South Africa is home to some of the world’s most diverse flora and fauna. Indigenous plant life includes some 23 000 species of flowering plants (including 728 species of trees) and more than 900 species of bird, representing 22 of the world’s living orders.
Mountains, in particular, are home to some of the rarest species, which have adapted to the high altitudes and, in many cases, are found nowhere else on the planet. On Table Mountain alone there are more than 2 200 different plant species, some of which date back to over 60 million years ago.
“Apart from the magnificent view from the top, Table Mountain’s flora and fauna attracts scores of nature lovers from all walks of life – from professionals to academics and students all the way to ordinary people who all feel an affinity with this natural wonder. With the mountain’s amazing biodiversity, including several variants of our national flower, it is probably one of the most photographed landmarks in the world,” says Wahida Parker, Managing Director at Table Mountain Aerial Cableway Company (TMACC).
Table Mountain forms part of the Cape Floristic Region, supporting one of the highest diversities of flora, much of which is rare and endemic. Most notable is the Fynbos vegetation that can be found on its slopes, which include Protea, Erica, restio, Asteraceae and geophytes.
“Fynbos is a unique plant type that has developed over millions of years – and was even around during the time of the dinosaurs. While these types of plants do need fire to promote production and dispersing of their seeds, much of it has become endangered due to the increased frequency of fires,” explains Marie Abraham, Environmental Control Officer at TMACC.
There are more plant species located in the Cape Floristic region than in the whole of the United Kingdom. In fact, the area has the richest floristic site in the world, which can largely be attributed to the differing biospheres located on each part of the mount.
For example, the western side of the mountain receives more direct sunlight throughout the day, and it is a dryer side, producing a smaller shrub-like vegetation. The eastern side, on the other hand, is shaded throughout the day and has a wetter terrain, with streamlets, waterfalls and seeps. This results in this side of the mountain to produce an indigenous forest.
Some of the plants that you may come across when hiking up the mountain can include Peninsula Sandstone Fynbos (endangered), Peninsula Granite Fynbos (critically endangered), Peninsula Shale Renosterveld and Afromontane forest.
Table Mountain also provides a haven to a number of animals, including snakes, birds, lizards, rare frogs, Klipspringer, the Himalayan Tahr and the well-known Dassie (rock hyrax) that is often seen at the top of the Cableway station.
Abraham explains that the area used to be home to a variety of large animals too. “In the past, settlers to the Cape used to often cross paths with mountain lions and Hippos. Unfortunately, as the human settlements expanded, many of the larger animals dwindled in numbers – with the last lion spotted on the mountain in approximately 1802.”
With the rarity of some of the flora and fauna found only on Table Mountain, Abraham adds that special care is taken to protect the Cape Floristic Region, which is also recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
She says that the formation of the Table Mountain National Park in 1998 was a major milestone in protecting and caring for its rich biodiversity. “Before is establishment, sadly, Table Mountain lost a number of rare species as a result of fires, human influence, and erosion. This is thankfully changing, with greater protection and programmes aimed at re-establishing some of the lost flora in the area.”
Protecting the mountain is the responsibility of everyone, which is something that the team at TMACC continues to advocate and promote to all visitors to the Cableway.
To encourage greater awareness, TMACC offers free guided walks to visitors to learn more about the fauna and flora. These walks take place on the hour from 9h00 – 15h00, departing from the Twelve Apostles Terrace (below the Shop at the Top and the Table Mountain Café) at the top station of the Cableway.
Did you know?
As you hike up a mountainside, the steep incline means that within a relatively short distance you move through a series of microhabitats that differ subtly but significantly from each other according to the prevailing conditions at that altitude. Variations in aspect and gradient, rainfall, oxygen levels, soil quality, temperature and vegetation create successive layers of habitat to which different species have adapted over time.