Lesotho and South Africa’s Transboundary World Heritage wonder: Maloti-Drakensberg Park

25 July 2013 | Article

At the recent meeting of the World Heritage Committee in Cambodia, the uKhahlamba- Drakensberg Park, located in South Africa and the Sehlabathebe National Park in Lesotho were inscribed as a transboundary World Heritage Site, with its new name, the Maloti-Drakensberg Park. The area is known for its spectacular natural landscapes and its wealth of rock paintings made by the San people over a period of 4,000 years.

Located in the Drakensberg Mountains of KwaZulu-Natal Province and bordering the province’s southwestern boundary with Lesotho, the park also protects many threatened and endemic species. For example, there are almost 250 species of endemic plants and unique paleo-invertebrates found there. It is also listed as an Important Bird Area, and its high altitude wetlands (above 2,750 metres) are a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance.

The ambition of establishing the transboundary park was agreed in 2001 by the governments of South Africa and Lesotho, and would include 12 individual protected areas in South Africa that were established between 1903 and 1973, as well as Lesotho’s only National Park, Sehlabathebe. The area contains the highest density of rock paintings in the world, with an estimated 600 rock art sites in caves and shelters and more than 35,000 individual images. The Park also provides the most important water catchment area for the people of South Africa and Lesotho. The name used to describe the area when viewed from South Africa is Drakensberg (dragon mountain) or uKhahlamba meaning “barrier of spears”, reflecting the history of the Nguni peoples of KwaZulu-Natal and the Dutch settlers who arrived in the early 19th century. In Lesotho, the mountains are referred to as Maloti, as they are often covered in snow during the winter.

View photos of the Maloti-Drakensberg Park

Size and Location

With a combined area of 249,313 ha, the Maloti-Drakensberg Park is the largest protected area along the Great Escarpment of southern Africa.

The Park includes high mountains, steep-sided valleys, rocky gorges and numerous caves and rock formations. It is located in south-western KwaZulu-Natal Province in South Africa, and borders the Kingdom of Lesotho.

Flora and Fauna

The Maloti-Drakensberg Park has a wealth of plants and animals, including some of the most varied in South Africa. Over 1,500 plant species have been identified in the Park, ranging from the forests and tall grasslands at lower altitudes, to the heaths and alpine bogs and mires on the summit. Grasses and many flowers, such as orchids, lilies and irises can be seen in spring at lower altitudes, while the high altitude wetlands display showy watsonias and gladiolus among the ericas and shrubby plants adapted to the extreme conditions at higher altitudes. The highest peak, Thaba Ntlenyana, in Lesotho, rises to 3,482 metres and is the 10th highest peak in Africa.

Mammals found in the Park include eland, the world’s largest antelope, and the most prominent subject of the rock art, as well as baboons, and smaller antelope such as klipspringer and oribi. Leopard, caracal, serval, aardvark and aardwolf also occur, but are harder to see.

Over 300 bird species have been recorded in the Park because of the large variety of habitats. Among the rarer species is the Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeyer) which has thrived under protection, as their numbers and distribution had declined in former times, mostly due to their being exposed to poisoned baits set by farmers to kill predators of livestock. Flocks of Cape Vultures are often seen soaring in the thermals among the high peaks.

Challenges and opportunities

While the Maloti-Drakensberg Park is intact and well-managed, there are a number of activities that affect its integrity, and which are the subject of close attention by the authorities. In the foothills, there is the ongoing challenge of agriculture and plantation forestry activities in the buffer zone, but also a demand for tourism infrastructure and development. This is being addressed by better integrated planning and close regulation of activities.

Within the park itself, attention is given to addressing the expansion of invasive alien plants, as well as soil erosion of the fragile slopes, caused mainly by unseasonal fires and overgrazing. In a remote mountain environment, it is particularly difficult to manage threats from illegal activities, like poaching or arson. The transboundary agreement between the two countries is a step towards more harmonious and effective management. In particular, the long-standing cooperation between South Africa and Lesotho is focussed on building capacity to take advantage of the spectacular resource and to develop an appropriate and sensitively planned tourism destination that will ensure the long-term integrity of the environment while also providing employment and entrepreneurial opportunities that benefit the peoples of both nations.