Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation and Resource Area

Major Features

Cultural Importance

© Tony Weaver
© Tony Weaver
Ngwenya Mountain in Swaziland is the site of the world's oldest mine, the Lion Cavern where around 4100 BC haematite and specularite were mined for cosmetic and ritual uses. Also in Swaziland, near the proposed TFCA, archaeologists have made several interesting discoveries including a very early record of modern man dating back 110 000 years, as well as many Early and Middle Stone Age remains.
The development of the TFCA will also reunite the Tembe-Thonga people, who historically ruled over the entire area stretching southwards from Maputo Bay to Lake St.Lucia. Their kingdom was divided with the drawing of the Mozambique/South Africa border in 1875, but the people have remained united despite colonial rule and the Mozambican war (1975-1992). The development of the TFCA could go a long way towards restoring the integrity of the Tembe-Thonga people and facilitating cross-border social and cultural relations. The Tembe-Thonga also have a long history of cooperation and social integration with the Swazi. Oral history confirms similarity in custom and language as the result of a common ancestry shared by the Thonga and the Swazi. The Thonga have a very intimate relationship with the natural environment, relying heavily on natural resources for their subsistence. Various local rituals and ceremonies are indicative of this. Cultural manifestations include the famous fish kraals of Kosi Bay, the marula fruit festival, thrust basket (isifonyo) fishing and the extensive palm wine trade, which extents the borders of South Africa and Mozambique.

Geographic Description

Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation and Resource Area includes five distinct transfrontier conservation areas between Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland, covering a total area of 10 029 km².
The largest section of the proposed TFCA consists of a flat, low-level coastal plain with a maximum elevation of about 150 m. Along the western border of the coastal plain, the Lebombo Mountains rise to a maximum elevation of 600 m. On the eastern side of the coastal plain, the sea is bounded by a ridge of vegetated dunes which rises to almost 200 m in KwaZulu-Natal (possibly the tallest vegetated dunes in the world).
The climate is tropical/subtropical with no frost. Mist occurs on the Lebombo Mountains and on the plains it occurs when an inversion layer forms in winter. Most of the area is relatively arid and most of the rain falls during the summer months of October-March. The annual rainfall is just over 1 000mm along the coast and decreases progressively inland to 500 - 600 mm on the plains below the Lebombo Mountains in the west. The Lebombo Mountains themselves have 800 - 1 000 mm annual precipitation. The temperatures and humidity are both high. The annual average temperature range on the coast at Tembe is an 8°C minimum and 34°C maximum while further inland at Ndumo the minimum is 17°C and the maximum 28°C.
Several large rivers cross this region, including the Usutu and Pongola. The Futi River, a seasonal river, which is marshland for most of the year forms a potential western boundary for the Futi corridor.
The coastal plains of northern KwaZulu-Natal, which are continuous with the proposed TFCA contain several large wetlands. They include five Ramsar sites: Ndumo Game Reserve, Kosi Bay System, Lake Sibaya, the Turtle Beeches and Coral Reefs of Tongaland and Lake St. Lucia, which at 350 km² is the largest estuary in Africa. Within Mozambique, there are coastal lakes and pans, which would also qualify as Ramsar sites following Mozambique's ratification of the convention.

Biophysical Features

The Lebombo Mountains are formed by rhyolite lavas, which are resistant to erosion while the rest of the coastal plain consists of softer cretaceous to recent marine sediments. Infertile, recent red and grey aeolian sands cover most of the area. Fertile clay alluvium is found in the flood plains of the larger rivers.


The vegetation of the Lubombo TFCA falls within the savanna biome, and consists primarily of Sub-humid Lowveld Bushveld and Natal Lowveld Bushveld, with limited Coastal Bushveld Grassland.
Along the coast, the remaining forest patches are characterised by species such as: forest iron plum Drypetes gerrardii, umzimbeet Millettia grandis, white ironwood Vepris undulata, red beech Protorhus longifolia, Natal mahogany Trichilia emetica, wild silver oak Brachylaena spp., white stinkwood Celtis spp., thorny elm Chaetacme aristata and red milkwood Mimusops obovata. These forest patches are also characterised by a large number of species of woody lianas. Much closer to the seashore, evergreen thicket occurs on littoral dunes. On the seaward side, the canopy exhibits the typical clipped appearance of wind pruning as a result of constant exposure to salt-laden easterly winds. Typical canopy species are: coast red milkwood Mimusops caffra, dune jackal-berry Diospyros rotundifolia, natal guarri Euclea natalensis, coast silver oak Brachylaena discolor and white pear Apodytes dimidiata. Secondary woody vegetation is patchy and often characterised by sweet thorn Acacia karroo together with scented thorn A. nilotica and splendid thorn A. robusta. The grassy matrix includes species such as ngongoni bristlegrass Aristida junciformis, Eragrostis spp., Sporobolus spp., Hyparrhenia spp., Digitaria spp., Setaria spp. and occasionally redgrass Themeda triandra. The vegetation often has a shrubby appearance, due to many dwarf geoxylophytes, including Diospyros galpinii, dwarf mobola Pirinari capensis subsp. incohata, veined medlar Pachstigma venosum, Eugenia albanensis, E. capensis, Ancylobotrys petersiana and wild lemon bush Salacia kraussii. Locally, at swampy localities in northern KwaZulu-Natal, the illala palm< em>Hyphaene coriacea, is very prominent.
Sub-humid Lowveld Bushveld is a dense bushveld related to forest, composed of large trees with a dense shrub layer. The principal trees are flat crown Albizia adianthifolia, largeleaf falsethorn A. versicolor, knob thorn Acacia nigrescens, marula Sclerocarya birrea subsp. caffra, buffalo-thorn Ziziphus mucronata, sickle bush Dichrostachys cinerea subsp. africana, red spike-thorn Maytenus senegalensis, weeping boer-bean Schotia brachypetala, common wild pear Dombeya rotundifolia, weeping wattle Peltophorum africanum, tamboti Spirostachys africana and blue guarri Euclea crispa subsp. crispa. The dominant shrubs are giant raisin Grewia hexamita, small-leaf white crossberry G. tenax and pride-of-de Kaap Bauhinia galpinii. The grass layer is poorly developed and the following species can be found: guinea grass Panicum maximum, broadleaf panicum P. deustum, pinhole grass Bothriochloa insculpta, love grass Eragrostis superba, three awned rolling grass Aristida bipartita, Cymbopogon excavatus and dropseed Sporobolus fimbriatus.
In the west, the Natal Lowveld Bushveld is a mix of scrub and savanna. The most common tree species include umbrella thorn Acacia tortillis, sweet thorn Acacia karroo, red bushwillow Combretum apiculatum, shepards tree Boscia albitrunca, bush guarri Euclea schimperi, wild olive Olea europaea subsp. africana, weeping boer-bean Schotia brachypetala, Euphorbia spp. and tamboti Spirostachys africana. The grasses spreading pricklegrass Aristida congesta subsp. barbicollis and pinhole grass Bothriochloa insculpta occur in areas of severe disturbance. Where disturbance is less severe, grass species such as redgrass Themeda triandra and spear grass Heteropogon contortus dominate.
Still further west, beyond the Lebombo Mountains there is Sweet Lowveld Bushveld, which comprises an open tree savanna. Mixed bushveld is found still further west and varies from an open tree savanna to dense bush on the uplands.
The proposed park comprises the core of the Maputaland Centre of Endemism, one of three such centres in the diverse Maputaland-Pondoland Regional Mosaic. The vegetation consists of a complex mosaic of savanna, forest and grassland and swamp communities. The edaphic conditions determine the vegetation type and at least 21 ecosystems are recognised in the Maputaland Centre, 15 of which occur in the South African portion of this proposed TFCA. On the Mozambican side the vegetation is in very good condition as a result of depopulation. Most of the area is a sandy plain covered with grasslands with patches of swamp forest in moist areas, sand forest on ancient inland dunes and dune forest along the coast, including some areas of tall coastal forest. There are also floodplain and pan systems.
The Maputaland Centre contains at least 2 500 plant species and as the area is under- explored this number could be as high as 3 000. At least 203 of these species / infraspecific taxa are endemic or near endemic to this centre and this number is also likely to rise. Furthermore, three genera Brachychloa, Galpinia and Helichrysopsis are endemic to this centre. The six families with the largest number of endemics are Asclepiadaceae (13) Rubiaceae (12), Liliaceae (12), Acanthaceae (11) and Compositae (10).
Some of these endemics are widespread while others appear to be highly localized. Most of the endemics are perennial herbs, shrubs and trees and many are found on sandy substrates, particularly sand forests. Sand forest is perhaps the most distinctive community found in this centre and is a dense, dry semi-deciduous forest which is associated with ancient dunes which run north south, supposedly along old shore lines. These areas are particularly rich in woody taxa such as the Swazi ordeal tree Erythrophleum lasianthum. Important species include Lebombo wattle Newtonia hildebrantii, false tamboti Cleistanthus schlechteri, Zulu podberry Dialium schlecteri and stink bushwillow Pteleopsis myrtifolia.


This proposed TFCA will be particularly important for elephant conservation as Tembe with 180 animals and Maputo Special Reserve with 200 animals are the only indigenous populations on the coastal plain of southern Mozambique and KwaZulu-Natal in protected areas. All other elephant in protected areas in KwaZulu-Natal have been reintroduced from other areas. The proposed TFCA would link these small, isolated herds through the Futi Corridor. Creation of the TFCA would also considerably increase the area available for the elephant and would allow access to the fertile Maputo River floodplain, re-establishing traditional seasonal migrations between this area and the infertile sand forests.
Both black and white rhino occur on the southern side of the border in South Africa, as do hippopotami and crocodiles. Other Red Data Book species that occur in the region include samango monkey, suni and red duiker. Leopard and serval are already present, and the area lends itself to re-introduction of cheetah as has already been done in the Hlane Reserve in Swaziland.

If the flood plains of the Maputo River in Mozambique are available, then more buffalo and hippo should be re-introduced. Ungulates found originally in this area include tsessebe, zebra, blue wildebeest, reedbuck, roan, sable, oribi, waterbuck, eland, kudu, impala, bushbuck, steenbok, suni, nyala and grey and red duiker. Giraffe and many of the other ungulates already occur in the existing protected areas.

In Swaziland hippopotamus, warthog, kudu, Burchell's zebra, impala, waterbuck, bushbuck, nyala, common duiker, red duiker, steenbok, blue wildebeest, mountain reedbuck, eland, Sharp's grysbok, leopard and spotted hyena are already present. White rhinocerous, giraffe and cheetah have already been re-introduced, and further introductions are planned.

As is the case with the flora, the Maputaland Centre is a zone of sharp transition between east and southern African fauna and therefore contains an exceptional number of species. It also has a number of endemics in its own right and coincides with the southern part of the south-east coast endemic bird area. Of the more than 427 bird species found in this region, 4 species and 43 subspecies are endemic/near endemic to the Maputaland Centre of Endemism. These endemics include Neergaards sunbird. Indeed, in the small Ndumo Game Reserve 416 species have been recorded including the pinkthroated twinspot, greencapped eremomela, yellowspotted nicator, broadbilled roller, Pel's fishing owl, brownheaded parrot and southern banded snake eagle. Another important bird species is the southern bald ibis, which is found in the Hlane Reserve in Swaziland, and is listed as rare in the Red Data Book.
The extensive beaches along this coast are a very important nesting ground for loggerhead and leatherback turtles. The area is also very rich in invertebrates, which are very poorly studied.

Global Importance

This area is one of the most striking areas of biodiversity globally and lies within the Maputaland Centre of Endemism. It contains exceptionally high numbers of species and is a zone of marked transition. It represents the southernmost extent of the East African flora and fauna and the northernmost extent of many southern African species. It also contains many endemics in its own right, which are spread over the whole taxonomic spectrum.
The coastal plains of northern KwaZulu-Natal, which are continuous with the TFCA, contain several large wetlands. They include five Ramsar sites: Ndumo Game Reserve, Kosi Bay System, Lake Sibaya, the Turtle Beeches and Coral Reefs of Tongaland and Lake St. Lucia, which at 350 km² is the largest estuary in Africa.
The establishment of the TFCA is a cornerstone to the consolidation of the last naturally occurring elephant populations of KwaZulu-Natal and southern Mozambique, which historically moved freely across the border. However, during the Mozambican war (1975-1992) these elephants suffered greatly from setting off landmines and getting caught in snares set for smaller game. In a bid to safeguard them, the northern border of Tembe Elephant Park was fenced in 1989. Unfortunately, this move cut the elephant population in half. The establishment of the TFCA will reunite this elephant population and open up old movement, which includes those along the Futi system and Rio Maputo floodplains.