The sand forests of northern KwaZulu-Natal are the most critically endangered vegetation
type in South Africa. At the same time, these forests offer refuge to the regionally endangered suni antelope.
The remaining sand forests are highly fragmented and threatened by pineapple farming and eucalyptus plantations as well as deforestation for building materials, curios and traditional medicine. Historically, much of the land in the region consisted of sand forest.
The Wild Tomorrow Fund is one of the role players being proactive by acquiring land to protect the diversity of the area. This acquisition of land encourages the idea of connecting the Phinda Game Reserve and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
Aerial maps of Maputaland show that this unique vegetation type is decreasing rapidly. As a result,
a conservation action plan is required to preserve the remaining virgin sand forests.
Many of the plant species within this vegetation type are listed on the Red Data List for rare and endangered plants.
Perhaps the most iconic of these plants is the slow-growing hardwood, the lebombo wattle (Newtonia hildebrandtii). Some of them are believed to be over 1 000 years old. They are often covered in
lichens, mosses and orchids that get their water from dew and low-hanging mist. The canopy is mostly evergreen but can be deciduous in times of drought. Sand forests are very dense with a closed canopy that reaches five to 13m in height, and occur in areas with a relatively low annual rainfall.
Sand forests occur naturally from Greater St Lucia Wetland Park into southern Mozambique. Of the 3 540 hectares of sand forests remaining in South Africa, an estimated 42% is protected in Tembe Elephant Park, Sileza Nature Reserve, Ndumo Game Reserve, Mkhuze Game Reserve, Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, Kruger National Park and Phinda Private Reserve. The majority situated outside protected areas and is subject to exploitation.
Soils largely determine vegetation: sand forests grow in sandy soils with good drainage and are more acidic than other soils found in KwaZulu-Natal. Sand forest thickets are characterised by sharp forest margins and are surrounded by narrow areas of sparsely growing grasses or bare soil. The bare fringes of sand
forests act as a firebreak as they struggle to recover after severe fires.
The Maputaland sand forest is characterised by rare and endemic plants as well as unique bird and wildlife species. Birdlife commonly found includes the rosy-throated longclaw, Woodward’s batis, pink-throated twinspot, eastern nicator, African broadbill and square-tailed drongo.
Apart from the suni, the nyala antelope also occur
here, with the two antelope species competing for browsing.
Additional wildlife native to sand forests are the four-toed elephant shrew, red bush squirrel and the yellow golden mole. The recently discovered Phinda button spider also calls the sand forests home.
Information provided by Francois du Randt, author of The sand forest of Maputaland.
Written by Georgina Lockwood
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