Subtropical thicket is a condensed forest ecosystem maintained by elephants, black rhino and Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) that crash open paths and disperse seeds through their digestive tracts.
Stretching along the east coast of southern Africa, from southern Mozambique through KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape in South Africa, the recently recognized Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Hotspot is an exceptionally diverse area.
The hotspot is the remarkable meeting point of six of South Africa’s eight major vegetation types. The region boasts an unusually high number of unique species and ecosystems, with one type of forest (sand forest), six types of bushveld and five types of grassland restricted to the hotspot,
as well as an entire vegetation type called “subtropical thicket.”
The hotspot is a refuge for the critically endangered black rhino. It is estimated that only 3,600 black rhino remaining in the wild (compared with 65,000 animals recorded in the 1970s), most of which are restricted to this hotspot.
The hotspot is also home to most of South Africa’s natural forests, and with nearly 600 tree species it has the highest tree diversity of any temperate forest in the world. The region is home to the ‘Big Five’ game animals (elephant, lion, rhino, leopard and Cape buffalo) and to many other iconic species universally associated with Africa.
In 1994, after South Africa’s first democratic elections, the area was integrated back into South Africa into two new provinces, namely KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. These provinces carry the highest human density in sub-Saharan Africa, are the poorest in South Africa and are severely impacted by HIV/AIDs. The two provinces are also faced with serious erosion and land degradation problems—the result of forcibly moving 80 percent of the country's population onto 13 percent of the land for almost 100 years. Encouragingly, the severely degraded land is traversed by corridors of pristine habitat that is not suitable for grazing and cropping, particularly along the coast and in the deeply incised river gorges.
This region was added to the hotspot list in recognition of its astounding species richness, but also because of the threats to this rapidly changing land.
The region has a history of change and turmoil, and is home to the previous apartheid government’s ‘Bantu Homelands’ and their dispossessed people. As the region enters into the mainstream economy, there has been rapid development and this area is being targeted for resort and golf course development.
The South African government is also promoting industrial development in the area by constructing a multi-billion dollar industrial development complex and deep sea port, re-routing a major national road to run though the Pondoland Centre of Endemism, building a new airport and encouraging the automotive and mining industries to expand in the hotspot. At the current rate of uncontrolled development, the area known to South African’s as the ‘wild coast’ will soon become the tame coast.