Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, in the heart of the arid Little Karoo, is one of South Africa’s largest privately-owned reserves- sprawling across 58 000ha of diverse landscape. The name “Sanbona” is a recognition of the San, the original indigenous people who wandered this area for thousands of years and “bona” meaning ‘’to see’’ which represents their vision of the Little Karoo.
In the Western Cape, and particularly in the Klein Karoo where Sanbona Wildlife Reserve is located, the provincial authority’s focus where formally protected areas are concerned is the conservation of biodiversity. It’s 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. The vision for Sanbona is to create a reserve on land that has been reclaimed and returned to its most natural possible state.
The significance of a nature reserve dedicated to conservation in a region where the natural vegetation has been, and continues to be, transformed by agriculture, cannot be understated. Rehabilitated to a more ‘natural’ state, it allows the reintroduction of animal species with the focus on those that, now rare and endangered, had been historically eradicated. There’s an important story to hear, one of wildlife and indigenous people. Telling this story builds an awareness of the need to conserve a heritage in danger of being lost forever.
Recreating a landscape, filled with endemic species, which supports life and which, through time and careful management, will recover its ancient magnificence. Today, the reserve bears little resemblance to the farms that once enclosed this part of the Klein Karoo. Since 2002, the transformation of the lands has included the slow process of recreating an ecosystem as close as possible to the way it’s thought to have been 300 years ago, giving visitors a vision of the Klein Karoo that its early San inhabitants would recognise. To this end, there’s an ongoing process of restoring the region’s biodiversity through rehabilitation and restoration, and the reintroduction of animal species, which, long extinct locally, are known to have once roamed freely among the San. In fact, Sanbona made history following the successful reintroduction of large free-roaming and self-sustaining herbivores like elephant, rhino, buffalo and giraffe, and predators such as lion, cheetah and hyena.
Sanbona has signed a Stewardship Agreement with CapeNature, the provincial conservation authority. This agreement entails that Sanbona will be managed under strict conservation ethics, ensuring Provincial Nature Reserve status with an annually audited Reserve Management Plan.
Strategically situated in the transitional area between the Cape Floristic Region and the Succulent Karoo, conservation at Sanbona is critical. The reserve’s wildlife department is continuously and actively involved in various internal monitoring and research projects, which aim to rehabilitate and restore degraded ecosystems. It creates sustainable natural ecosystems using sound conservation principles, and maintains, restores and protects natural systems across various types of land use.
The Klein Karoo is remarkably rich in plant species. Almost 3 200 have been recorded of which more than 400 are endemic. The Warmwaterberg Mountains create a rain shadow on Sanbona that’s apparent in the reserve’s vegetation, which consists of two biomes: Fynbos and Succulent Karoo.
The Fynbos Biome comprises the greatest concentration of higher plant species in the world, outside the tropics. Only 9% of the biome is formally protected, while less than 5% of renosterveld, an associated vegetation type, falls within protected areas. The Fynbos Biome takes its name from fynbos which, with small leaved, evergreen shrubs, is the region’s dominant vegetation and its regeneration is intimately related to fire. This biome comprises three quite different vegetation types, of which renosterveld is one. Renosterveld is the second most extensive vegetation type at Sanbona and makes up around 17 000ha of the reserve. Regrettably less than 1% of Renosterveld is formally protected.
The Succulent Karoo is a semi-arid, Mediterranean-type climatic area which, in the southern part of its distribution, separates the more mesic Fynbos Biome from the arid, summer-rainfall interior. Trees and tall shrubs are sparse in the Succulent Karoo, whose most distinctive characteristic is the presence of succulents, which are plants able to store water by having thick, fleshy leaves or stems. The vegetation is dominated by dwarf, succulent shrubs, of which Mesembryanthemums, or vygies, and Crassula are particularly prominent.
Within the Succulent Karoo, quartz outcrops form distinct microhabitats. Dominated by regional endemics, they’re classified as Little Karoo Quartz Vygieveld. Within these outcrops, the succulent species may differ due to the difference in the underlying soils.
Unique Rock Formations
While the big five – lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo and rhino – are the heavyweights of a tourist’s wildlife experience, birds, reptiles, diverse landscapes, geology, San rock paintings, fossils and the fragile beauty of the vegetation are part of Sanbona Wildlife Reserve’s allure. The Warmwaterberg Mountains bisect the reserve. They comprise the oldest geological formation on Sanbona and are part of the Table Mountain group.
Archaeologists have unearthed the tools of early Stone Age hunter-gatherers – the region’s earliest inhabitants – indicating that the region, including what is now called Sanbona, supported Homo sapiens more than 500 000 years ago. Continental collisions, the submergence of the earth's crust and the cataclysmic influence of the oceans have all contributed to the dramatic landscape showcasing untainted views of the unique Cape Fold Mountain rock formations. The geology consists of sedimentary formations of the Devonian era, the beginning of life on earth and trace fossils of various marine invertebrates have been found.
Riverine Rabbit and the Wilderness Area
The riverine rabbit is endemic to South Africa. Nocturnal, it’s also one of the most rare, most elusive and most difficult of any mammal species to conserve. By the mid 1980s, approximately 65% of its habitat had been lost.
In 2003, a surprise discovery near Touwsrivier was its first recorded sighting in fynbos south of the Great Escarpment. In July 2006, after one was discovered at Sanbona, a survey conducted by Sanbona, CapeNature and the Endangered Wildlife Trust revealed five more in the renosterveld of the reserve’s southern section. Today, Sanbona is one of only a few private protected areas in South Africa with a population of riverine rabbits. Their existence on the reserve makes Sanbona a major role-player in its preservation.
The Wilderness area spans across thousands of hectares of untouched natural landscape situated in the south west of the reserve easily identified by its mountainous topography. Without the presence of infrastructure, this area exists in a completely natural state, managed under strict wilderness protocols.