Bushwise Field Guides

It is still very early in the morning deep inside the bushveld of South Africa. A cold breeze burns onto the face of the farmer as he gallops away on his horse. He rides out in search of one of his valued dairy cows that broke out of the kraal during the night. Right by his side is his best friend –Nero- a Rhodesian ridgeback that will help the farmer to successfully locate his lost cow in no time. An hour or so later they return with the cow to the farmhouse and safely herds her back into the kraal. His wife welcomes him back with a warm cup of home-made chicken -soup and freshly baked bread. Nero was also rewarded with the left- over chicken bones.

I am sure some of you may be a little amused or confused by this story as it seems not to be related to a topic of BIODIVERSITY . Well it was about 12 000 years ago that the first dogs have been domesticated by humans. The earliest agriculture of bread- wheat probably occurred around 8000 years ago in the fertile soil of Mesopotamia along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This area is presently known as IRAQ. The domestication of horses happened around 7000 years ago. Cattle domestication was also a major event on the way of the rising human race some 9000 years ago. Chickens were domesticated at around 3500 years ago.

All of these historical events have a causal relation in the story of this farmer. More importantly they resulted in modern humans abandoning their nomadic lifestyle to settle in areas. This more sedentary lifestyle eventually contributed to the technological and other advances of the human race.

Unfortunately these human behavioural changes started the rapid shrinking of biodiversity that is still continuing on earth today.

So, what is Biodiversity actually?

It refers to the diversity or variety of life on Earth in all forms and at all levels of organisation. It is often said, “Variety is the spice of life.”

South Africa’s biodiversity

South Africa is well known for its variety of species. It has a surface area of 1, 22 million km². This is only 2% of the Earth’s surface and yet it has 10% of the world’s bird, fish and plant species and 6%-7% of the wold’s reptile and mammal species. This BIODIVERSITY is one of the reasons why more than 10 million people visit South Africa on a yearly basis.

South Africa’s biodiversity can boast with an estimated:

  • 50 000 species of insects,
  • 20 300 species of flowering plants,
  • 243 species of mammals
  • 900 species of birds,
  • 370 amphibians and reptiles
  • 220 species of freshwater fish
  • It also has more than 2000 marine species and
  • A floral kingdom- one of only six in the world –The Cape floral kingdom is also the only floral kingdom within the borders of a single country.

These are all hosted within 9 different biomes.


It is a large naturally occurring community of flora (plants) and fauna (animals) which occupies a major habitat.

As you will see on the maps illustrated here below, the variation is indeed astonishing, ranging from desert to forest and oceans. This amazing biodiversity also resulted in some very interesting descriptions of some of these wonderful creatures. Guides use these descriptions very effectively to entertain guests on epic game drives, bush hikes or other guided activities.

  1. The “Big 5” is the most famous naming. They are :Lion, Leopard, Buffalo, Rhino and Elephant.
  2. We have the Big 6 birds: Kori bustard, Ground hornbill, Martial eagle, Lappet-faced vulture, Saddle-billed stork and the Pel’s fishing owl.
  • We even have the small 5: Ant-LION, BUFFALO- weaver, LEOPARD -tortoise, RHINO- beetle and ELEPHANT- shrew.
  1. Some guides will even go as far as to state that South Africa also has the “ugly 5” warthog, blue wildebeest, Marabou stork, vulture and spotted hyena.
  2. Then there is the “secret 7” that we can also entertain our guests with. These are the African civet, Serval, Aardvark, Pangolin, large spotted genet” With all of these variety guides can have a wonderful time out in nature with their guests.
  3. The Big 7 bushveld trees are: Marula, Knob thorn, Apple leaf, Leadwood, Mopane and Silver cluster leaf tree.
  • The : Big 2 Marine animals are: Southern right Whale and the Great White Shark.

The “UGLY 5”


  • Serval
  • African Wild Cat
  • Aardvark
  • Pangolin
  • Large-spotted Genet
  • Civet
  • Porcupine

Well -known Endangered  species of the South African ecosystems:

  • African wild dog ( Lycaon pictus) The current population has been estimated at roughly 39 subpopulations containing 6,600 adults, only 1,400 of which are fully grown.
  • Pickergill’s Reedfrog. Pickergill’s Reed Frog – critically endangered.
  • Black rhino( Diceros bicornis) Critically endangered – 2500 left
  • Cheetah ( Acinonix jubatus) Vulnarable – Around 6000 left
  • Cape vultures (Gyps coprotheres) Endangered
  • Wattled crane
  • Blue swallow
  • Baobab trees( Adonsonia digitata)
  • brenton-blue butterfly (Orachrysops-niobe)
  • Blue crane.
  • Riverine rabbit.
  • Knysna seahorse.

The decline of these populations is ongoing, due to habitat fragmentation, human persecution, and disease outbreaks.

This Red List provides an up-to-date assessment of the state of our mammals, of which 57 (17%) are deemed to be threatened with extinction and 34 (10%) are Near Threatened. The general public will not be familiar with many of our threatened species as they have restricted ranges and are rarely seen, such as the Golden Moles (order Afrosoricida) or the endemic White-tailed Rat (Mystromys albicaudatusi).

Surface Areas covered by BIOMES

Biome Area

(Square km)



Albany Thicket biome 29 128 2.29
Azonal vegetation 28 982 2.28
Desert biome 7 166 0.56
Forests 4 715 0.37
Fynbos biome 83 944 6.62
Grassland biome 354 594 27.97
Indian Ocean Coastal Belt 14 282 1.12
Nama-Karoo biome 248 280 19.58
Savanna biome 412 545 32.54
Succulent Karoo biome 83 284 6.57
Waterbodies 673 0.05


BIODIVERSITY of our Ecosystems..

ECOSYSTEMS explained

Ecosystems are functional ecological units that embrace intense and intricately balanced inter and intra- specific interactions. These interactions occur within a reasonably well-defined physical and climatic environment. There are no villains, heroes or martyrs nor any happy endings for any individual and nothing lives happily ever after EXCEPT  for the ecosystem itself. Species are superbly adapted to reproduce and to fit into the mechanics of the ecosystem. This is done without ethics or rules except for the laws of physics, chemistry and species self- interest.

Conserving Biodiversity as guides.

There are many arguments for conserving biodiversity. One argument is that each species makes an important or crucial contribution to the ecosystem.

The loss of any ONE species could lead to the loss of another and another, so creating a knock-on effect of instability in the ecosystem. Here is only one example of many that may explain these intricately balanced relationships within our ecosystems.

We as guides often come across the very entertaining dung beetle. As he pushes a round dung ball over the ground a female will locate him and eventually they will mate and the ball of dung will be buried under the ground. Except for acting as a safe incubator for the egg, this will also recycle the minerals contained within the dung. But if one inspects the dung beetle a little closer, you will observe that it actually also carries a few minute mites on their bodies. These mites are physically relying on these dung beetles to transport them from one dung source to another where the mites will prey on the eggs that flies lay inside the dung piles. This symbiotic relationship is referred to as phoresis. So if dung beetles were to be lost within this ecosystem it will prevent the mites to get to the different piles of dung. In turn this will increase the populations of flies in the area and the fly population will eventually reach an exponential growth rate. There will also be more and more piles of dung that will be left unprocessed and as one can see this will also increase the rate of certain diseases in the area. This may also reduce the fertility of the soils in that area. Scientists believe that if dung is not processed by dung beetles and other organisms, only around 20% of the minerals are recycled! This example demonstrates the impact of the loss of only 1 link in the ecosystem.

Recent research suggests that the more diversity is displayed in an ecosystem or community, the more stable it will be and the better it will function. The conservation of a varied gene pool is key to the conservation of biodiversity. As an example, two plants of the same species could have slightly different genetic characteristics. One might be better adapted to drought while the other might be more resistant to frost. So if a drought may be present the one with higher drought tolerance will flourish while the other one will die. The other plant will survive heavy frost while the other drought resistant plant will die. Diversity in genetic make –up allows species to survive environmental variability as well as many other challenges and contributes to their evolutionary success.

Some common Threats to BIODIVERSITY

  • Loss of habitats – Human impact
  • Pollution- Human Impact
  • Poaching – Human impact
  • Poor environmental and ecotourism management – Human impact
  • Alien invaders- Human impact

Some notes on alien invasive plants

Invasive plants are known to use up large amounts of water and already, invasive alien trees and shrubs consume 7% of the country’s water supplies and threaten 55% of the Red Data-listed plants in the country .Our knowledge on the current distribution of invasive alien species is incomplete, as it focuses mostly on plant species, is captured at a broad scale and is not frequently updated for the country. The figure above shows the percentage of each quaternary catchment which is infested with alien plant species. The majority of these species are located in the catchments of the southwestern Cape, the east coast and northeast grasslands and savanna regions with some areas being over 80% infested.

Common examples are:

  • Australian wattles
  • Blue gum – eucalyptus trees
  • Poplar
  • Latana camara
  • Jacaranda



The ROLE of FIELD GUIDES in the conservation of biodiversity

Conservation areas in South Africa play a very important role in the conservation of biodiversity. Except for the many conservation areas in South Africa, there are also world heritage sites and Biosphere reserves. All of these conservancies are the areas in which field guides operate in. Therefore they get to deal with the biggest threat to biodiversity which is clearly illustrated in the section discussed earlier under: “threats to Biodiversity”  namely the HUMAN IMPACT.

In similar fashion to the farmer story, we as guides are also riding out into the bushveld with the cold wind into our faces .Although we use horses of a different kind for the game drives and we are not in search of cattle, we do take our valued guests in search of the diverse fauna and flora that game reserves in South Africa have on display. This gives field guides the perfect opportunity to collectively make millions of people aware of the importance of protecting biodiversity. They can do this by pointing out many of these amazing intricate relationships present in nature and that humans have to take responsibility to limit and reduce our impact on these.

Guides can also make use of a few other avenues available through the almighty inter-web . SANBI – The South African National Biodiversity Institute has a few channels available that they can utilise to improve their own and their guests’ general awareness, involvement and knowledge of biodiversity.

Here is a few of SANBI’s internet-links:

  • Species Status Database: This is the databases that stores all the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act (NEMBA) listed species.
  • Lepimap: All about butterfly conservation
  • SABAP2 – South African Bird Atlas Project: Website of the second South African Bird Atlas Project, run by the Animal Demography Unit, UCT, in collaboration with SANBI and BirdLife SA.
  • SANSA – South African National Survey of Arachnida: About spiders, scorpions and other arachnids.
  • Southern Africa Herpetology: Website of South African Herpetology – About reptiles and amphibians.
  • Infobases A collection of electronic resources developed by SANBI and partners
  • Animal of the Week List: A listing of all the featured SANBI Animals of the Week.
  • Biodiversity Advisor: Helps people to find biodiversity information from other SANBI websites.
  • PlantZAfrica: SANBI website providing information on popular southern African plants and related topics.
  • SIBIS: Provides access to all SANBI scientific databases: over 1.6 million occurrence records and taxonomic details for over 22 000 species. This database has not been updated recently.
  • Invasive Alien Plant Alert: A list of plants features in the Invasive Alien Plant Alert series together with a list of invasive alien Species.
  • iSpot: Your gateway to sharing and identifying southern African biodiversity.
  • Red List of South Africa plants: Online version of SANBI’s Red List of South African plants
  • BGIS (Biodiversity GIS): The main SANBI resource for GIS with interactive mapping, biodiversity data, training and legislation.
  • Vegetation Map of South Africa: An interactive map showing vegetation types of South Africa. Use Internet Explorer to access it.
  • POSA: Plants of southern Africa: an online checklist provides access to plant names and floristic details for southern African plant species. This database has not been updated for some time so please check names with your local herbarium or on the International Plant Names Index www.ipni.org
  • SABIF: This website contains data of species in southern Africa, gathered by SANBI and partner organisations.
  • DEAT Environmental Indicators: This is the database that stores the SA indicators for biodiversity reporting purposes
  • Land Degradation Report: National Review of Land Degradation in South Africa.
  • Collection Permits: How to obtain legal permits to collect South Africa’ natural genetic material
  • LibrariesSANBI’s libraries
  • Harry Molteno Library
  • Mary Gunn Library



The map here below illustrates the protected areas in South Africa:

The total percentage of South Africa’s land in Type 1 (National Parks, Provincial and Local Authority Nature Reserves and Forest Nature reserves) and Type 2 (Mountain Catchment Areas, Wildlife Management Areas, private nature reserves, National Heritage Sites, Forest Areas, bird sanctuaries and botanical gardens) protected areas is nearly 6 %. .Only a few protected areas are larger than 100 000 ha, most of them being between 1 000 and 10 000 ha in size. The percentage of well protected ecosystems is higher, at 15%. Most of these well protected ecosystems are in the fynbos mountains and the savanna biome.


This list clearly illustrates the negative impact that humans have on biodiversity.

Here are the Definitions of the national Red List categories

  • Categories marked with N are non-IUCN, national Red List categories for species not in danger of extinction, but considered of conservation concern. The IUCN equivalent of these categories is Least Concern (LC).

Extinct (EX) A species is Extinct when there is no reasonable doubt that the last individual has died. Species should be classified as Extinct only once exhaustive surveys throughout the species’ known range have failed to record an individual.

Extinct in the Wild (EW) A species is Extinct in the Wild when it is known to survive only in cultivation or as a naturalized population (or populations) well outside the past range.

Regionally Extinct (RE) A species is Regionally Extinct when it is extinct within the region assessed (in this case South Africa), but wild populations can still be found in areas outside the region.

Critically Endangered, Possibly Extinct (CR PE) Possibly Extinct is a special tag associated with the category Critically Endangered, indicating species that are highly likely to be extinct, but the exhaustive surveys required for classifying the species as Extinct has not yet been completed. A small chance remains that such species may still be rediscovered.

Critically Endangered (CR) A species is Critically Endangered when the best available evidence indicates that it meets at least one of the five IUCN criteria for Critically Endangered, indicating that the species is facing an extremely high risk of extinction.

Endangered (EN) A species is Endangered when the best available evidence indicates that it meets at least one of the five IUCN criteria for Endangered, indicating that the species is facing a very high risk of extinction.

Vulnerable (VU) A species is Vulnerable when the best available evidence indicates that it meets at least one of the five IUCN criteria for Vulnerable, indicating that the species is facing a high risk of extinction.

Near Threatened (NT) A species is Near Threatened when available evidence indicates that it nearly meets any of the IUCN criteria for Vulnerable, and is therefore likely to become at risk of extinction in the near future.

NCritically Rare A species is Critically Rare when it is known to occur at a single site, but is not exposed to any direct or plausible potential threat and does not otherwise qualify for a category of threat according to one of the five IUCN criteria.

NRare A species is Rare when it meets at least one of four South African criteria for rarity, but is not exposed to any direct or plausible potential threat and does not qualify for a category of threat according to one of the five IUCN criteria. The four criteria are as follows:

  • Restricted range: Extent of Occurrence (EOO) <500 km2, OR
  • Habitat specialist: Species is restricted to a specialized microhabitat so that it has a very small Area of Occupancy (AOO), typically smaller than 20 km2, OR
  • Low densities of individuals: Species always occurs as single individuals or very small subpopulations (typically fewer than 50 mature individuals) scattered over a wide area, OR
  • Small global population: Less than 10 000 mature individuals.

Least Concern A species is Least Concern when it has been evaluated against the IUCN criteria and does not qualify for any of the above categories. Species classified as Least Concern are considered at low risk of extinction. Widespread and abundant species are typically classified in this category.

Data Deficient – Insufficient Information (DDD) A species is DDD when there is inadequate information to make an assessment of its risk of extinction, but the species is well defined. Listing of species in this category indicates that more information is required and that future research could show that a threatened classification is appropriate.

Data Deficient – Taxonomically Problematic (DDT) A species is DDT when taxonomic problems hinder the distribution range and habitat from bein

g well defined, so that an assessment of risk of extinction is not possible.

Not Evaluated (NE) A species is Not Evaluated when it has not been evaluated against the criteria. The national Red List of South African plants is a comprehensive assessment of all South African indigenous plants, and therefore all species are assessed and given a national Red List status. However, some species included in Plants of southern Africa: an online checklist are species that do not qualify for national listing because they are naturalized exotics, hybrids (natural or cultivated), or synonyms. These species are given the status Not Evaluated and the reasons why they have not been assessed are included in the assessment justification.


  • The story of Life and the Environment an African Perspective- van As,du Preez,Brown and N. Smit
  • Introduction to SA. – Jo Pearce – FGASA
  • Managing tourism in South Africa – – Oxford / R. George.
  • Piet Pompies and Jan Alleman.

Blog by Gerhard van Niekerk

Picture contributions from Ben Coley & Vaughan Jessnitz