San Rock Art and Fauna Drakensberg's Threatened Treasures

San Rock Art and Fauna Drakensberg's Threatened Treasures

The threatened treasures of the Drakensberg Rock Paintings and Red Data

San Art

This 'masterpiece of human creative genius', partly responsible for adding World Heritage status to uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, is the principal monument to ancient hunter-gatherers who survived here until the 19th century. Descended from Early Stone Age progenitors who traversed the length and breadth of southern Africa for a million-plus years before them, the San themselves roamed freely between the Drakensberg and the coast for many thousands of years. Then came the constituent tribes of the budding Zulu nation, followed by white settlers from Britain and Europe, all of whom brought cattle and the burning desire for territory. The San were forced to withdraw into their mountain fastness, from where they began raiding the stock of these invaders. Retribution was swift and terrible, with the whites soon declaring these 'Bushmen' to be 'vermin for immediate extermination'. San culture disappeared from the Drakensberg at the end of the 19th century when the remaining san people became absorbed, not always happily, into the Nguni peoples of Lesotho, and cultures of KwaZulu- Natal. Today all that remains of this culture is the unique and fascinating legacy of their art.


Using predominantly red, orange, yellow, black and white derived from mixing natural materials such as clay, burnt wood and ochre oxides, San artists set about representing their world, both outer and inner. The documentary paintings are fairly easy to comprehend - individuals interacting with one other and the clan's involvement with its environment. These are seen to change dramatically over time from the simple yet necessary pleasures of hunting and food gathering, to the arrival of black-skinned interlopers from the north and finally, to the fear-filled depictions of themselves as the hunted.


Ancient rock art, Drakensberg. Photo: M. Pearse


Less-easily grasped are the 'mysteries' that experts now generally agree represent in physical terms the metaphysical experience of spiritual adepts in a state of trance. The San, it would seem, believed that all wellbeing and sustenance in the human realm originated from 'the other side'. It was thus vital to all inhabiting the manifest world that transcendental journeys be made from time to time, the 'inner traveller' returning empowered with benefits for the individual, the clan and the surroundings. Largest of the antelope, the oft-depicted eland, appears to have symbolised both worlds - the spiritual power essential for trance, and fertility on the earthly plane... roaming in vast herds even in times of drought.


Some 600 sites and 35 000 individual images have been catalogued, a tally sure to increase as exploration continues. The oldest painting on a rock shelter wall in this World Heritage Site dates back about 2 400 years, but paint chips at least a thousand years older have also been found.


Bushman hunters, cave painting. Drakensberg Photo: M.Pearse


Visitors to the Park may not overnight in caves or beneath rock shelters adorned with San paintings - nor light fires, wet the art to 'bring out the colours' for photos, which results in their destruction, or vandalise them in any way.

Red Data


There can be no doubt that the Drakensberg's 'superlative natural phenomena and exceptional natural beauty' are inextricably linked to the region's 'unique richness of bio-diversity' and 'threatened species of universal value' - three of the criteria demanded for inclusion in the key family of World Heritage Site Natural Listings. Of the 2 153 plant species recorded in the Park, a remarkable 98 are endemic or near-endemic to this protected area. Crowning glory of these - in the eyes of many botanists - remains the ultra- rare Protea Nubigena found nowhere on earth besides a high ridge in the Royal Natal sector.


Evolution of this uniqueness within an equally-outstanding diversity of flora begins with the variation of regional altitudes - between a little over 1 000m to more than three-and-a-half times that elevation. Add to this wide-ranging topography the effects of climate, orientation of the sun, soil and geology, slope and drainage plus the crucial role of fire, and a cornucopia of inestimable value is the result. Among these plant communities - aquatic, forest, scrub, fynbos, savannah, mountain grassland and heath - are a large number of species included in both the national and international Red Data encyclopedias of threatened plants with 119 species listed globally as endangered.


Bottlebrush in bloom, Drakensberg Photo: R. Biggs


The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park and World Heritage Site is home to 299 recorded bird species - an astonishing 37% of all non- marine avi- fauna occurring throughout southern Africa. Ten species found within the Park are listed as important from the world conservation viewpoint. These include the globally-endangered Cape parrot and white-winged flufftail, and the globally threatened corncrake, lesser kestral and yellow-breasted pipit. The blue crane, Cape vulture and bald ibis are counted as globally-vulnerable, while the pallid harrier and black harrier appear on the near-threatened list.


Among the Park's 48 species of mammals are several that proliferated in great numbers prior to the arrival of white hunters. Even though the Zulu kings attempted to restrict the territorial range of these devastatingly-armed trophy hunters, damage to the animal population was significant by the mid-1800s. The World Heritage Site is playing a significant role in reversing these setbacks of history, with the eland and endemic grey rhebuck each currently enjoying a census around the 2 000 mark - the highest nationally - and colonies of clawless- and spotted-neck otters are once again the largest in the country.


The mighty mountain Eland, Drakensberg, Photo: R. Biggs


The treasures of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park and World Heritage Site now truly belong to the global community, and caring for them lies in the hands of each and every one who enters this magical wonderland high in the Kingdom of the Zulu.


Lammergeyer, Drakensberg, Photo: R. Biggs