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Wild biodiversity

The wide range of biomes and habitats in southern Africa yield a spectacular array of wildlife. The term 'wildlife' really comes to much the same thing as 'wild biodiversity' yet it has tended to be used more for the life one encounters in conservation areas such as national parks. Wild biodiversity is about all forms of life from bacteria through to lions that are encountered in natural, rather than human-made, habitats.

The three main wild biodiversity realms

There is a relatively sharp division between the life found on land (terrestrial biodiversity) and the life found in our oceans (marine biodiversity). For instance among the arthropods, the crustaceans dominate in the oceans whereas the insects dominate on land. Among plant-like forms, there are the seaweeds in the oceans and the seed plants on land. In-between these two extremes is the freshwater biodiversity in rivers and lakes. Some insects, such as dragonflies, have immature stages that live in freshwater and adults stages that live on land, so the interface between freshwater and land is not as sharp as between seawater and land.  


Coast at Kleinmond, Western Cape

Marine biodiversity

There are over 10 000 species of marine plants and animals around the coast of southern Africa, constituting about 15% of the coast marine species known worldwide. Part of the reason for this high diversity is that the west, south and east coasts of southern Africa experience different currents and water temperatures, resulting in three main biodiversity 'provinces'. In addition, off shore there are the pelagic species living in the surface waters where there is light penetration, and the deep benthic species living in subdued to dark conditions on the ocean floor and relying mainly on organic matter coming down from above. 


Gamkarivier, Gamkaskloof

Freshwater biodiversity

Freshwater is a great limiting factor within southern Africa. Most of the region is arid and many rivers and lakes are ephemeral in nature. Some organisms are specially adapted to these ephemeral systems, being able to go into aestivation during the dry periods. However, there are also substantial perennial rivers, streams and lakes as well as man-made dams, and these systems yield a rich array of organisms. Disruption of the ecology of the organisms in these systems through pollution, siltation or nutrient loading, can have a devastating effect on the health of these systems, which impacts directly on supply of freshwater to human populations. 


Swartberg, Gamkaskloof

Terrestrial biodiversity

Diversity of topography, geology, soils, moisture and temperature within southern Africa yields an impressive diversity of life adapted for life on land. Southern Africa is one of the most botanically rich regions in the world with  the fynbos, succulent karoo and being particularly rich in endemic species. Woodland and subtropical elements extend into southern Africa from further north and yield a diverse assemblage of plants and animals that can be observed in famous tourist destinations such as the Kruger National Park. 

About wild biodiversity

The term 'wild biodiversity' is used here in a loose sense to refer to biodiversity that one encounters in natural habitats. This is to distinguish it from other sections of Biodiversity Explorer that deal with biodiversity we encounter in man-made habitats such as cities, towns, gardens and farms.  Hence wild biodiversity makes up the vast majority of life forms in a region like southern Africa yet most people spend so little time in natural habitats that it is the least encountered form of biodiversity. Hopefully the information presented here will encourage you to explore wild biodiversity by getting out into the country and observing what is around you. 

There is obviously overlap between the biodiversity in natural areas and that in man-made habitats yet many people are now living in urban habitats that have little vegetation in them and from which wild biodiversity is excluded through use of pesticides or through the insidious effect of pollutants. Hopefully with time we will see the errors of our ways by reverting back to making the habitats we live in more suitable for other forms of life that we can enjoy. Some people are already doing this through growing indigenous plants in their gardens and avoiding the use of pesticides.   

The term 'wildlife' really comes to much the same thing as 'wild biodiversity' yet it has tended to be used more for the life one encounters in conservation areas such as national parks. Hence 'wildlife' often conjures up visions of animals like lions that can eat you unless you are sitting safely inside your car. Wild biodiversity is about all forms of life from bacteria through to lions. While you can't see bacteria directly unless you have a high powered microscope, you can see their effects through the diseases they cause in other organisms or through the symbiotic relations they have with other organisms. As an example of the latter, most termite species are dependent on bacteria to turn plant cellulose into substances that can be easily digested. Without such bacteria there would be no termites and none of the large diversity of organisms that depend on termites. So when we see an organism like a termite, it leads to a whole cascading series of relationships with other organisms. In Biodiversity Explorer we try to link in to these other relationships and show how all of life on earth is linked in some way or other.  

All forms of biodiversity including us humans were once 'wild'. Over thousands of years, we have become domesticated in our ways by domesticating a narrow range of wildlife that can provide us with food and security (see other sections of Biodiversity Explorer, accessible from the home page, that deal with domesticated forms). However, the process of domestication has not stopped. There are many plants and animals that are currently in the process of being domesticated. The Ostrich and the Marula tree come to mind as examples. 

We are also still very dependent on wild biodiversity. For instance, most of the medicines we use are derived from chemicals extracted from organisms in the wild (mainly plants but also some animals, fungi and bacteria). Most of the fish we eat is derived from wild stock. We also depend on wild habitats, in particular forests, to regulate the earth's atmosphere. We are currently entering a crisis situation of where humans are shunting huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (mainly through the burning of fossil fuels) and plants are not managing to keep up through the photosynthetic process of converting atmospheric carbon into solid carbon that makes up wood and leaves. As a result of this excess carbon in the atmosphere, global warming is happening, which is changing sea levels, rainfall patterns and many other phenomena. Besides causing the extinction of many species, global warming will disrupt many human communities and cause suffering, death and destruction. For the sake of our own survival, we cannot afford to destroy natural habitats on earth that play this pivotal role and we also need to live more responsible, less resource consuming, life styles. Our oceans also play a pivotal role in regulating the earth's atmosphere and we also need to ensure that they are kept healthy.

Besides the fact that we are dependent on wild biodiversity, we also need to develop a respect for life forms other than our own. We have no right to destroy other species of life on earth. It sounds clichéd but just as we do need to learn to live in harmony with ourselves, we need to learn to live in harmony with nature - our survival and quality of life depends upon it!

Where to explore wild biodiversity in southern Africa

This section of Biodiversity Explorer is still in its infancy. It focuses mainly on conservation areas such as nature reserves and national parks but sometimes it goes beyond this to feature unprotected areas that offer interesting experiences of the life around us.


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