Protecting South Africa’s biodiversity assets and ecological infrastructure: tracking change in the protected area estate

Just over 9% of South Africa’s mainland surface area is protected, mostly by Nature Reserves and National Parks. Over the past 15 years, Protected Environments have made a growing contribution to the protected area estate, now making up, for example, 38% of the Eastern Cape’s protected area estate. These are a few of the findings from South Africa’s first Accounts for Protected Areas, 1900 to 2020, which give us a range of facts and figures about the country’s land-based protected areas.

The Accounts for Protected Areas, 1900 to 2020, were published on 4 October 2021 by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), in collaboration with the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), as the second publication in Stats SA’s Natural Capital series.

The accounts track the expansion of the protected area estate at regular time intervals over the period 1900 to 2020, at national, provincial and biome level, disaggregated by types of protected areas. Accounts for protected areas form part of Natural Capital Accounting (NCA), which provides a systematic framework for measuring and reporting on stocks and flows of natural capital, analogous to accounts for other forms of capital. They provide a tool to monitor and report on changes in the protected area estate, in support of policy and decision-making.

The size of the land-based protected area estate has increased since early declarations over 100 years ago. At the end of 2020, the most extensively protected province in terms of the proportion of the province protected was Mpumalanga, with just under 1,7 million ha or 22% of the province protected. In terms of absolute area protected though, this is less than the area protected in Limpopo (just over 2,4 million ha) and the Northern Cape (just over 2 million ha). Limpopo and the Northern Cape are much larger provinces, so protected areas made up 19,3% and 5,5% of those provinces respectively. Over the period between 2000 and 2020, the largest increase in the proportion of province protected was seen in Gauteng and Eastern Cape.

The Forest Biome had the largest proportion of the biome protected at the end of 2020 with 40.1% of the biome protected. Fynbos and Desert biome both had the second largest proportion protected with 22.4% of the biome protected. The biomes with the largest increase in the area protected over the five-year period from 2015 to 2020 were the Nama-Karoo (105,5% increase) and Albany Thicket (42,5% increase). It is interesting to view these findings together with the assessment of Ecosystem Protection Level from the National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA) 2018.

For example, notwithstanding the large recent increases, the Nama-Karoo and Albany Thicket biomes had the highest proportion of under-protected ecosystem types. Although better protected overall, the Fynbos, Savanna and Grassland biomes had by far the highest number of under-protected individual ecosystem types. In other words, many ecosystem types within these biomes are still under-protected and not adequately included in the protected area network. The NBA, together with the National Protected Area Expansion Strategy, helps to ensure that as the protected area estate grows, it includes a wider range of different ecosystem types.

Why is it important to know more about the protected area estate? In addition to their vital role in conserving different ecosystem types and species, protected areas serve as nodes in South Africa’s ecological infrastructure network, protecting ecosystems that deliver important services to people, such as the production of clean water, flood moderation, prevention of erosion, carbon storage, and the aesthetic value of the landscape. They can support rural livelihoods and local economic development, especially in marginal agricultural areas where the wildlife economy and conservation-related industries may have higher economic and job creation potential than traditional agriculture. Protected areas also play a central role in biodiversity tourism, which is an important component of South Africa’s tourism sector.

This newly published set of accounts for protected areas deals only with land-based protected areas on South Africa’s mainland. Future iterations will include marine protected areas. The accounts use the South African Protected Area Database (SAPAD), which is the spatial data inventory of protected areas in South Africa developed and maintained by DFFE. The strength of this dataset is that it includes protected area names, types and declaration dates in a manner that provides a time series for accounts.

Limitations of the SAPAD dataset have been made explicit in the report, including uncertainty around the declaration dates of some protected areas. Notwithstanding these, the findings add to the richness of available information about protected areas. The publication of these accounts by Stats SA is exciting in that it helps to draw attention to protected areas as economic and social assets as well as conservation assets, and to reach a wide audience.

These accounts were produced as part of the Natural Capital Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services (NCAVES) project, which was implemented from 2017 to 2021, led globally by the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) with funding from the European Union (EU). In South Africa, the NCAVES project was led jointly by Stats SA and SANBI.

Read more about the Accounts for Protected Areas, 1900 to 2020 here





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