Natural Vegetation


Natural or indigenous vegetation refers to the plant life found in an area before humans changed the area through activities such as farming, mining or urban development. South Africa has over 20 000 species of indigenous plants. Endemic vegetation is plant life that is only found in certain areas and nowhere else in the world. More than 11 000 species of endemic plants grow in South Africa.

Forest Ferns
Indigenous Fynbos

Different plants are suited to growing in different areas, depending on the climate and soil. Many plants have adapted to the climate in the area in which they grow.

As natural vegetation serves as a food source for wild animals, different species of wildlife prefer different types of vegetation, and so these species of wildlife are found in different vegetation regions.

Sheep and Goat Farming
in Nama Karoo

Zebra and Wildebeest
in the Savannah

Natural Vegetation Regions of South Africa

There are nine main natural vegetation regions in South Africa, just as there are different climate regions. These regions are also known as biomes and are grouped according to the natural vegetation found in the area. The vegetation regions correspond quite closely with the climate regions, as rainfall and climate influence the natural vegetation that grows in an area.

The natural vegetation and climate also influence the type of farming practised in the biome.

The map below shows the nine main vegetation regions / biomes of South Africa.

Nama Karoo

This is a vast region found in the inland central plateau and covers most of the Northern Cape.

The Nama Karoo is an arid region with some summer rainfall. Water is scarce, so boreholes are often found here. Summers are hot, and winters are cold with frost.

The natural vegetation comprises of plants that do not need a lot of water, low shrubs and grasses, such as threethorn, bitterbos and sweet thorn (acacia karroo).

Wildlife includes the bat-eared fox, springbok, ostrich, tortoise, brown locust and the riverine rabbit.

Economic activity is sheep and goat farming, as the grasses provide good grazing, as well as mining.

Ostrich in Nama Karoo
Borehole in Nama Karoo

Succulent Karoo

This is an area found along South Africa’s west coast, covering the western part of the Western Cape and the south-western part of the Northern Cape and inland towards the Little Karoo.

The summers are very hot with little rain. There is low winter rainfall, and fog is common along the coastline.

The natural vegetation consists of succulent plants that store water in their leaves and stems, such as vygies, crassulas, quiver trees and spring flowers, such as daisies. Many endemic plant species grow here.

Wildlife includes the bat-eared fox, the meerkat, the barking gecko, as well as invertebrates. There are also many species of insects.

The soil is infertile and is unsuitable for large-scale farming.

Economic activities include fishing, ostrich farming and tourism as there is a floral abundance in spring in the Namaqualand area. There is some mining in the north.

Bat-Eared Fox in the Succulent Karoo
Namaqualand Flowers


Grasslands cover the high central plateau of South Africa, including the Highveld, the inland areas of KwaZulu-Natal and the mountainous areas of the Eastern Cape province.

The area is a summer rainfall region, with rainfall varying between 400 mm and 2000 mm from place to place. Winters are cold, often with frost.

Grasses dominate the vegetation, and there are very few trees, which are usually found in hilly areas or along riverbeds.  A variety of vegetation such as grasses (rooigras), bushes and small flowering plants, such as arum lilies, orchids and aloes grow here.

Wildlife found in the grassland region includes grass-eating herbivores, such as rhinoceros, giraffe, antelope and elephants, as well as birds such as the blue crane and the helmeted guinea fowl. The diverse variety of plants provides food for plant-eating insects, like ants, crickets, butterflies and grasshoppers.

Economic activities include hunting and tourism. There are many game farms, as well as crop (mainly maize) and livestock farming, as the grazing is good.

Aloe Plants



Elephants in the Kruger Park


Protea Flower

The Fynbos is a Mediterranean rainfall region (rain throughout the year), found exclusively in the south-western and southern parts of the Western Cape province. The area forms part of the Cape Floral Kingdom, one of only six ‘Floral Kingdoms’ in the world and the only one contained in a single country.

Fynbos is a natural shrub found in this area. The word ‘Fynbos is Afrikaans for ‘fine bush’ because the plants have small, fine leaves.

Summers are hot and dry, and boreholes are used for irrigation. Winters are cold and wet.

Plants that grow well in this climate and are therefore found in this region include proteas, ericas, restiros and bulbs. Evergreen shrubs grow here, but not many trees or grasses. The plants are well-adapted to survive the dry summers.

Nearly 9000 species of flowering plants grow in this region. It is one of the most distinct and diverse floras in the world, with 68% of plants being endemic.

Wildlife includes the Cape sugarbird, the leopard and the geometric tortoise, as well as many other bird species, insects and small mammals.

Economic activity in the region includes fruit farming, mostly grapes (to produce wine), as the soil is fertile, as well as other agricultural products like flowers, olives and wheat. The best wines are produced in this region. The area is also a major tourist destination.

Vineyards in the Western Cape

Albany Thicket

This region has a dense canopy of large evergreen shrubs and low trees, with some grasses between the clumps of thicket.

One of the most dominant vegetation species found here is the speekboom (porkbush succulent).

This biome is found in the Eastern Cape, mainly large river valleys extending north-west into the valleys of the Cape Fold Mountains.

There are two near-endemic species of birds found in the region, the orange-breasted sunbird and the Cape siskin, as well as six endemic species of reptiles. Many antelope inhabit this biome – bushbuck, mountain reedbuck, eland and kudu.

Porkbush Succulent 
Wikimedia Creative Commons,
Attribution Share-Alike: Forest and Kim Starr



Forests are areas that have trees growing closely together. Forests are mainly found in the rain throughout the year region but are also located in the summer rainfall region. Forests are spread in small patches across South Africa and cover less than 1% of the area of the country, and are therefore are the smallest biome in the country.

Forests grow mainly in frost-free areas in Knysna (the Kynsna Forest and the Tsitsikamma Forest along the Garden Route), KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga provinces, where the rainfall is high. Some forest areas have all year rain, while other forest areas receive only winter rain.

Vegetation in the forest biome includes evergreen trees such as yellowwood and stinkwood, as well as creepers, vines, ferns, mosses and orchids in the shade of the huge trees. Some areas are more ‘thicket’ than forest and consist of shrubs and succulent plants. In the north-east, the forests are subtropical forests, rather than evergreen, with palm trees and mixed grasslands.

There is lots of birdlife in forests, for example, the Knysna loerie, pigeons and eagles. A variety of insects and mammals, such as monkeys live here.

Economic activity includes forestry and tourism.

Stinkwood Tree
Knysna Loerie


The harsh desert biome is found in a small strip to the north-west of South Africa, on the border with Namibia, mainly in the lower Orange River Valley, within the Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. This region has more extreme conditions than the Nama Karoo and the Succulent Karoo. Annual rainfall does not exceed 80 mm and can vary from year to year.

Vegetation includes annual plants such as grasses, which appear after rain on the desert plains. However, when there is limited rainfall, the plains are bare, and no vegetation grows. Some drought-resistant shrubs grow in the desert. Nearer the coast, the moisture of the fog brings more vegetation. 

Many insects inhabit the area, as well as wild horses, duiker, steenbok, klipspringer, kudu, leopard and zebra.

Wild Horse in Richtersveld


The savannah is the largest natural vegetation region in Southern Africa, and it covers over one-third of South Africa. Savannah is found in the north of the country, spread across the Lowveld and the Kalahari region, as well as the Northern Cape, the North-West Province, Limpopo, northern Mpumalanga and the inland areas of KwaZulu-Natal.

The area is a summer rainfall region with hot temperatures, thunderstorms, and hail in summer. Winters are cold with very little rain and often frost.

The natural vegetation is wooded grassland with a grassy ground layer and an upper layer of woody plants. Tall and short grass, rooigras, trees such as baobab, mopane, camel thorn, knob thorn and monkey thorn grow here.

Wildlife that live in the area includes lion, buffalo, cheetah, elephant, giraffe and zebra, as well as birdlife.

Economic activity is maize farming, livestock farming and tourism, especially from game reserves.

Mopane Tree
Cheetah in the Savannah

Indian Ocean Coastal Belt

This biome is found in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, from sea level to an altitude of 600 m. It extends from Cape St Francis in the south, to Cape St Lucia in the north. The belt ranges in width from 35 km wide in the north to less than 10 km wide in the south. The foothills of the Drakensberg escarpment form the inland boundary of the region.

The area consists of forest and grassland with some dense savannah vegetation. The vegetation is found on beaches, coastal dunes and cliffs, and in open grassy areas.

The area experiences rain throughout the year with very hot summers and mild winters.

Wildlife found in the region includes endemic species of amphibians, twenty-three species of bat, rodents, insects, hares and rabbits. 

KwaZulu-Natal Dune Forest
Wikimedia Creative Commons,
Attribution Share-Alike: M Purves


Activity 1

Natural Vegetation Regions of South Africa

Activity 2

Matching Vegetation Regions

Activity 3

Savannah Grasslands

Conduct research on the Savannah grasslands of South Africa and describe the following:

  1. Location

  2. Climate

  3. Natural Vegetation

  4. Wildlife


Activity 4

Vegetation in Your Area
  1. Describe the natural vegetation found in the area where you live and state which vegetation region in South Africa it falls into.

  2. What has impacted or changed the natural vegetation in your area?

  3. Describe the climate in your area.

  4. Give two examples of how natural vegetation in your area has adapted to the climate.