Threatened Grasslands Species Programme

The main aim/goal of the EWT-TGSP is to develop an ecosystems approach towards grassland conservation by implementing conservation actions for priority areas within grasslands by focusing on priority species.

Grasslands in all their variations are currently one of South Africa’s most threatened biomes, with only 2.5% formally conserved and more than 60% already irreversibly transformed. The primary threats to grassland habitat include degradation and conversion mainly as a result of large scale agriculture development, urbanisation, prospecting and mining. The South African grasslands biome is the second largest biome in South Africa, covering an area of 339 237 km². It contains the economic heartland of South Africa and produces the bulk of water needed to sustain human life and underpin economic growth.Internationally, only 1.4% of grasslands are protected, the lowest of any terrestrial vegetation types. Similarly in South Africa, grasslands are one of the most threatened ecosystems, with only 2.5% formally conserved and more than 60% already irreversibly transformed. Our grasslands host over 4 000 plant species, 15 of South Africa’s 34 endemic mammals, 22% of our 195 reptile species and one-third of the 107 threatened butterfly species. In addition, grasslands are home to 10 of South Africa’s 14 globally threatened bird species, including the Yellow-breasted Pipit Anthus chloris, Blue Swallow Hirundo atrocaerulea, and the Denham’s Bustard Neotis denhami. As a consequence, grasslands have been assigned a high priority for conservation action. In addition to their biodiversity value, grasslands provide essential ecosystem services required to support human life and wellbeing. These services include food (grains), forage, livestock, game farming, nutrient cycling, soil stabilization, carbon storage, energy supply, tourism and recreation and, arguably most importantly, fresh water resources.

The grasslands biome also contains the economic nucleus of South Africa and is home to the majority of the South African human population. South Africa’s entire maize crop and a large proportion of its wheat and seed crops are produced in the grassland biome. The biome supports 6.4 million cattle, 13 million sheep, and a significant portion of South Africa’s commercial timber. It also holds great mineral wealth and is, therefore, under tremendous pressure from the ever-growing mining industry. These grasslands also contain 42 river ecosystems, including the catchments of some of South Africa’s largest rivers, the Gariep, Vaal, Crocodile and Tugela River catchments, are within South Africa’s grassland biome. Loss of grass cover results in siltation of rivers and dams and, therefore, reduced water quality. Intact grassland ensure long term provision of fresh water resources critical for sustaining human life and underpins the economic development of the country.

Exotic vegetation releases more water into the atmosphere through transpiration than the natural grassland species would. This results in reduced replenishment of ground water supplies and less surface water for human use. Loss of vegetation cover also exposes the soil to the erosive forces of wind and rain, resulting in a loss of topsoil. The loss of topsoil leads to a reduction in soil nutrients and, subsequently, through the absence of effective nutrient cycling, biodiversity is reduced. The loss of biodiversity in turn reduces the rate at which new topsoil is formed, and so soil fertility is reduced and the ability to produce grazing and food is reduced. Linked to this, loss of grassland vegetation cover results in less carbon dioxide being sequestered and increased levels of carbon dioxide in the air. These elevated levels are resulting in increased mean temperatures and changing seasons, commonly known as climate change, and this is impacting on crop production. Crop agriculture causes irreversible damage to grasslands and a vast majority of South Africa’s grassland biome has been ploughed and developed into crop farms. One of the highest demand crops, and which as a result covers the majority of the former grassland, is wheat. The demand for bread and other crops will never decrease is likely to increase in the near future and as a result the demand for ploughing more of the remaining patches of intact grassland will increase. This demand is real and conservationists accept and understand the need to sustain food resources for our people but in conjunction with this we need to maintain a balance in order to sustain the other natural resources provided by grassland systems such as water, ecotourism, carbon sequestration and flood attenuation.

All of these factors illustrate how sensitive the grassland biome is to poor land-use management and the need for farmer co-operation centred on grazing densities and burning regimes, as well as alien plant control and no longer ploughing up native grassland areas no matter how small.

Grazing and Burning Guidelines - Managing Grasslands for Biodiversity and Livestock Production - POSTER DOWNLOAD

The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s involvement in grassland conservation started with the Blue Swallow (BSWG) and Oribi Working Groups (OWG) which implemented conservation action for specific grasslands associated with these species. Conservation globally has moved away from the single species approach in favour of an ecosystems based approach. In order for the EWT to achieve an ecosystems approach to grassland conservation the intention was to implement conservation action for priority areas within the grasslands and for suites of priority species inhabiting them to be grouped under one programme. In 2009 the single species working groups, namely the BSWG and OWG as well as the KZN Biodiversity Programme became projects of a EWT-Threatened Grassland Species Programme (EWT-TGSP).

Priority endemic, threatened and habitat specialist species in need of conservation attention and which can act as flagships for the conservation of priority grassland areas have been identified.

Contact us

Catherine Hughes : Programme Manager / email:
Bradley Gibbons: TGSP Field Officer / email: / cell: 082 566 5803
Samson Phakathi: TGSP Senior Field Officer / email:
Mauritz de Bruin: TGSP Field Officer / email: / cell: 0714785379