Action Urged to Avert Extinction of Southern Africa’s Aquatic Species


This post is part of a special National Geographic news series on global water issues.

Loss and degradation of habitat from deforestation and agricultural runoff, unsustainable levels of water extraction, and the introduction of alien invasive species are serious threats to southern Africa’s freshwater fish, birds, plants, and other species, IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) reported today.

The majority of threatened species are found in South Africa, largely reflecting the greater levels of development activity here when compared to other countries in the region, IUCN said in a report released at the 5th World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey.

In collaboration with the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), IUCN conducted a regional assessment of the status and distribution of 1,279 freshwater fishes, molluscs, insects, crabs, and selected families of aquatic plants from across southern Africa.

Basket-fishing Zambia.-SAIAB-Denis-Tweddle.jpg“Around 7 percent of all species assessed are regionally threatened according to IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria,” the report says.

Basket fishing in Zambia photo by Denis Tweddle/SAIAB

“This level of threat may appear low relative to other taxonomic groups but, following comparison with similar studies in other parts of the world, the level of threat is predicted to increase dramatically unless the ecological requirements of freshwater species are given much greater consideration in future development planning, in particular for development of water resources such as for improved water supply, irrigation and provision of hydro-electric power.”

Three key centers of species diversity identified by the survey are:

(i) the upper Zambezi at the confluence of the upper Zambezi, Kwando and Chobe rivers above the Victoria Falls,

(ii) the Komati and Crocodile river tributaries of the Incomati system in Mpumalanga, South Africa, and

(iii) the Mbuluzi river basin, also in Mpumalanga, South Africa and in Swaziland.


Upper Zambezi River photo by Denis Tweddle/SAIAB

“The combined diversity of fishes, molluscs, [insects], crabs and aquatic plants is exceptionally high in these three areas,” the report says.

A network of river and lake basins are identified by the report as candidate Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) “most important for the protection of threatened and restricted range species.”

Zero Extinction Sites

Ten of these sites are proposed as Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) sites holding

Critically Endangered or Endangered species in most urgent need of conservation action.

The AZE is a global initiative of biodiversity conservation organizations, aimed to prevent extinctions by identifying and safeguarding key sites where species are in imminent danger of disappearing. 

These proposed AZE sites should form the focus of the most immediate conservation actions if species extinctions are to be prevented, the report urges.

“It is most important that the findings and data are made available to the relevant

decision-makers and stakeholders in a format that can be easily understood and readily integrated within the decision-making process,” IUCN said.

southern-african-fish-pictures.jpgIUCN said the key messages from this assessment are:

■ The inland waters of southern Africa support a high diversity of aquatic species with high levels of endemism. Many of these species provide direct (e.g. fisheries) and indirect (e.g. water purification) benefits to people. The conservation of these species is most important to the livelihoods and economies of the regions’ people.

■ Current levels of threat across the region are relatively low with 7% of species threatened. However, predicted future levels of threat, in particular due to development

of water resources, are very high. The level of threat to species in South Africa is higher than in other countries. Steps will need to be taken to minimize or mitigate for predicted impacts to the regions’ freshwater species.

■ Data on the distributions, conservation status, and ecology of all 762 known species of fishes, molluscs, odonates, crabs, and 517 selected species of aquatic plants are freely available through this project and the IUCN Red List Web site to inform conservation and development planners.

■ The current network of protected areas is not designed for protection of freshwater species with many falling outside of any protected area. Future protected areas must be designed for the effective conservation of freshwater species.

■ The data made available through this assessment must be integrated within the decision-making processes in planning for the conservation and development of inland water resources. Lack of available information should no longer be given as a reason for inadequate consideration for development impacts to freshwater species.

■ Species information remains very limited for many parts of the region with Angola and Mozambique, in particular, identified as priorities for future field survey. Information on the status and distribution of aquatic plants needs to be greatly improved throughout the region.


Photo of freshwater snail survey in Okavango delta, Botswana, by Chris Appleton

The results of this assessment are to be merged with similar studies being conducted by this project for all other regions of Africa to provide a baseline of the status and distribution of freshwater biodiversity throughout all of Africa, IUCN said.

“This information source, which will be made freely and widely available, will provide the essential information, currently lacking in many places, to help conservation and development planning proceed in a manner that takes full account of the requirements of freshwater species,” the report says.

IUCN is a membership union with more than 1,000 government and NGO member organizations, and almost 11,000 volunteer scientists in more than 160 countries. Its work is supported by professional staff in 60 offices and hundreds of partners in public, NGOs and the private sector. Headquarters are in Switzerland.

Photos of fish and mollusc above by Chris Appleton, Roger Bills/SAIAB, Denis Tweddle/SAIAB

Changing Planet

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn