustus robustus. Bird parties are frequent, and typical forest birds include Ceratogymna bucinator, Apaloderma narina, Zoothera gurneyi, Lioptilus nigricapillus, Tauraco corythaix, Coracina caesia, Cossypha dichroa, Pogonocichla stellata, Phylloscopus ruficapilla, Trochocercus cyanomelas, Telophorus olivaceus, Estrilda melanotis and Serinus scotops. The quiet forest streams hold Alcedo semitorquata and Motacilla clara.

Non-bird biodiversity: Of the trees, Podocarpus henkelii is endemic to the mistbelt forests, and Ocotea bullata is exceptionally rare. Other flowering plants of interest are Geranium natalense and Polystachya ottoniana. Mistbelt forests are very rich in endemic invertebrates, notably spiders, beetles, earthworms, snails and millipedes: many are still being described. Of exceptional interest is the presence, only in Ingele Forest, of the onychophoran Opisthopatus roseus (EX).

Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
Protection of mistbelt forest is not strong. About 56% of the total area of the IBA is privately owned, and even the state-owned forests receive little real protection. They are often located in inaccessible places, with steep terrain, making monitoring difficult. Exploitation of the mistbelt forests began early in colonial history. Useful tree species were plundered. Today, commercial interest in Podocarpus has dissipated, but old specimens are still exploited, especially if senescence is apparent. Felling permits are required, but these are still readily obtainable from the Forestry Department. The logic is that a resource ‘going to waste’ might as well be used. This logic takes no account of the vital role played by senescent Podocarpus trees in the ecology of Poicephalus robustus robustus. The oldest trees are the biggest fruit producers, and most parrot nests are in the larger dead branches.

Quite apart from the loss of a vital forest component, felling and extracting a giant Podocarpus creates damage out of all proportion to the cash value of the timber. A focus for desiccation is created, and invasive non-native plants become rampant. Young Podocarpus require a fairly shady nursery if they are to grow straight and be capable of attaining the eventual stature ideal for parrots; wasteful exploitation precludes such conditions.

Other frequent sources of damage to mistbelt forest are the grazing of cattle in the understorey, which can suppress regeneration, and uncontrolled bark-stripping for use in traditional medicine. Ill-timed grass fires often erode forest margins. Poicephalus robustus robustus is semi-nomadic and moves between the forest patches in response to food abundance. This means that temporarily vacated forests are as important as those currently in use to the integrity of the whole system. Despite its rarity, Poicephalus robustus robustus is still occasionally taken from the wild, on the ground at drinking places, by the cage-bird trade. Mistbelt forests play a vital role in altitudinal migration in KwaZulu-Natal. Several bird species from montane forests, or at least a section of their populations, winter in the mistbelt, or use the mistbelt forests as corridors on their way to coastal forests.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2022) Important Bird Areas factsheet: KwaZulu-Natal Mistbelt Forests. Downloaded from on 18/08/2022.