Course:CONS200/2021/The impact of Climate Change on South African National Parks

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Climate change is expected to have a multitude of negative impacts on South African National Parks. The National Parks in South Africa come in both terrestrial (National Parks) and marine forms (Marine Protected Areas) that collectively host a very diverse range of wildlife and vegetation. Four major themes that have been identified in the literature related to the impacts of climate change in South African National Parks. That is, the impacts related to the terrestrial animals and vegetation that occupy and are protected by national parks, the marine flora and fauna found in Marine Protected Areas, and the effects of climate change on tourism as it relates to National Parks and Marine Protected Areas.

Climate change has increased the temperatures in South African National Parks, leading to more droughts which negatively affect terrestrial animals' food resources, and lead to changes in migration patterns. Increased temperatures have also affected the abilities of reproductive behaviors, leading to some species’ slow decline. The vegetation in South Africa is another essential component of the biodiversity within protected national parks. Throughout terrestrial national parks there are 7 biomes: grasslands, savannah, thicket, forest, nama karoo, succulent karoo, and fynbos[1]. Over the years climate change will negatively impact these unique biomes with increasing numbers of floods, droughts and fires[2]. There are a total of 41 marine protected areas (MPAs) in South Africa[3]. The goal of MPAs is to protect marine ecosystems and biodiversity from human impacts [3]. They range in protection from ‘no-take’ zones to ‘controlled zones’ that can be fished within certain constraints (e.g. quotas) [3]. Although historically these protected areas have successfully helped protect some of the threatened species that occupy them, climate change is likely to shift the population distribution and migration patterns of many species such that they will become increasingly threatened from fishing, shipping and natural resource extraction activities happening near or along South Africa’s coastline [3].For South Africa, climate change also has major implications on the tourism industry, which is a major driver of economic development and the funding of National Parks and Marine Protected Areas. Consequently, tourism planning policies which can adapt to a changing climate is crucial for South Africa in order to sustain its tourism industry, economic livelihood and the protection of rare and endangered species in National Parks and Marine Protected Areas.

The Nature of Four Key Issues Affecting South African National Parks

Marine Protected Areas

Climate change is expected to negatively impact MPAs in three principal ways, an increasingly variable sea surface temperature (SST) due to upwelling, increasing ocean acidification as well as sea level rise [3]. The SST of South Africa’s 3000km coastline varies significantly at the local scale, creating a wide range of habitat for a considerable diversity of marine organisms[3]. It is expected that some of these areas will increase in temperature as a result of climate change, while others will cool[3]. Given the specific temperature range requirements for various marine animals, changes in water temperature is expected to cause shifts in the distribution of threatened species who inhabit MPAs, their migration patterns and reproduction cycles, and also the distribution of their food sources[3]. This is problematic because climate change is causing species to migrate out of protected areas into marine environments where they may become victims to over-fishing and other incompatible land uses (e.g. sea floor mining and oil extraction)[4]. Furthermore, ocean acidification is predicted to negatively impact the basis of the marine food web (e.g. phytoplankton) resulting in large reductions in the population numbers of marine megafauna (e.g. Cetacean spp.)[3]. Furthermore, rising sea levels are likely to result in a reduction of water and habitat quality, as it would introduce the chemical pollutants that are presently deposited on coastal land into coastal waters[3].

Terrestrial Vegetation

In South Africa, the biomes are not only inherently valuable, but they are also important for the economy and tourism[5]. This makes vegetation an important assest that should be protected in National Parks from climate change[5]. According to, A National Climate Change Response Strategy for South Africa, there is an expected change that will affect vegetation drastically[5]. These drastic changes could unfortunately lead to the complete loss of some important species such as grasses, thickets, and shrubs[5].

A study by Dube, K and Nhamo, G looked at the impact of climate change within Kruger National Park. This site is within the Savannah biome where there approximately 1990 plant taxa[2]. Here they found that an increase in temperature throughout the years has led to loss of grassy vegetation[2]. This is a major issue because this reduction in grass reduces the number of important fires that help hold back the encroachment of bushes. If grass losses continue into the future, bushes will overgrow causing major repercussions, including the possible reduction and irreparable alteration of grassy biomes[2].

Another important study took place from 1988-2010 at Camdeboo National Park. Camdeboo National Park consists of three prominent biomes; Nama Karoo biomes, Thicket biome, and the Grassland biome[6]. Grassy dwarf-shrubs, grasses and thickets are included within these biomes  and varied depending on climatic events, such as droughts or flooding (which are expcted to change as a result of climate change)[6]. When there was extreme flooding events there was a significnt spike in the growth of grasses[6]. Likewise, when there was extreme droughts the amount of grass reduced making dwarf shrubs more prominent[6]. These extreme weather events have caused large anomalies throughout this landscape[6]. With more frequent extreme weather events expected as a result of climate change, the vegetation that are characteristic to South African National parks will be displaced, possibly leading to multiple extinctions.

Terrestrial Animals

African savannas are home to the world's most abundant and diverse communities of herbivores. This diversity of herbivores is reflected in the functional diversity they display, including diet, size, their coexistence and vegetation. However, these herbivores are threatened by various aspects of global change such as increases of drought. Droughts often induce widespread and effective mortality among savanna herbivores[7]. Herbivores (elephants and impala) measured in Kruger National Park consumed less grass during the drought which significantly changed their diet to incorporate more browse in drought years relative to post drought years. For impala, dietary shifts were geographically structured. Where drought anomalies were more severe, impala diets shifted significantly more, whereas elephants’ dietary shifts were not significantly related to drought intensity. Grazer landscape use shifted toward areas that were less severely impacted by drought, while grazers did not change their diets during the drought, they seem to have consistently changed their distribution more than browsers or mixed feeders, moving toward less drought‐affected areas where grass productivity was higher[7].

Grazer conservation may present a significant challenge since they can only mitigate drought effects by relocating. In this large savanna park, moving to drought refugia did decrease mortality[7] and as droughts are becoming increasingly severe and widespread with climate change, and as savanna landscapes are increasingly fragmented and fenced[7], grazers populations are likely to decline. Landscape fragmentation and the construction of barriers to the failure of large‐scale grazer migrations induced by climate change, and so green network connectivity in savanna landscapes may be crucial to herbivore, especially grazer, conservation into the future[7].

A recent study suggests that the endangered African wild dog Lycaon pictus may be impacted by climate change as well, since their successful reproduction is much lower when pup-rearing coincides with periods of the high temperature[8]. On days with higher maximum temperatures, wild dogs showed lower daytime activity and greater nocturnal activity. Findings suggest that nocturnal activity helps these wild dogs to cope with high daytime temperatures. However, they appear not to use this coping strategy when they are raising pups, suggesting that their resource needs, for example food and water, may not be fulfilled during the pup-rearing period. Given that moonlight availability, the species may have insufficient behavioral plasticity to adapt to increasing daytime temperatures. This raises concerns about the increase in ambient temperatures due to climate change on this endangered species[8].

The Economy and Tourism

Climate change is arguably one of the biggest challenges that threatens the future economic livelihood of humans. For a country such as South Africa, tourism of national parks provides local economic development, especially in small towns or peripheral areas[9]. The tourism industry both enables growth and contributes a key portion of income to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) due to its popularity as a tourism destination[10]. One way climate change poses an economic threat for South Africa in particular is through impacting the tourism sector, which stands to lose the very wildlife and scenery that ecotourism depends on[11]. Given that the funding of National Parks is largely dependent on their ability to preserve iconic South African landscapes that encourage tourism, climate change poses a major financial threat to the continuance of South Africa’s large network of National Parks and Marine Protected Areas.

In order to understand the magnitude of threat that climate change poses, it is important to note that its impacts transcend political, societal, and economic issues to become a global threat with non-uniform effects. Particularly of interest, climate change negatively influences the tourism sector of South Africa, resulting in further negative implications on economic well-being. The tourism sector is dependent on a foundation of national resources for which the sector cannot sustain itself without[11]. People around the world travel to South Africa to experience the elusive wilderness, however the maintenance and sustainable management of the ecosystems of the desirable national parks becomes extremely challenging in the face of a rapidly changing climate. Warming of the climate causes the drying or recession of water points, creating a challenge for the survival of the flora and fauna within national parks that compose the landscapes that tourists are attracted[11].

Furthermore, travelling from countries around the world to South Africa is one way that the tourism sector contributes to climate change, which has a negative impact on tourism, which becomes increasingly exacerbated in a cycle of positive feedback. Globally, tourism is estimated to be responsible for up to 5% of anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide, with even higher future projected emission levels[11]. Through tourism, South Africa gains employment opportunities, poverty alleviation, foreign investments, as well as the financial ability to shift to a green, sustainable economy, while also continuing to maintain and expand its network of national parks and marine protected areas[10].

Current remedial actions

SANparks is a South Africa’s national level institution that governs and manages the country’s terrestrial National Parks and Marine Protected Areas. It is guided by its own legislation but is also influenced by a complex suite of plans and policies operating at various levels of governance from the local to national level [12]. For example, at the federal level, a Comprehensive Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) Bill was introduced in 2017 to help coordinate efforts that attempt to balance the complex and competing uses that occur in and around MPAs (e.g. fishing, oil extraction and conservation) [12]. The bill is more of a framework for the development of future Marine Spatial Plans (MSPs,) than it is itself a management plan [12]. It stipulates that Marine Area Plans, which are larger in scale than MSPs, are required to be developed for South Africa's four biologically distinct marine regions . It stipulates that socio-economic and ecological data be collected nationally and consolidated into a single publicly accessible database [12]. However, according to Dorrington et al. (2018), no marine spatial plan has as of yet come into effect, though many research projects have been developed to respond to this gap [4][12][13]. Within the sensitive biomes of South African national parks, there are not many current remedial actions taking place to protect the vegetation. The current protective measures within national parks has kept the land protected from inappropriate land use and further degradation. Continuation of this strategy allows the vegetation to grow without the disturbance of harmful land activities. Researchers who conducted a study at Camdeboo national park have given conservationists the data needed to make better remedial actions in the future.

In Kruger National Park where fires are considered essential for grasslands, controlled burns are taking place[2]. These controlled burns are effective for reducing the amount of severe, uncontrollable wildfires as well. As mentioned above, the clearing of invasive species at Kruger National Park helps to protect the natural biodiversity of native vegetative species[12]. The clearing of  invasive alien plants (IAPs) on a regular basis by the Working for Water (WfW) Programme[14] is especially important in riparian areas of Kruger National Park. After clearing IAPs, indigenous vegetation densities increased, with herbaceous growth forms showing the largest increase in transects that were previously heavily invaded. Thus, in this system, which is relatively undisturbed by human activities, initial recovery of indigenous vegetation can occur without further restorative interventions. This process is more than likely aided by the continuous clearing of IAPs by WfW as this acts to deplete alien seed banks and maintain IAPs at acceptable and manageable levels.[14]

Another aspect of South African national parks is the tourist appeal and subsequent economic implications. South Africa has not ignored the threat of climate change to its vital tourism industry. In response to climate pressures on tourism viability, the 2011 National Tourism Sector Strategy was developed, which acts as a guiding policy framework[9]. Its primary purpose is to promote a new approach to tourism, one that is responsible with green programs. Examples of programs are proposed “green hotels” and other responsible tourism practices such as encouraging local product sourcing opportunities in order to reduce tourism food miles[9]. However, only major cities in South Africa receive thorough climate change vulnerability assessments, tourism which stems from smaller cities throughout South Africa do not receive the same priority and thus will not be able to enact environmental programs that are as accurate and effective as the ones in major South African cities[9].

Options for future remedial actions

One of the less obvious threats that stands to increase climate change effects is the unchecked and growing numbers of elephants in South Africa. The elephants are labelled as an immense threat to woodland and forest ecosystems, which will only serve to hasten climate change while the country is already undergoing rapidly encroaching desertification that comes with the rising temperatures of global warming[11]. A strategy to combat this threat is the culling of elephants for the purpose of mitigating climate change effects[11]. However, the morality surrounding such an action would be heavily publicly criticized. Additionally, multinational corporations (MNCs) could help South Africa to build up its resilience towards climate change via climate investments as well as financing the adaptation strategies of communities for the purpose of maintaining the tourism-ready state of national parks in South Africa[11].

With this changing climate, South African ecosystems are also affecting terrestrial animals living conditions as well as their food sources. Identifying likely invasive species beforehand while assessing the current status of existing invasive species[14]. Implementing management plans while monitoring the effectiveness of the management in regards to buffer zones[14]. This will help develop biodiversity maps that enable sensible zonation of land around protected areas, and where terrestrial animals are and move to due to climate change[14].

In regards to mitigating climate change affecting vegetation, a few different components can be explored. Surveyors on the ground can collect data on vegetation monitoring any changes that occur. Although this is a useful tool, it can be hard to see what's happening to all of the vegetation as a whole. Using aerial photography of suspected affected areas in combination with field work is key to monitoring any change. An increase in studying vegetation and their response to climate change is also recommended. Most importantly an increase in funding by the government is needed in order to protect the delicate balance of the vegetation and biodiversity.

Dorrington et al (2018) argue that Algoa Bay is a perfect candidate site to begin the first marine spatial plan given that it is currently the most highly studied marine area in all of South Africa [12]. Although the bio-physical elements are currently well studied, further efforts are required in order to consolidate the information collected by a broad range of stakeholders [12]. Furthermore, dozens of plans and policies govern and restrict the use of the bay at multiple scales of governance [12]. Future MSP legislation will also be required to follow initial MSP legislation, and so developing a coherent set of policy guidelines is a long and complex process in and of itself [12]. Ultimately there seems to be widespread acceptance that a holistic and comprehensive planning approach that considers biophysical and socio-economic factors is a necessary part of conserving marine species and ecosystems in South Africa [4][12][13]. In that sense, the threat of climate change on MPAs needs to be understood as one of many factors that are currently threatening species and ecosystems that are protected by MPAs. It is also important to note that the development of marine spatial plans is expected to be an iterative process, and that subsequent MSPs should critically assess the success of the algoa bay plan as they develop unique spatial plans that address the particular needs, policies and people of their respective regions [12]. In short, rather than developing entirely novel conservation mechanisms to the threat of climate change on MPAs, following through with the development of MSPs appears to be the most promising means to producing testable models that can help land-use managers more effectively respond to the threat of climate change on MPAs, their inhabitant species and ecosystems, while also taking into account the various and multiple direct and indirect contributors to GHG emissions and climate change resulting from other national level legislation such as Operation Phakista which places considerable emphasis on offshore oil extraction [12] [15].

Although it is recommended that MSP take precedence on alternative strategies for tackling the impacts of climate change on MPAs, one of the novel strategies that might help balance a wide range of competing interests is to have time and place sensitive no-take zones that are reversible in nature [4]. That is, they would protect certain areas for specific lengths of time as sensitive species change location during particular periods of their life cycles (e.g. closing parks temporarily in Vancouver during bird nesting in the spring) [12]. Although conceived as a method to deal with the competing interests of fisheries and conservation, it could easily be used to deal with the effects of climate change (e.g. changes in SST) as species relocate in an attempt to adapt to new temperature regimes. Therefore, it is recommended that more fluid and adaptable protection legislation also be explored as a potential way of addressing species’ movement patterns into unprotected areas in a future climate scenario that is characterized by regular variation, not stable conditions [12].


Tourism assets and subsequent economic wellbeing of South Africa are challenged by climate change. Government support programs are required to ensure that the local flora and fauna are managed sustainably to ensure that the ecosystem services provided by South African national parks can be used for future tourists and generations. There are few tangible strategies beyond increased monitoring that can address the negative impacts of climate change on South Africa’s national parks, and subsequently the tourism industry. However, there are both presently occurring and possible future small strategies that could serve as a sizable wedge between the vulnerable tourism industry in South Africa and the rapidly changing climate such as green hotels. Going forward, it is crucial to develop a low-carbon and climate resilient tourism industry in order for tourism to contribute to its own demise[9].

Although novel methods for helping land-use managers achieve ecological integrity in MPAs in the face of climate change are surely wanting, it is recommended that the continued development of MSPs for biologically distinct and ecologically sensitive areas around today's MPAs be prioritized in order to develop comprehensive models that can respond dynamically to changes in socio-economic and ecological variables simultaneously. In this way, the policy objectives of Operation Phakista (economic development) and that of SANparks (conservation), can enable multiple stakeholders to use South Africa's marine environments in a way that is more economically and ecologically sustainable. It is hoped that these may contribute to a decoupled economic development that is not dependent on large scale GHG emissions that exacerbate climate change, and which have been shown above to have deleterious effects on South Africa’s MPAs and National Parks.

Biomes within the national parks of south africa are fragile and are clearly being negatively impacted by climate change. The increase in drought and flooding events adversely affect the growth of previously dominant species and reduce overall biodiversity. Studies continue to measure changes in vegetation so that land-use planners can adapt more quickly to changes in vegetation structure that are associated with an  increasingly variable climate.

Terrestrial animals in South Africa’s National Parks affected by climate change are having to redistribute to new locations not affected by increased droughts. Dietary shifts along with change in animal reproductive behavior are both adding to the decline in terrestrial animals due to climate change.  Steps can be implemented to help prevent future decline and harm to terrestrial animals. Management levels implemented in the controlling of buffer zones and land fragmentation will ensure animals adapting to the rising climate are allowed access to food sources. With effective monitoring and assessment of the clearing of invasive species at Kruger National Park, the natural biodiversity of native vegetative species  can be protected beforehand.


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