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6 of the Top Ecotourism Destinations in South Africa

Updated Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Ecotourism destinations in South Africa are some of the most beautiful in the world.

The country’s natural areas are conserved in a series of UNESCO world heritage sites, nature reserves and national parks, which is why South Africa makes it onto the list of the 17 most megadiverse countries in the world.

Fact: South Africa is the 3rd most biodiverse place on Earth.

The country boasts 10% of the world’s plant species whilst 65% of these are found only in South Africa. It’s the only country in the world with an entire floristic kingdom within its border (Cape Floristic Region, better known as fynbos). South Africa has over 100 species of mammals, 900 species of birds and 120 species of amphibians.

Cape Sugarbird

Ecotourism destinations in South Africa are environmentally responsible, allow travel and visits to relatively undisturbed natural areas for the traveller to enjoy and appreciate nature, promote conservation, have low visitor impact, and provide beneficial involvement of local communities.

Ecotourism is travel to natural areas that conserve the environment and improve the well-being of the locals.

South Africa is one of 170 countries to sign Article 6 of the Convention on Biological Diversity which requires that they integrate biodiversity conservation and sustainability into economic planning.

Visit these ecotourism destinations in South Africa for incredible beauty, biodiversity and tourism that supports both the earth and local communities.

6 of the best ecotourism destinations in South Africa

1. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

The Kgalagadi’s 37 256 k㎡ is one of the largest ecosystems in Africa virtually devoid of human interference. Meaning ‘place of thirst’ (referring to its southern kalahari arid environment) over 70% of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park lies in Botswana, the remainder in South Africa.

It is both a conservation project and a peace park. Despite its aridness it is criss crossed by two rivers – the Nossob and the Auob – that flow only once or twice a century after heavy rains. Three large pans in the Mabuasehube area of the park support wildlife that includes leopard, cheetah and hyena, black-backed jackal, caracal and foxes.

The park’s defining features are the spectacular red and white sand dunes, separated by dune valleys, and black-maned lions. In late 2002, 58 000 ha of the Kgalagadi Park were restored to the Khomani San and Mier communities. The income generated on this land is split between them and they retain commercial benefits and rights.

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park - Ecotourism destinations in South Africa

2. iSimangaliso Wetland Park

iSimangaliso has been using ecotourism as part of its conservation strategy since the early 2000s. What was once merely a great fishing and beach destination is now a nature based activity and adventure zone. Visitors head to this ecotourism destinations in South Africa for its beauty, boating, cycling, game drives, bird watching, turtle tours, guided walks and whale watching.

iSimangaliso’s ‘10 jewels’ include Sodwana and Kosi Bay, its coastal forest, lakes, wetlands, oceans, mountains and shorelines, its 220 km of pristine coastline and protected coral reefs, 520 bird species and huge diversity of game – from hippos to elephants, and including the unusual endemic Setaro dwarf chameleon and nocturnal leopard.

This ecotourism destinations in South Africa is a greater biodiversity hotspot even than Kruger or Botswana’s Okavango delta. All but one historically occurring animal has been reintroduced, huge tracts of land have been rehabilitated and alien plants removed, all privately owned lodges have local community equity (mandatory in iSimangaliso), there are nine community-owned and operated companies running game drives, boat and turtle tours etc., the park trains tourism guides from the community, and 90% of jobs are filled by local community. Stay in St Lucia

iSimangaliso Wetland Park

3. Addo Elephant National Park

The home of the elephants, Addo Elephant Park is about 45 minutes’ drive from Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Cape. It’s the only national park with the Big 7 and rates as the country’s third biggest park with a finely tuned ecosystem that holds a unique subtropical thicket vegetation, lion, buffalo, black rhino, hyena, leopard, whales, penguins and the unique flightless dung beetle (found exclusively in the park).

The park runs a Mayibuye Ndlovu (let the elephant return in Xhosa) Development Trust representing eight local communities who get a percentage of the turnover of the Park’s Matyholweni rest camp, Eyethu hop-on guides (who literally hop into your car with you to guide your wildlife experience in the park) come from communities close to the park.

All lodges at this ecotourism destinations in South Africa operate in a sustainable way with regards to waste, water and power.

Addo Elephant National Park

4. uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park

uKhahlamba (Zulu meaning barrier of spears) Drakensberg (Afrikaans for dragon mountain) Park is a 243 000 hectare World Heritage Site and one of the country’s largest conservation areas.

At its almost inaccessible heart stand ginormous basalt peaks that rise some 3 000 metres above sea level, the accompanying plunging gorges, high plateaus and soaring cliffs the much-loved terrain of walkers, climbers, hikers, nature lovers and San art enthusiasts for whom the innumerable caves hold a treasure trove of rock art.

The park marks the border between KwaZulu-Natal and the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho – the mountainous terrain between manned by a group of over 500 local men in an attempt to curb illegal passage through the myriad passes.

Every visitor to uKhahlamba pays a community levy which goes to fund local communities’ school, medical clinic and basic services’ needs, community conservation programmes are engaged with local communities to protect areas and wildlife, and local community guides are available for certain hikes and rock art sites. Stay in the Drakensberg

uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park

5. Agulhas National Park

The southern tip of the African continent is at Cape Agulhas. It’s also where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet, hence its popularity particularly during summer.

Its windswept, rugged coastline is a botanical smorgasboard of Lowland fynbos combining effortlessly with the cultural heritage of shellfish middens created by a people who were here way before the land was settled by colonials.

As an ecotourism destination it’s incredible – just outside the Agulhas National Park is a lighthouse heritage building that dates back to 1849, roughly 300 of the plants in the park are found nowhere else on earth, and over 21 000 water birds flock in the park.

Agulhas National Park actively benefits local communities, employing around 450 people and 38 SMMEs in local projects, whilst local farmers have formed a co-operative to increase the area’s biodiversity and to practice sustainable agriculture. Stay at Agulhas

Agulhas National Park

6. Richtersveld Transfrontier Park

The /Ai-/Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is a World Heritage Site, a Peace Park and a conservation area in the country’s north westerly region close to the border with Namibia.

Its 5 920 km² includes awe-inspiring desert mountain scenery (one of only two arid ecosystems to earn hotspot status), a river mouth that’s a Ramsar site, inspiring succulent flora and the famed Fish River Canyon (on the Namibian side).

Like the Kgalagadi (one of the top ecotourism destinations in South Africa above) it is one of the last regions where people continue a traditional nomadic lifestyle (transhumance lifestyle) herding their goats and sheep over vast distances.

It has one of the best efforts at an all-inclusive bottom-up local community participation and includes the Richtersveld Community Conservancy (first known as the Rooiberg Conservancy) – which includes accommodation controlled by a local community (not advertised by SANParks so do your own research on the little settlements of Eksteenfontein, Lekkersing and Kuboes).

To do the park and surrounding areas justice you’ll need a high clearance vehicle or 4X4. Stay at Port Nolloth

Richtersveld Transfrontier Park

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