Matobo Hills

Year of compilation: 2001

Site description
The granite rocks, inselbergs (locally called ‘dwala’ or ‘whaleback’) and castle kopjes, with their intervening flat grassy plains and vleis, of the Matobo Hills (also known locally as the Matopos) lie 25 km south of Bulawayo. They stretch for 90 km from beyond Mangwe Pass (c.28°E) in the west to Umzingwane Dam (c.29°E) in the east, and for c.30 km from Fort Usher (20°24’S) in the north almost to the Mtshabezi Mission (20°42’S) in the south. The catchment areas of 10 rivers are found in the hills, from the Mangwe and Simukwe in the west to the Chabezi and Lumani in the east. These rivers all flow north–south, and have created the spectacular Lumani falls as well as, in some stretches, gorges. Due to the run-off from the rocks in the rainy season, some grasslands become marshy vleis and ‘sponges’, late into the dry season.

The granitic sandy soils support three main vegetation-types: kopje woodlands (and other vegetation), flat woodlands, and grasslands. Water run-off from the dwalas results in forests and thickets at their bases, producing a wonderful diversity of flora. Cohabiting with the usual Afzelia, Commiphora, Kirkia and Pterocarpus are woody species of Zimbabwe’s eastern forests. The flat woodlands are open, consisting of sandveld woodland of Terminalia, Burkea, Pterocarpus and Acacia, with scattered smaller areas of mopane woodland and Brachystegia woodland. The grassland is composed of more than 100 plant species; sedges, reeds Phragmites and Pennisetum are dominant in wetter areas.

Approximately half of the area is bare granite. The remainder is classified as suitable for grazing and cultivation. The National Park (424 km²) itself supports a thriving non-consumptive tourism, and allows neighbouring villagers to collect thatching grass. Cattle are grazed illegally in the park. The Umzingwane Rural District Council on the east is trying to set up tourism initiatives. Most of the Matobo Hills fall within Communal Lands and a minority into commercial farmland.

The beautiful hills are steeped in the country’s history, and hold the highest density of San (Bushman) rock paintings in Africa. Historic sites and caves connected with the San, Rozwi, Kalanga, Matabele and Europeans abound in the hills, and many are National Monuments.

Key biodiversity
See Box and Table 3 for key species. No threatened or restricted-range species depend on the Matobo Hills, but Gyps coprotheres overfly the area and Crex crex have occasionally been seen in vleis. The national park and its immediate surrounds are world-famous among ornithologists for the raptor assemblage that uses them—59 species have been recorded so far (including owls), of which 32 are known to breed, with a 1978 estimate of 76 pairs per 100 km². The combined richness of species and density of individuals is possibly the highest in the world, and includes 75 pairs of Aquila verreauxii. Many of the raptors nest on rock-faces, as do c.20 pairs of Ciconia nigra. The hills support a considerable population of Pinarornis plumosus, and a few other characteristic species of the Zambezian biome such as Cossypha humeralis and Nectarinia manoensis. In 1975 Buphagus africanus was successfully introduced to the park, and now B. erythrorhynchus is naturally expanding its range there.

Non-bird biodiversity: The shrub Strychnos matopensis and the herb Barleria matopensis are found nowhere else in the country, and the tree Turraea fischeri ehlesii is endemic to the hills. The national park is an Intensive Protection Zone for both species of rhino, Diceros bicornis (CR) and Ceratotherium simum (LR/cd).

Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
In November 1926 a National Park and Game Reserve was declared within the hills, covering c.97,300 ha. It was re-proclaimed in 1930, and in 1953 was enlarged to c.102,080 ha, with families being evicted. There was then a change in policy, and in 1963 a smaller Matobo National Park was re-proclaimed, reduced to c.38,200 ha, the balance being declared ‘tribal trust land’. But soon, by Act of Parliament in 1965, the Rhodes Matopos National Park was declared; it was enlarged to c.45,100 ha, by the addition of two farms from the Rhodes Matopos Estate on the northern boundary. Currently, the national park covers 42,400 ha, and the Lake Matopos Recreational Park on its northern side occupies 2,900 ha. Both are controlled by the Parks and Wild Life Conservation Fund. Moves are being made to obtain World Heritage Site status for the hills (or part of them). Outside the national park, the hills are unprotected in communal land, where there is widespread illegal cutting of trees, and poaching of small animals such as the dassies (hyrax) and antelope (several raptor species depend on dassies as their main food supply).

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2021) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Matobo Hills. Downloaded from on 20/04/2021.