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Plant and Animal Life in South Africa

Updated on April 3, 2014

Plant Life

South Africa lacks abundant resources of timber; it seems unlikely that the region ever had substantial forests during the present geological period. Coastal scrub forest stretches in a narrow strip from East London to Mozambique, and open savanna forests—commonly called bush veld or low veld—are found in patches at median altitudes. Genuine timber forests are found only on the slopes of mountain ranges facing toward the sea or the south, usually about 100 miles (160 km) inland from the coast. The government has encouraged afforestation, especially of conifers, to meet the country's needs for softwood building timber.

The basis of the one important timber industry is wattle bark, the extract of which is used for tanning. Most of the wattle plantations are in KwaZulu-Natal. Among the most valuable of woods found in the timber forests is black stinkwood, which, though comparatively scarce, is highly prized for furniture. Other principal species found in these forests are black ironwood, white pear, and assagai, which were used for wagon building; upright and common South African yellowwood, used for furniture and flooring boards; and Knysna boxwood, used for weavers' shuttles. Numerous kinds of acacias are found in the country, particularly the common mimosa.

Genus Stapelia consists of around 40 species of low-growing, spineless, stem succulent plants, predominantly from South Africa.
Genus Stapelia consists of around 40 species of low-growing, spineless, stem succulent plants, predominantly from South Africa. | Source

Animal Life

The best known of South Africa's national parks is the Kruger, which occupies an area of some 8,000 square miles (20,700 sq km) bordering Mozambique. The park has a subtropical climate. Here may be seen the animals that used to be common throughout South Africa: lions, leopards, and cheetahs—all of which are now rare outside the game reserves—and wildcats, jackals, and servals—found more often outside than inside the reserves. Elephants, which are protected wherever they are found, are common in certain parts of Kruger National Park, as are hippopotamuses, zebras, baboons, and all kinds of antelopes.

Another well-known national park is Hluhluwe Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal. It has the best remaining herds of white as well as black rhinoceroses and has numerous buffalo. In Kalahari National Park, which borders on Namibia, are thousands of gemsboks, one of the most beautiful of the many types of antelopes found in South Africa. Addo Elephant National Park, north of Port Elizabeth, has elephants, Cape buffalo, and a wide variety of plant life. Bontebok National Park, east of Cape Town, is the best place to see the bontebok, an otherwise almost extinct antelope.


In addition, there are a number of other game reserves, particularly in Zululand and near the Drakensberg Range. These reserves indicate the wealth of animal life that existed in South Africa prior to its settlement. Characteristic examples of the fauna are the antelopes, which include, in addition to those mentioned, impalas, hartebeests, kudus, rietboks, oribis, and klipspringers. The springbuck (springbok) is the only gazelle found in the country.

Troops of baboons are found in and near rocky hills throughout many parts of South Africa, and aardvarks, or ant bears, are fairly numerous. So too are porcupines and scaly anteaters.

Ostriches are indigenous and are raised in Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces for their feathers. Next in size to the ostrich among the large birds of the country is the bustard. Also found in South Africa are many kinds of smaller birds, such as ducks, teals, snipes, guinea fowl, quail, franklin, and sand grouse. The secretary bird, which performs the important function of killing snakes, is protected nationally. There are many types of snakes, and crocodiles are found in KwaZulu-Natal and in Kruger National Park.

Despite the lack of fresh water, numerous species of fish, including yellowfish and barbel (carp family), are found. Some of these survive by burrowing into mud before it hardens and emerging when the rains come again. Far more important are the numerous edible fishes found off the coasts of South Africa. About four-fifths of the commercial fish catch comes from the cold waters along the west coast of South Africa and Namibia. The largest catches are of pilchard, stockfish, snoek, maasbanker, redfish, sole, silverfish, and rock lobster. Many of these are canned or frozen as well as sold fresh in local markets. Fish meal and fish oil, particularly from pilchard and maasbanker, are produced locally and used in the feeding of animals and for edible oils and fats.

Rock oysters are plentiful in the Mossel Bay–Knysna area and along the KwaZulu-Natal coast. Among the more important of the large migratory fish are Cape salmon (geelbek), cob, salmon bass, and kabeljou. Mackerel, anchovies, and springer are among the smaller migratory fish. South Africa has excellent sea angling most of the year. Game fish caught off the cape include tunny, red steenbras, and yellowtail. Sharks are plentiful, and beaches in KwaZulu-Natal must be protected by shark nets.

Additional information about the climate

The plateau structure of South Africa has created a remarkable uniform mean annual temperature of about 60° F (16° C) over most of the country. Another factor affecting the climate is the cold Benguela Current along the west coast, which produces a foggy seaboard close to an almost rainless desert; it makes the water at Port Nolloth in Northern Cape Province colder than that at Cape Town, which is closer to the South Pole. In contrast, the warm Mozambique Current flowing down the east coast gives Durban a mean annual temperature of 70.5° F (21.5° C)—more than 12° F, or about 7° C, higher than that at Port Nolloth, which is at approximately the same latitude on the opposite coast. Except in the Cape Peninsula, which has winter rains, precipitation in South Africa occurs mainly in the summer months. The mean annual rainfall is about 17.5 inches (445 mm). Eastern Cape Province and KwaZulu-Natal receive the greatest amount of rain. Parts of South Africa, particularly in the west, are very dry and suffer from desert or near-desert conditions. In other areas the rainfall may be intense, leading to floods and serious soil erosion.

Although temperatures below freezing occasionally occur inland between April and October, during the Southern Hemisphere cold season, temperatures low enough to freeze water are rare along the coastal belt. Marked changes in temperature take place between night and day, however, with warm days succeeded by cool nights. Considerable difference also exists between the hottest and the coldest months of the year despite the relative uniformity of mean annual temperatures. In addition to severe rainstorms, hailstorms are common in some parts of the country, and these sometimes cause damage to crops, cattle, and buildings.

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