Geography & Wildlife

Conservation areas since the late 19th century

South Africa’s varied geography has diverse habitats, including deserts, savannahs, rainforests, mangroves, wetlands and mountain regions, such as the Soutpansberg and Maluti mountains.

Made by a meteorite

The vast crater at Vredefort Dome is one of the oldest and largest meteorite sites, created two billion years ago (long before dinosaurs roamed the planet).

There are more than 300 dedicated places or reserves for wildlife, including more than a dozen national parks. Some of these parks are now linked to reserves in neighbouring countries. These large conservation areas allow for the natural migration of the animal populations.

Ostriches on the road

We tend to think of conservation as a relatively recent movement. However, in the late 19th century, the authorities in South Africa could already see the country’s animals had been decimated by colonial hunting and started to take action.

Hunted to extinction

Some species – such as the zebra-like quagga – had already been hunted to extinction.

But for many species, it was not too late. South Africans realised that the country’s wildlife was an important asset and needed protection. The first conservation land was created between KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland in 1894 (now Pongola Game Reserve).

Two million hectare reserve

Our largest land mammals

Elephants are the world’s largest land mammals and live in family groups. When they meet, elephants will touch the face of another with their trunk or intertwine trunks as a form of greeting or assessment, much like a human handshake.

Probably the most famous wildlife reserve is Kruger National Park in the north-east. The park covers an area of two million hectares (250km long and 60km wide) and incorporates six different ecosystems (such as woodland and sandveld). It is home to more than 100 reptile, 500 bird and 140 mammal species.

All of ‘the big five’ mammals – leopards, lions, buffalo, rhino and African elephants – can be found at Kruger, where they can be seen in their natural environment.

Because male elephants (or bulls) live mostly as solitary animals, elephant families are lead by a matriach. In these tight-knit groups, young elephants keep close to their mother for many years. But if she isn’t nearby, the young are also cared for by other females, known as ‘allomothers’. These caring acts help promote the stability of the group.

Wide variety of plants

A king of flowers

King protea, by Winfried Bruenken (Amrum) (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

King Protea (Protea cynaroides) grows wild in the south-western Cape.

South Africa is blessed with a wide variety of plants, some distributed across the country, while others are specific to certain regions.

The south-western tip of the Cape is particularly known for its flora; it has around 8,500 different plants species in an area comprising less than 4% of the country’s land.

The fynbos (dry scrubland) of the south-western Cape is particularly rich in plants – hundreds of protea species, as well as many pelargoniums, ericas, reeds and irises can be found there. Perhaps the most famous area of fynbos is the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden near Cape Town (a UNESCO World Heritage site).