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by Mandy Rutherford

Sanbona Wildlife Reserve is more than just the Western Cape’s best wildlife reserve. Home to so much more than just free-roaming plains game and predators, it sprawls across 62 000 hectares of arid Klein Karoo landscape.  Bisected by the towering Warmwaterberg mountains, this mountain range creates a rain shadow on Sanbona which supports vegetation consisting of two distinct biomes, each of them a globally recognised biodiversity hotspot: Fynbos and Succulent Karoo.



This area once supported herds of elephant, black rhino and Cape buffalo as well as a number of smaller mammal species. It not only has the highest diversity of succulent plants in the world but is also the most species-rich semi-desert on the planet. The Succulent Karoo is one of only two arid zones to have been declared a biodiversity hotspot as 40% of the plant species found here occur no where else on the planet. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has identified that our own Succulent Karoo is the perfect candidate to be declared an Unesco World Heritage Site, as it is the “most biologically diverse arid area in the world”.



The Little or Klein Karoo is remarkably rich in plant species. The number of plant species, mostly succulents, is unparalleled in the world for an arid area of this size. There are no less than 1 600 succulent species in this biome, an amazing 16% of the world’s estimated 10 000 succulents! The biome is home to 6 356 plant species, 17% (936) of which are listed in the Red Data Book, the world’s most comprehensive inventory of threatened species.


Trees and tall shrubs are sparse in the Succulent Karoo. The vegetation is dominated by dwarf succulent shrubs of which Mesembryanthemums, or vygies, and Crassula are particularly prominent. To the North of the Warmwaterberg mountains on Sanbona, where the average annual rainfall drops to only 150mm, the vegetation shifts to the more arid Succulent Karoo, which consists of the Western Little Karoo type as well as Little Karoo Quartz Vygieveld.


Climatic conditions have forced the plants to evolve in order to survive, either by developing water-storage capabilities or by being able to bury themselves in soil to minimise water loss, absorbing sunlight for photosynthesis through transparent windows at soil level; or by adopting extremely short life cycles completed within one growing season.

There are also geophytes, which are plants that have developed bulbs as storage organs, and they comprise no less than 18% of the flora in the Succulent Karoo. It is said that the most prolific bulbous flora on earth occur here, many of them spectacularly beautiful.

Oddly, only 7.8% of the Succulent Karoo is formally protected. In the Western Cape, and particularly where Sanbona Wildlife Reserve is located, the provincial authority’s focus where formally protected areas are concerned is the conservation of biodiversity. It is a policy that sets out to conserve critically endangered vegetation types and protect the region’s vital mountain catchments, its unique wealth of species and surviving pockets of intact systems where human encroachment has been, or is, a threat. Sanbona creates and preserves these sustainable natural ecosystems using sound conservation principles and it maintains, restores and protects natural systems across various types of land using the income generated by nature-based tourism.

Sanbona Wildlife Reserve is situated between the small, historic towns of Montagu and Barrydale on the edge of the R62 highway – also the world’s longest wine route. It is perfect for a short bush break or as part of a much needed post-lockdown road trip.

To book, or find out more:  |  |  +27 (0) 21 010 0028

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