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South Africa’s new KBA network is a staggering 263 terrestrial sites with more in the pipeline.

10th July 2024

South Africa’s National Coordination Group (NCG) embarked on an ambitious process to systematically reassess the Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) in the country to be aligned with the Global Standard for the Identification of Key Biodiversity Areas. The aim was to completely update the sites identified in South Africa in the past, through the consideration of a broader range of biodiversity data, and the application of all 11 KBA criteria. The initiative, which started in 2017, was led by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and BirdLife South Africa, in collaboration with other conservation agencies. Through this process, South Africa became the first country to apply ecosystem criteria (A2 and B4) as well as an assessment of the irreplaceability of sites for species persistence under criterion E.

It is widely accepted that the world is facing a biodiversity crisis, as biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation continue to rise. Conservation interventions are urgently required to preserve our most vulnerable species and ecosystems. South Africa has recognised this growing concern and is committed to safeguarding its natural heritage for future generations. Globally, South Africa is acclaimed for boasting unique biodiversity, encompassing diverse ecosystems from the highly endemic Fynbos biome to the expansive savannas of the northern parts of the country (including the famous Kruger National Park). With the adoption of KBAs as a globally recognised and effective standardised method of identifying important places for biodiversity, the NCG was tasked with bringing together data and experts that could contribute towards systematically identifying and delineating KBAs for species and ecosystem triggers in the country.

Mimetes cucullatus, a KBA trigger B3a due to it being endemic and restricted to the ecoregion, is located in the Kogelberg Key Biodiversity Area, Western Cape, South Africa. The site has several ecosystem triggers (A2 and B2) from the following ecosystem types Hangklip Sand Fynbos, Cape Winelands Shale Fynbos, Kogelberg Sandstone Fynbos, Kogelberg Sandstone Fynbos and Western Coastal Shale Band Vegetation. ©Martine Robinson.

Results of the KBA Reassessment

The NCG identified 263 terrestrial KBA sites, which were confirmed by the KBA Secretariat in May 2024. However, this is only the first step towards the recognition of the importance of South Africa’s biodiversity in a global context. South Africa’s NCG will continue to work towards the identification of more sites in the marine realm, as well as ensure continuous updates of the terrestrial network.

South Africa’s 263 KBA sites showcase the megadiverse wealth of the country

The large number of terrestrial sites that qualify as global KBAs demonstrates the megadiverse wealth of South Africa. Of the approximately 357,198 km² that are confirmed South African KBA sites, approximately 28% fall within formal protection. This demonstrates the potential of KBAs in the conservation framework, as KBAs that lack formal protection are positioned to be considered in protected area expansion strategies to ensure that South Africa’s protected areas footprint includes the most threatened species and ecosystems.

The KBA network is underpinned by 3598 species triggers and 309 ecosystem triggers.  The most frequent species- and ecosystem-related KBA triggers are those that meet criteria B2 and B4. The West Coast Biosphere Reserve is the location with the highest number of KBA species triggers, with approximately 320 triggers, or 9% of all the species triggers for South Africa. Top on the list of ecosystem triggers for KBA sites are the Garden Route and Gouritz Cluster – Kammanassie sites.

The Kloof Frog and Speckled Dwarf Tortoise were the most represented species trigger for the amphibian and reptile taxonomic groups respectively. Black Harrier was the most represented species trigger for birds, as were the Pennington's Protea (butterflies); the White Malachite (dragonflies); the Smallscale Redfin (freshwater fishes); the Mountain Reedbuck; (mammals); and the Common Sunshine Conebush (plants).

South Africa’s most represented trigger species for each taxonomic group. Top row from left to right Kloof Frog (amphibians) ©Dylan Leonard, Speckled Dwarf Tortoise (reptiles) ©Ryan van Huyssteen, Black Harrier (birds) ©Stuart Shearer and Pennington's Protea (butterflies) ©Stephen Woodhall. Bottom row from left to right White Malachite (dragonflies) ©Alex Rebelo, Smallscale Redfin (freshwater fishes) ©Riaan van der Walt, Mountain Reedbuck (mammals) ©Clicque, and Common Sunshine Conebush (plants) ©Diana Studer.

Challenges and Innovations in KBA Identification

A task of this magnitude in a megadiverse country made it a complex undertaking. Given South Africa’s rich biodiversity, South Africa adopted several innovative approaches towards identifying sites and triggers that meet criteria thresholds. South Africa is the first country to apply all the criteria across species and ecosystems  and in the process many technical challenges were solved, and lessons learnt. Throughout the process, South Africa worked in close collaboration with the KBA Technical Working Group and Standards and Appeals Committee, and many of our insights and solutions were adopted into version 1.2 of the KBA Guidelines. Our data also provided many challenges to the functionality of the World Database of KBAs (WDKBA). These were all resolved through the tireless dedication of the WDKBA’s technical team, and will hopefully result in a smoother data submission process for other countries wanting to follow South Africa’s example.

Future Directions and Goals

With the accumulation of more data, the NCG will continue to identify new KBA sites with strategic partnerships. The confirmed KBA sites will receive continual monitoring with the help of public and private entities, with the aim to proactively build up and support conservation management in the sites. We will be exploring how to include KBAs as one of the inputs into the country's well-established land-use decision-making process, and technical working groups are already looking at updating various systematic biodiversity planning guidelines and tools. The KBA network helps to showcase South Africa’s unique biodiversity and will inspire future species and ecosystem projects through which conservation and monitoring can be broadened. We look forward to garnering improved adoption and support from private and public entities and individuals through the recognition of the value and uniqueness of South Africa’s biodiversity provided by the KBA identification process.

Establishing KBAs in South Africa under the KBA Standard was a crucial stepping stone to ensure the country's ability to report against global conservation goals, and will now form part of the suite of tools for monitoring and reporting on the state of biodiversity that inform policy and decision making in a range of sectors.

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