Fading biodiversity in

South Africa and Sweden

Photo: Kevin Factor/digitalfactor.co.za


Imagine yourself walking through an untouched moist natural broadleaf forest. Amidst the large and old trees, there is an intermixture of trees of various sizes, ages and species. Long beard lichens (Usnea sp) hang down from the branches of the tree canopy. You hear the loud, steady buzz of cicadas and a distant call of a male baboon. Forests like this still exist, remaining as fragments of what they once were.

We are in South Africa, a country which is about three times the size of Sweden. The indigenous forest is located outside the town Knysna on the south coast of South Africa (Western Cape Province), about 200 km west of Port Elizabeth. It consists of a subtropical moist broadleaf forest in the midst of mountains, also called afromontane forest, covering about 60 500 hectares. This rings very exotic in a Swede’s ear. Do such large and interconnected natural forest areas remain? In Sweden, below the montane region, there are few unprotected natural forest areas larger than 150 hectares, if they even are that large. A high logging rate has throughout the years converted a large part of the Swedish forests into production forests, poor in species, which has made old natural forests a scarce commodity.

The forest outside Knysna belongs to the largest natural forest complex in South Africa.


Forests are South Africa’s smallest biome, covering less than 1 percent of the country’s land surface. According to Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF, 2005), indigenous forests cover approximately 0,5 million ha in South Africa. These forests have the highest biodiversity per unit area of any biome in South Africa. It is also the most vulnerable, smallest and most fragmented biome. Between year 1800 and 2000, the indigenous forested area was reduced by approximately 40 percent. Savannas contribute to the bulk of the wooded land area of South Africa (between 29 million and 46 million hectares depending on assessment method).

More than half of the Swedish land is covered by forests. However, over 90 percent of the productive forest land in Sweden has been affected by forestry in some way. The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only approximately 5 percent forests with high conservation values remain below the montane region.

References: Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (2005), Systematic conservation planning for the forest biome of South Africa – Approach, methods and results of the selection of priority forests for conservation action. Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF. 2005), Forestry Poverty Key Issue Paper. Environmental Protection Agency (2005). Frekvensanalys av skyddsvärd natur, Förekomst av värdekärnor i skogsmark. Stockholm: Environmental Protection Agency Report 5466. Swedish Forest Agency (2010), Swedish Statistical Yearbook of Forestry 2010. Jönköping: Swedish Forest Agency.


Until the arrival of the europeans during the 1700s, large herds of elephants and buffalo roamed the coastal plains of South Africa. Farming, hunting, woodcutting, and mining reduced the vast indigenous forests. The animal herds were rapidly decimated by the weapons of the Europeans. According to records, the last buffalo was shot in 1883, and in 1920, only 12 elephants remained in the Knysna forest. In 1994, the Forest Department stated that there only was one elephant left, an elderly cow called the ‘Matriarch’. There was not much hope left for the elephants of Knysna. However, since 2000, findings of previously unknown individuals have been made. The exact number of elephants now living in the forest is still unknown. Droppings are found every now and then in the forest, but the animals are very seldom seen, although they are big in size. They are very shy due to their poignant past. Today, the Knysna elephants are the only free roaming and unfenced ones remaining in South Africa.

Apart from the elephants (Loxodonta africana), the Knysna indigenous forest is home to bushpig (Potamochoerus larvatus), bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus), blue duiker (Philantomba monticola), baboon (Papio ursinus), vervet monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus), honey badger (Mellivora capensis), leopard (Panthera pardus) and caracal (Felis caracal). It has a rich range of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Several of the plant and animal species are red-listed or endemic, such as the very rare Knysna dwarf chameleon (Bradypodion damarnum).

The indigenous Knysna forest is, just like the Swedish forests, affected by fragmentation and forestry. The forest is scattered in patches of varying sizes among farmlands, exotic plantations, and natural fynbos (species-rich evergreen shrub vegetation).

South Africa is a large plantation nation. The country’s plantation forests cover nearly 1.5 million hectares, equal to 1.2 percent of the total land mass. In the surroundings of the indigenous Knysna forest, several pine plantations are found (e.g. Pinus radiata, which is native to California, USA). These plantations bear a resemblance to the pine plantations found in Sweden, especially due to their dry microclimate and sparse ground vegetation. An uneasy feeling lingers from the thought of elephants and baboons having this unnatural and foreign environment as a home. In fact, it feels surreal with pine plantations in a subtropical moist forest environment.

Other alien tree species used in South Africa are Eucalyptus spp. Pinus spp. and Acacia spp. The trees are grown to produce pulp and paper, mostly for export, as well as for construction timber and furniture.

Sweden also has its large share of plantations (as much as 10 million hectares of a total of approximately 23 million hectares of productive forest land can consist of plantations). A large part of the Swedish forest land currently consists of young forests not yet ready to be felled from a commercial point of view (nearly 60 percent of all productive forest land in Sweden is under 60 years). The remaining unprotected older natural forests are therefore subject to harvesting. In 2010, 273,120 hectares of forest was notified of final felling in Sweden (Swedish Forest Agency, 2011), which equals to more than half of all indigenous forests in South Africa. The Swedish Forest Agency also estimates that 37 percent of all final fellings conducted in Sweden in 2010 did not live up to the general environmental consideration requirements of the Swedish Forestry Act.

Of the South African land area, another 1,700,000 hectares have become heavily plague-ridden with alien tree species, which have spread from poorly managed or abandoned plantations. These ‘untamed’ tree plantations are particularly problematic because they encroach into sensitive natural areas where they displace the natural fauna and flora. They also use vast amounts of water and generate ideal conditions for wildfires to start and spread into adjacent natural habitats and human settlements. Alien species are found in the indigenous Knysna forest, too, which rangers are trying to get rid of.

Since 2009, the indigenous forest area outside Knysna is a part of the Garden Route National Park (GRNP), which covers a total of 121 000 hectares. The park stretches approximately 225 km along the coast and goes past several towns. The primary aim is long-term biodiversity conservation. No fences encircle the National Park in order to promote corridors to allow species to move in and out the park. Also, several hiking trails are found in the park.

It feels like a privilege to walk in a large, relatively intact natural forest. Due to man’s destructive ways, few older natural forests remain in the world today. The loss of natural habitats is globally the biggest threat to biodiversity. In Sweden, more than 2,100 forest living plant and animal species are considered to be threatened or near-threatened, according to the Swedish Species Information Centre. The endangered grey wolf (Canis lupus) is one of them. In Knysna, the elephant is another (in South Africa, the elephant is nationally categorized as vulnerable under the Red List).

According to leading Swedish conservation scientists, 20 percent of the productive forest land in Sweden must be protected in order to safeguard the biodiversity. Today, only about 3.5 percent of productive forest land is formally protected in Sweden (2010), of which more than half is found in the montane region (where the land is less productive and difficult to access; therefore less subject to forestry). In South Africa, about 44 percent of the total area of indigenous forest (2005) is under some form of protection. Of this about 17.6 percent is strictly protected. According to the Government of South Africa, the current protected area network in South Africa, covering all biomes, falls far short of sustaining biodiversity and ecological processes.

Although South Africa has less forests than Sweden, in relation to area, South Africa has protected more forests, in terms of percentage. Sweden has also lost a greater proportion of its indigenous natural forest (about 90-95 percent) compared to South Africa (about 40 percent). The South African Garden Route National Park (121 000 hectares) is significantly bigger than the average size of Swedish national parks and nature reserves below the montane region, which usually cover between about 30-3000 hectares of land. However, it should not be forgotten that many of the remaining forest areas in South Africa also are small and isolated.

The valuable natural areas that remain today, in South Africa, Sweden and the world have an essential basic function. They provide a habitat, a home, for a number of plant and animal species whose survival is dependant on whether their habitat is present or not. They also provide a home for us humans. Without nature we will not get clean water or clean air. Having the opportunity to experience a forest such as the indigenous Knysna forest leaves you with an indescribable reverence for all life that exists and has existed in the forest. The buffalo that was shot in 1883 will not come back. The elephants are still there, against all odds. We humans must realize that we can not turn back time and repair a damage already done.

You still hear the loud steady buzz of cicadas, but only in a certain part of the forest. It is in the part of the forest where the canopy is very dense and embraces the surrounding forest. As for the rest, it is quiet. There is a distant call of a male baboon. This is where the forest pleads for long-sightedness, for its continued existence.

Amanda Tas



Commonwealth Forestry Association (CFA, 2006). Forest Plantations.


Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF, 2005), Facts and figures on forests, http://forestry.daff.gov.za/webapp/FactsForests.aspx

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Pressrelease: New Garden Route National Park Established,


Department of Environmental Affairs (visited 2011-05-06), Biomes, http://www.environment.gov.za/enviro-info/nat/biome.htm

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Systematic conservation planning for the forest biome of South Africa – Approach,
methods and results of the selection of priority forests for conservation action, http://www2.dwaf.gov.za/webapp/ResourceCentre/Documents/


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(including a list of established national parks in Sweden and their size), 

(Only in Swedish)

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Gärdenfors, U. (ed.), (2010). The 2010 Red List of Swedish Species.
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Miljövårdsberedningen (Environmental Advisory Council, 1997). Skydd av skogsmark – behov och kostnader (Protection of Forest land – needs and costs). Statens offentliga utredningar 1997:97. Stockholm: Miljödepartementet (Ministry of the Environment).

(Only in Swedish)

Patterson, G. (2009). The Secret Elephants. Johannesburg: Pinguin books.

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Protect the Forest (2010). Appeal: Protect Sweden’s Old-Growth Forests, http://www.protecttheforest.se/upprop/en

SkogsSverige (2002-01-30), Frågelåda: Vad är egentligen den svenska definitionen på plantageskogsbruk?
(Question box: What is really the Swedish definition of plantation forestry?), 

(Only in Swedish)

South African National Parks (SANParks, 2004-2010), Profile, http://www.sanparks.org/about/default.php

South African National Parks (SANParks, 2010),

Draft Management Plan for the Garden Route National Park, http://www.sanparks.org/docs/parks_grnp/about/grnp_mgmnt_plan.pdf

Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (2005). Frekvensanalys av skyddsvärd natur, Förekomst av värdekärnor i skogsmark (Frequency Analysis of Areas with High Nature Conservation Values). Stockholm: Swedish Environmental Protection Agency Report 5466.

(Only in Swedish)

Swedish Forest Agency (2010), Swedish Statistical Yearbook of Forestry 2010. Jönköping: Swedish Forest Agency,


Swedish Forest Agency (2011-03-20).
Pressrelease: Fler avverkningsanmälningar under 2010

(More forest areas notified of final felling in 2010), http://www.skogsstyrelsen.se/Myndigheten/Om-oss/Nyhetsarkiv/Avverkningsanmalningar/ (Only in Swedish)

Swedish Forest Agency (2011-04-11). Pressrelease: Gemensamma insatser krävs för bra miljöhänsyn (United efforts needed to achieve good environmental consideration), http://www.skogsstyrelsen.se/Myndigheten/Press-och-information/Pressmeddelanden/Gemensamma-insatser-kravs-for-bra-miljohansyn/

(Only in Swedish)

Swedish Forest Agency: Tabell 6.26: Miljöhänsyn vid avverkning i relation till LIT, lagkrav vid taxering, gäller föryngringsavverkningar genomförda 2007/2008-2009/2010 (Environmental consideration when conducting final felling in relation to legislation requirements;

final fellings carried out in 2007/2008-2009/2010). (Only in Swedish)

Timberwatch (besökt 2011-05-02). Timber plantations in South Africa, http://www.timberwatch.org.za/index.php?id=99

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World Wildlife Fund (2001), Knysna-Amatole montane forests,