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Biodiversity and ecosystems services

Biodiversity describes the variety of life in an area, including:

  • the number of different species
  • the genetic wealth within each species
  • the interrelationships between them
  • the natural areas where they occur.

These benefits of biodiversity are often referred to as ecosystem goods and services. These services are categorised:

  • Provision – biodiversity provides all living organisms with water, food, fuel, medicine and fibres.
  • Regulation – biodiversity and its life-support systems regulate climate, water and the spread of disease.
  • Cultural – people need connection to nature. There are numerous spiritual, aesthetic, recreational and learning benefits.
  • Supporting life systems – production, soil formation and nutrient cycles.

And biodiversity is also directly related to the quality of life you may expect.

The loss of biodiversity has lead to economic gains in some cases, but increasingly people are seeing that there are material costs that were not considered. The Green Jobs report, South Africa’s Green Fund and exploration of financing schemes for the payment of ecosystem services (PES) are important developments.

Incentives provided for the conserving of biodiversity set an economic value on this preservation. Areas served by this will include soil erosion prevention, landscape beauty, water flows, carbon sequestration and storage, and biodiversity protection generally. There is great job creation potential here (as evidenced in initiatives like government’s Working for Water programme), and the aligning of conservation efforts to national development goals should be encouraged.

Source: an excerpt from the opening page at (now defunct)

Biodiversity is the basis of agriculture. Maintaining biodiversity is essential for the production of food, agricultural goods, and all the benefits that come with these – food security, nutrition and livelihoods. The “Natural resources” section of this publication is a recognition that while agriculture contributes to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, the opposite is also possible: agriculture can be responsible for biodiversity loss.


The reader should note that there is information elsewhere in the book that could well have been in the Natural Resource Management chapter e.g. the information on best fertiliser practice (see “Fertiliser” page). Also, in order to mainstream them, several topics like “Biocontrol“, “Renewable and alternative energy” and “Rainwater harvesting” have been moved to the “Inputs” or “Farm infrastructure” chapters.

Threats to biodiversity

The biologist EO Wilson developed the acronym HIPPO to sum up the threats to biodiversity.

Habitat destruction, disturbance and fragmentation

Habitat destruction and the changes to ecosystems is possibly the greatest cause of biodiversity loss.

Introduced and invasive species

Introduced species often become invasive when they breed and out-compete or eat the endemic species. Invaders impact on fauna and flora, but also on the soil, land and water resource. Invaders tend to resource-hungry and deplete the natural assets.


Since the industrial revolution, countries – mostly in the “industrialised west” – have been polluting for two centuries. Joined now by emerging economies such as India, China and South Africa, the pollution levels world-wide are soaring. Key focus areas to address pollution include water contamination by fertilisers, pathogens, acid-mine drainage; pesticides affecting plants, animals and the receiving environment; coal-fired electricity plants which produce high levels of air pollution and contaminate water; untreated sewage and effluent contaminating water systems, including rivers and groundwater; and landfill waste which grows exponentially with pollution and affluence.


Population growth is the main cause of pressure on the ecosystems and the degradation of the environment. The growth rate feeds the demand for natural resources, while the human settlements expand, encroaching on and transforming natural habitats.


From muti-plants to rhino horns, from forest trees to oceanic fish, we are living beyond our means. Society consumes the equivalent of what three planets would produce per year. Societies also do not consume equally. The richer nations far outstrip the poorer ones in terms of consumption. As a species, we have become predominantly urban and increasingly disconnected from nature. We are drawing on nature’s capital rather than living off its interest. Any economist would explain that bankruptcy is set to follow.

Wilson’s “HIPPO” summarises the key causes of destruction of the natural environment. Clearly evident is the common factor – our own excessive consumption of natural resources, and the massive footprint we leave on the earth.

Source: an excerpt from the home page at (now-defunct)

Payment for Ecosystem services (PES)

Even though biodiversity is the foundation of ecosystems and habitats (i.e. our natural environment), industrialised humanity has only just begun to take into account the connection between:

  • biodiversity and quality of life; and
  • biodiversity and it many economic benefits.

In addition its being undervalued, this contribution – particularly the economic contribution – is understudied. We need to know more these ecosystem services in order to make every provision for them to continue.

The reader interested in following this theme is referred to the following:

  • The Ecosystem Marketplace is “a leading source of news, data, and analytics on markets and payments for ecosystem services (such as water quality, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity)”. Visit
  • The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)
  • Find articles like “Markets and payments for environmental services” at, website of the International Institute for Environment and Development.
  • Find out about Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development. See
  • Listen to the excellent talk at – Pavan Sukhdev: Put a value on nature! The website reads: “Think of Pavan Sukhdev as nature’s banker – assessing the value of the Earth’s assets. Eye-opening charts will make you think differently about the cost of air, water, trees … Pavan Sukhdev [shows] that green economies are an effective engine for creating jobs and creating wealth”.

Biodiversity and South Africa

South Africa’s biomes – see here.

South Africa has a wide range of climatic conditions and many variations in topography (e.g. narrow coastal plain, steep escarpment, large plateau). In combination, climate and topography give rise to broad vegetation zones which, together with their associated animal life, are called biomes. These are the Succulent Karoo, Desert, Nama-Karoo, Fynbos, Forest, Grassland, Savanna, Albany Thicket and Indian Ocean Coastal Belt biomes. Each of these supports its own collection of plant and animal species. The Karoo, for example, is home to plants and animals well suited to hot, dry conditions such as the gemsbok and succulent plants. The fynbos biome is home to a variety of plants that are suited to a mediterranean climate and the poor soils of the south Western Cape.

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Biodiversity stewardship and agriculture

Biodiversity Stewardship is an opportunity for farmers/land owners to gain conservation recognition for land under their ownership. Agricultural activities continue, but with improved environmental practices in place. The farmer, recognised as the custodian of the land, can draw on the support and advice of conservation experts, and funding in some cases.

There are different Stewardship models:

  1. Conservation Area – there is no defined period of commitment here. It is seen as a more flexible arrangement. Conservancies are included in this category (see the conservancy page here).
  2. Conservation Easement/Conservation Servitude – this is a servitude registered on the property’s title deeds ensuring that particular parts of a farm are secured for conservation in perpetuity.
  3. Protected Environments are legally recognised contracts. This is often an option for landowners in areas buffering nature reserves or where their combined territory envelopes a self-contained ecosystem.
  4. Biodiversity Agreement – a legal agreement between landowners and the conservation agency to conserve biodiversity in the medium term.
  5. Nature Reserve – long term legally recognised contracts to protect biodiversity.

More information can be obtained from your provincial nature conservation agency (see later heading) or one of the other role players listed on this page.

Business and biodiversity

Over the past few years, conservationists worldwide have identified the need to “mainstream” biodiversity by integrating biodiversity conservation into systems where the primary focus is on production. In South Africa this has meant a growing engagement between the business and conservation sectors and the development of some innovative models of “biodiversity-friendly” business, mostly in agriculture.

Industries where business and biodiversity initiatives have become well established are the wine, fishing, honey, indigenous cutflower, sugar, rooibos tea and potato industries, with emerging initiatives in others like red meat, citrus and ostrich. Initiatives in these industries fit in at various stages along the value chain, and involve market mechanisms such as those depicted below. The commitments are referred to as “voluntary” in the sense that they are not legislated requirements or regulatory mechanisms.

voluntary producer commitmentseco-labelling / procurement advicevoluntary procurement commitmentsconsumer awareness campaigns

The major players in these initiatives are:

  • Conservation non-governmental organisations (NGOs) based in South Africa e.g. the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF SA) and the Landmark Foundation.
  • South Africa’s government and donor-funded bioregional conservation programmes
  • Industry role players from South African companies and multinationals represented in the country, as well as some of the major retailers
  • Landowners and producer associations who want to practice sustainable farming and conserve biodiversity on their land.

The costs of these initiatives and the biodiversity conservation measures they involve, while in some cases partially funded by donors, are increasingly being covered by the premium prices these producers are able to charge for their products in niche markets, sometimes overseas. They have achieved this through marketing their products as biodiversity-friendly, participating in labelling and certification schemes or working through international trade organisations that accredit producers.

National strategy and government contact

South Africa is finalising the adoption of the White Paper on Conservation and Sustainable Use of South Africa Biodiversity.

At present government runs several natural resource management programmes like Working for Water, Working for Wetlands, and LandCare. The New Growth Path, looking to create five-million new jobs by 2020, looks beyond these to the broader green economy where substantial opportunities exist for job creation, particularly in biodiversity, waste and natural resource management services.

National Government

A number of departments and agencies have responsibility for matters relating to biodiversity and agriculture, including the following:

  • Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment The National Biodiversity Economy Strategy is at the heart of promoting guardianship of wildlife within communities. Read more about this and other policies on the website.
  • Department of Water & Sanitation
  • Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD)


Provincial Government and Nature Conservation Bodies

Role players

Note: Click to expand the headings below.  To get a free listing on our website like the ones below, visit here for more information or place your order hereDisclaimer: The role player listings are not vetted by this website.

National Association of Conservancies and Stewardships of South Africa (NACSSA) – NACSSA fulfils a vital role in supporting and assisting the agricultural industry with respect to best land management practices. NACSSA’s vision is to promote stewardship of natural resources at a community level. All provinces have a link on the NACSSA website where contact details and news is posted.

Further reference:




School environmental programmes

  • Find details of the following above: African Conservation TrustCape Leopard TrustCheetah OutreachDelta Environmental CentreEndangered Wildlife Trust (EWT)Environmental Education Association of Southern Africa (EEASA)Intaka Island Environmental Education CentreLandmark FoundationLearning Through NatureNational Zoological GardensSANBI Biodiversity Education and Empowerment DivisionSEEDSouth African National Parks (SANParks), The University of the Western Cape (UWC)’s Nature Reserve, Wildlife and Environment Society SA , and Wild Serve.


Research and training

  • The Agricultural Research Council (ARC) undertakes a range of research activities with implications for biodiversity e.g. its Plant Protection Research campus is the custodian of the South African Rhizobium Culture Collection and the National Collections of Arachnids, Fungi, Insects and Nematodes.
  • Included in the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA)-accredited qualifications are various titles to do with biodiversity and natural resource management, like “Demonstrate an understanding of the basic concepts of sustainable farming systems”; “Understand how sustainable farming systems conserve natural resources”; and “Monitor natural resource management practices”. Find the links at

Biosystematic Research

Biosystematic research contributes towards meeting the State’s obligation to the requirements of the International Convention on Biological Diversity in discovering, describing and documenting the biodiversity of South Africa.

Natural Science Collections. The Natural History Collections in South Africa are among the most important and comprehensive biological and taxonomic reference resources of their kind in Africa. The collections are a priceless indigenous biological resource to enable scientists to address South Africa’s need for information on pest control, conservation and the sustainable use of advantageous organisms.

The maintenance, safeguarding and development of natural science collections and associated biological reference resources are of strategic importance to natural resource management and biodiversity conservation in South Africa.

Several national surveys are undertaken in the country:

  • Botanical survey
  • Bird atlasing
  • Retile atlasing
  • Butterfly Survey
  • South African National Survey of Arachnida
  • South African Plant Parasitic Nematode Survey
  • South African Alien Invasive Plant survey

SANBI, Natural Science Museums, Research Councils and universities undertake biosystematic research.


Parks and museums

Find a list of all South African parks at

 Save our rhinos. For tip-offs, please call 082 385 9812.


Some international role players

Websites and publications

Visit the websites listed earlier on this page.

  • Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF)
  • Several agricultural publications include guidelines on environmental stewardship, like SUSFARMS, the Sustainable Sugarcane Farm Management System, and Best practice reference manual for wool sheep farming in South Africa. Visit and respectively.
  • Visit the UCT Biodiversity and Development Institute’s Virtual Museum website at
  • For identifying plant, insects, birds etc:
  • Identify and learn our indigenous and invasive trees at
  • Species 360 –
  • – Africa Geographic is South Africa’s “leading wildlife and environmental magazine”. Visit the associated website for additional information not found in the magazine and for online shopping for books, videos and other wildlife/environment essentials.
  • – A site describing plants, vegetation types and the uses of South Africa plant species.
  • Read about bats at, website of Bat Conservation International.
  • The printed copy or the electronic version of, contains an encyclopaedia, a database of environmental and other organisations involved in sustainable development and more.
  • Find the many books available from Briza Publications –
  • Share-Net learning resources can be accessed on the LEARNING THROUGH NATURE website,
  • Find the Conservation Guidelines (downloadable as PDFs) on
  • Veld & Flora – the monthly journal of the Botanical Society. Call 021 797 2090.
  • Court D. 2010. Succulent Flora of Southern Africa. Cape Town: Struik Nature.
  • Harrison J. & Young, D. 2010. Farming for the future: farming sustainably with nature. Cape Town: Animal Demography Unit. This valuable resource can be downloaded.
  • Vlok J. & Schutte-Vlok A.L. 2010. Plants of the Klein Karoo. Hatfield: Umdaus Press.
  • Hallmann C.A., Sorg M., Jongejans E., Siepel H., Hofland N., Schwan H., et al. 2017. “More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas”. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0185809.
  • Garrow C. & Marr S. Swimming on the Edge of Extinction – The Perilous State of the Indigenous Fishes of the Western Cape. Order the book at or

Red Data Books (RDBs) and Red Lists are very useful tools and sources of information for use in species conservation. They are lists of threatened plants and animals specific to a certain region, and a vital source of information in guiding land-use decision making and conservation planning. South Africa has produced RDBs dealing with each of the following: birds, land mammals, fishes (fresh water and estuarine only), butterflies, plants, reptiles and amphibians. Read about the Threatened Species Programme at Find international information at


Some articles


The information under this heading, “Websites and publications” could be so extensive that it would not be helpful at all, and has been drastically shortened. The reader is encouraged to:

  • Google relevant words like “biodiversity”, “environment” and “ecosystem services”.
  • Refer to the “Websites and publications” heading in other articles in the “Natural Resource Management” section of this website.
  • Visit the websites of role players mentioned on this page.

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