The Natural Environment

The Natural Environment

No other province in South Africa is home to such a diversity of natural features as KZN. There are beautiful grassy plains, cascading rivers, snow covered mountains, rolling hills, forests, beaches, the warm Indian Ocean and coral reefs. All this gives rise to a rich diversity of plants and animals, many of which are of immense social and economic value. Numerous private and state game reserves, marine reserves, conservation areas and botanic gardens provide opportunities for visitors to KwaZulu-Natal to experience and enjoy our rich diversity of plants and animals.

You can observe the Big Five (Lion, Leopard, Buffalo, Elephant and Rhinoceros), zebra, giraffe, cheetah, numerous antelope species from the enormous eland and kudu to the tiny suni and duiker, hippos, crocodiles, baboons and monkeys and much more as well as hundreds of species of bird. There are sea-turtles, whales, dolphins, sharks, and many species of fish, reptiles and fascinating insects. In addition the flora includes beautiful grasslands, protea bushes, yellow-woods, teak and many species of acacia to name but a few.

We have two world heritage sites, the Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park which protects unique natural resources and globally significant biodiversity as well as a rich cultural heritage of rock art, while iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa’s first World Heritage site, includes about a third of the entire KZN coast. It is the largest estuarine system in Africa and includes five different ecosystems (eight if you include the surrounding areas) with a lake system made up of two estuarine-linked lakes and four large freshwater lakes with several bird-rich islands.

As Nelson Mandela said in 1999 at the opening of KZN’s iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa’s first World Heritage Site:

“(iSimangaliso) must be the only place on the globe where the world’s oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant), share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (the whale)”.

Operation Rhino

KZN became famous throughout the world in the 1960’s for it conservation efforts during “Operation Rhino” which was largely based at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game reserve in the northern part of KZN.  This unprecedented conservation effort saw rhino return from the brink of extinction and the conservation legacy continues to this day.


There are great opportunities to go bird watching, with most reserves having bird lists running into the hundreds and there are many site specific birding routes. A special event takes place when annually some three million Barn swallows migrate to KZN between November and April. There are also vulture restaurants where you can experience these and other magnificent birds of prey.

Up close and personal

If you want to get up close and personal with the animals and plants in the province you can take a wilderness trail in a Big Five game reserve. You could also try a whale or dolphin watching tour, walk along the beach to experience the ancient ritual of sea-turtles nesting, do some scuba diving with ragged tooth sharks or experience the forest heights doing an aerial board-walk or a canopy tour. You can also take a leisurely stroll around some of KZN’s beautifully lush gardens, enjoying the indigenous and exotic plant collections such as those found in the Durban and Pietermartizburg Botanic Gardens and Makaranga Garden Lodge.

Geology and Geography

It is thought that Africa was once part of the supercontinent or southern landmass known as Gondwanaland. Through a serious of geological processes, such as widespread glaciation that took place some 380 to 250 million years ago, Gondwanaland fractured and began drifting apart, forming the continents we now call South America, Antarctica, Australia, Peninsular India and  Africa.

Throughout KwaZulu-Natal there is visible evidence of the often tumultuous tipping and cracking, oozing of volcanic lava, squeezing of granite and other geological upheavals that took place in the region over a period of many millions of years.

As a result of some of this turmoil and subsequent erosion, today, the 3 500 m-high summit plateau of the Drakensberg mountains on KZN’s western escarpment drops sharply down to the Little Berg at 2 000 m above sea level. Eastwards is the broad Midlands plateau, an ancient eroded scarp that averages 800 to 1 200 m above sea level. These days it is flatter than it was with rolling hills and valleys created by the major rivers.

Throughout the province, the fascinating ancient history of how our landscapes were formed can be observed in some of the deepest river valleys, on the coastal plains and deep in the marine sedimentary rocks. It can be seen in the Mpemvu Hills, the Ngoye Range, the Lebombo Mountains of Zululand and the impressive, dark, basalt mountain walls in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site.

The Thukela River is the largest in KZN and one of the most important in the county. It originates in Mont-aux-Sources in the Drakensberg, plunging 947 metres down three spectacular waterfalls. From the mountains, the Thukela flows some 502 kilometres through the Midlands and out into the Indian Ocean.

Read about the Geography of KwaZulu-Natal