Considering Grasslands in the EIA process

What Are Grasslands?

  • South Africa is divided into 9 biomes (large ecological community having plants and animals which have adapted to the conditions in which they live) that share certain ecological and climatic characteristics. The grasslands form the biggest of these biomes, covering about a third of the country.
  • The grasslands biome does not contain only grass species. In fact, only one in six plant species in the grassland biome are grasses. The remainder are bulbous plants that include arum lilies, orchids, red-hot pokers, aloes, watsonias, gladioli and ground orchids.
  • Other species, habitats and ecosystems forming an important part of the grassland biome are, riverine and wetland systems.

Why Are Grasslands Important?

  • Grasslands play a vital role in ecosystem processes. Grasslands are the great collectors of rain water in South Africa. They reduce runoff and thus erosion, hold the water as ground water, or in wetlands, and release it slowly throughout the year. This sponge effect ensures that rivers run throughout the year, even in the dry season.
  • Ensuring a steady supply of water is critical to human survival and to economic development.
  • The supply of water from the grassland catchments around Wakkerstroom in south-eastern Mpumalanga, for example, is crucial to the functioning of the Highveld power stations and SASOL’s Secunda petrol-from-coal plant.
  • In many of the deep rural areas within the grassland biome, poor people depend largely on ecosystem resources for their livelihoods. Grasslands, for example, provide free grazing for sheep and other livestock.
  • Many grassland plants are used as traditional and main line medicines. For example, the leaves of arum lilies are used to treat headaches, as a poultice (to heal wounds and inflammations) or even to treat miscarriages; the sap of some euphorbias is used to cure toothache, to treat leprosy, or to remove warts. Where a bulb is used for medicinal purposes, the plant is usually destroyed, which means that many of these plants are highly threatened in the wild.
  • Grasslands support a wide diversity of plant, animal, and bird species.
  • Four of the twelve bird species commonly found in grasslands – Rudd’s and Botha’s Larks, Southern Bald Ibis and Yellowbreasted Pipit – are considered to be globally threatened. Another five – Blue Korhaan, Mountain Pipit, Orangebreasted Rockjumper, Buffstreaked Chat and Drakensberg Siskin – are considered to be Near Threatened. In addition Rudd’s Lark is the only bird species classified as Critically Threatened in South Africa, making it the country’s most threatened bird. 31 of the 102 threatened butterflies in South Africa occur in the grassland biome.
  • 13 of the 93 species of threatened reptiles and amphibians in South Africa occur in the grassland biome. 11 of these are endemic to (particular to that location) the biome, e.g. yellow-bellied house snake, sun gazer lizard, Drakensberg river frog.
  • Mammals typically found in the more humid grasslands are black wildebeest, blesbok, oribi and grey rhebuck. 15 of the 34 mammals endemic to South Africa can be found in the grassland biome. Four of these, the black wildebeest, roughhaired golden mole, Natal red rock rabbit and Sloggett’s rat – are endemic to the grassland biome.

Where Is The Grasslands Biome?

The grasslands biome covers an area ranging from the interior of the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces over the escarpment and into the central plateau. The bulk of the grasslands occurs in six provinces. The majority of people in South Africa live in the grasslands because it contains the economic heartland of the country. It is also the largest urban complex, it harbours large coal deposits and gold fields and it is agriculturally productive land.
See the map of grasslands in South Africa included in the PDF document below.

What Are The Major Threats To Grasslands?

  • Expansion of agriculture and timber plantations especially into high priority or sensitive areas.
  • Urban and industrial expansion- Gauteng is in the grasslands.
  • Mining – more than 2 000 square km of grassland is taken up by South Africa’s major gold and coal deposits.Mining impacts and there extent is minimal, hwever, the problem is that the impact of mining is absolute as it destroys the grassland completely.
  • Poor land use management practices that result in degradation of the veld.
  • Invasive alien plants.
  • Pollution – many highly polluting industries are located within the grassland biome, e.g. coal-fired power stations; pulp and paper mills; steel, gold, chrome and other metal-processing industries. This air pollution impacts not only the grasslands but also has an effect much further afield as it is carried by the wind.While pollution has other environmental impacts, it is not usually something we consider as a key impactor on grassland biodiversity.

How To Consider Grasslands In The EIA Process

The presence of grasslands and their associated plants and animals should be identified early in the Basic Assessment or Scoping and EIA process.
It is necessary for the developer/specialist to evaluate the following criteria:

  • What birds, plants, mammals, butterflies live in the grasslands?
  • Are any of these creatures threatened?
  • What will be the impact of the proposed activity on the grasslands and the species that live there?
  • Will the proposed activity impact on the grasslands even if it is not in the grasslands?
  • Look at cumulative impacts. For example, one housing development might not destroy much of the grassland but it is important to evaluate all housing for the greater environmental impacts.
  • Remember that once disturbed by ploughing, mining, timber plantations or housing estates, most of our grasslands can not be rehabilitated.

Find Out:

  • Whether the appointed specialist has the necessary qualifications to enable him to do a grassland plant and animal survey?
  • How threatened is the specific grassland type? Some grassland types have as little as 3% remaining intact.

The information contained in this section was obtained from the following document: Summary, National Grassland Biodiversity Programme, May 2005.

Additional information was obtained through input from EWT. For specific information on EIAs within the grasslands programme contact your relevant provincial Competent Authority.

For more detailed information on the Grasslands Programme, contact Florence Nazare at SANBI on (012) 843 5291 or Note that the Grasslands Programme does not directly intervene with EIA Applications. Additional documentation, produced for the Grassland Programme, is available from Florence Nazare, as above.

Grasslands Brochure   364KB