Sehlabathebe, Lesotho’s only national park, is situated on the eastern border of the country, on the edge of the Great Escarpment. It lies adjacent to South Africa’s uKhahlamba–Drakensberg Park (IBA ZA064) to the west of Himeville, Underberg and Kokstad. This mountain block comprises high-altitude sandstone capped by basalt on the north side where there are higher mountains, and incised deeply by the tributaries of the Tsoelikana river, thus creating near-vertical cliffs. The surrounding highlands support a traditional pastoral economy with a low-density population. Approximately 10% of the surrounding area (within a 25-km radius) is cultivated, 10% is held in Sehlabathebe National Park, and the remainder is open pasture. The vegetation is primarily high-altitude montane grassland, but thick bush and scrub flank the lower gorge walls. High-altitude shrubs form a heath of Erica, Chrysocoma and Helichrysum. The summits are generally rocky with bare, shallow soil patches and rock sheets near the escarpment. There are patches of wet meadow and marshland at all altitudes. Aquatic vegetation is well represented in the Tsoelikana river and its oxbow lakes and rock pools.
See Box and Tables 2 and 3 for key species. A colony of Gyps coprotheres had been permanent here for some 50 years, until a dramatic decline was followed by the desertion of the site by the birds in the late 1980s. Since this colony was once a ‘stable nucleus’, birds may return to breed. Despite the disappearance of the breeding colony, Sehlabathebe National Park still represents an important foraging area for the species, free of the threat of being poisoned or trapped. This is the only reliable site for Anthus chloris in Lesotho, where it is primarily confined to lush, green, relatively ungrazed grassland above 2,500 m. The rare but widespread Gypaetus barbatus meridionalis forages widely across this area. Other cliff-nesting species include Buteo rufofuscus, Falco biarmicus and Ciconia nigra. The high-altitude, rocky, boulder-strewn slopes and outcrops (above 2,000 m) support Chaetops aurantius, and the surrounding grassy slopes and plateau hold Anthus hoeschi, which breed in large numbers during the austral summer (especially above 3,000 m). The grassy slopes and valleys also hold Sagittarius serpentarius. The high-altitude tarns support an interesting avifauna, including Podiceps cristatus, an extremely rare species in Lesotho. Serinus symonsi occurs commonly above 1,500 m, and it occupies, and forages in, the rank grasslands. Anthus crenatus, Monticola explorator and Geocolaptes olivaceus occur commonly in the vicinity of rocky outcrops. Cercomela sinuata hypernephela, Sylvia layardi barnesi and Circus maurus are uncommon. The small, isolated Lesotho subspecies Parus afer arens occurs at the site. Small numbers of Geronticus calvus occasionally forage in this area and it is thought that there are breeding colonies in the vicinity. Grus carunculatus and Balearica regulorum were both recorded here during the 1970s and 1980s and, although neither has been seen for a decade, suitable habitat exists for breeding birds to re-establish here.
Non-bird biodiversity: The alpine floral communities found in the Maloti/Drakensberg mountains are unique in southern Africa, holding a remarkable number of endemic plant species. A recent botanical survey of three valleys in the Maloti yielded many species that could not be identified, and some may be new to science. The high-altitude streams and seepages hold the Drakensberg-endemic frogs Strongylopus hymenopus and Amieta vertebralis.
BirdLife International (2021) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Sehlabathebe National Park. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 16/01/2021.