The physical landscape around us is closely linked to the vegetation that grows there, which informs us which herbivores, birds and other species can survive in that habitat. Eco zones within the Kruger National Park, for example, are determined by factors such as rainfall and soil type, creating distinct habitats for different species. By studying these eco-zones, researchers can gain a deeper understanding of the complex relationships between the plants and animals that call them home.
#1. Mixed bushwillow woodlands
The granite bedrock of Kruger National Park is characterised by gentle undulating hills and large rocky outcrops. The soils produced by granite tend to be sandy and low in nutrients, but further down the hills and in valleys between the hills, the dense granite holds water and the sandy soils are more capable of holding nutrients. This eco-zone is most prevalent in the south of the park, with the S36 west of Satara running through a long section of mixed bushwillow woodlands and the H1-1 and H3 north of Malelane Gate also traversing large masses of this habitat. The Napi Trail route is also within this eco-zone, and the area surrounding the Punda Maria rest camp in the far north of the park is a similar habitat type. Mixed bushwillow woodlands are home to a variety of wildlife, including giraffe, zebra, and various antelope species. Visitors to this eco-zone may also spot predators such as lions, leopards and wild dogs, as well as a variety of bird species.
#2. Pretoriuskop Sourveld
This eco-zone is an interesting mix of undulating granite hills and valleys with vegetation that has been influenced by humans and their use of the land over time. It is formed by water and wind erosion over millennia, producing nutrient-deficient hilltops and rocky outcrops with more fertile valleys and drainage lines either side. The area around the Pretoriuskop Camp was farmed by Europeans in the past, leaching nutrients from the valley and hillslope areas. Different plant species are able to flourish in these soil conditions, such as large-fruited bushwillow and silver cluster-leaf. The underlying grasses are sour throughout, which attract specially adapted animals such as klipspringers and sable antelope. The only example of this eco-zone in Kruger is to the north and south of the Pretoriuskop Camp, with the S3, S7 and S10 plus S8 and S14 being the main roads for exploring it. This eco-zone is also home to several bird species, including the African fish eagle and the Wahlberg's eagle. Visitors can also spot various reptiles and insects, such as chameleons and dung beetles, in this unique habitat.
#3. Malelane mountain bushveld
This eco-zone is a continuation of the Mixed bushwillow woodlands, but with a mountainous physical profile and drainage system. The granite mountains produce nutrient-deficient soils and the steep slopes mean soil depths are very shallow and stony. However, the valleys have a greater density of nutrients washed into them from higher slopes, with deeper clay soils and many flowing drainage lines. The tree vegetation remains similar to the nearby mixed bushwillow woodlands, but the grasses are a different mix of very sour and very sweet, attracting different grazers. The area around and to the northwest of Berg-en-Dal rest camp is the only example of this eco-zone in Kruger. The Bushman / Boesman Trail is also based in this eco-zone.
#4. Knob-thorn / marula savannah on Basalt
Basalt soils are rich in nitrogen and fertile, with sweet grasses growing over great expanses. Fires prevent significant tree cover from taking hold, and the vast grassy plains attract large herds of zebra and wildebeest, buffalo and ostrich, and small browsers such as steenbok. The great plains predators follow the herds, including lion, cheetah and spotted hyena. Satara rest camp sits at the heart of this eco-zone, with the H1-3, H6 and S100 roads traversing this savannah habitat. Lower Sabie rest camp and the H10 also sit within this eco-zone. This eco-zone is known as the savannah biome and is characterised by its grassy plains and diverse wildlife.
#5. Lebombo mountain bushveld
The Lebombo mountain range forms the eastern boundary of Kruger and South Africa’s international border with Mozambique. Its soils are rich in silica compounds but deficient in organic materials and nutrients. The slow erosion of rhyolite and the exposed mountainous landscape also means that any newly created soil is rapidly displaced by wind and rain, leaving little for plants to grow in. Any grasses that are able to get a foothold in this rocky environment are lacking in nutrients and do not attract many grazers.
#6. Olifants rugged veld
This eco-zone consists of open basalt plains with rhyolite boulders strewn across the landscape. The basalt is a soft, nutrient-rich rock that erodes easily and forms flat plains, while the rhyolite is much harder but lacks nutrients. The soil is a stony mix of the two and the result is a habitat that is reasonably fertile but difficult for animals to navigate or for plants to take hold. Trees able to prosper include tall common corkwood, knob-thorn and shepherd’s tree. Grasses are a mix of sweet and unpalatable depending on the season and quality of the soil. Populations of lion, leopard, cheetah and spotted hyena usually follow the grazers like Kudu, Zebra and Wildebeest which can be found in the area, and the open landscape can offer outstanding game viewing. Only present in one area within Kruger, the road network to the south of Olifants Rest Camp.
#7. Stunted knob-thorn savannah
This eco-zone is present in one area of Kruger, the S90 and a section of the H1-4 between Satara and Olifants rest camps. It is composed of a shallow layer of soft, nutrient-rich basalt above calcrete. This geology is effective at holding water meaning pans and marshy terrain can appear quickly when rains arrive. In turn, dense grasses take hold, creating huge meadow-like plains. Trees are less able to prosper here because of wildfires and the limited soil depth. Knob-thorn and buffalo-thorn that does grow is stunted in height as a result.
Sandveld is the rugged sandstone hills and outcrops within Kruger, where the soils are sandy and poor at retaining water, discouraging grasses from growing but allowing large, deep-rooted trees to thrive. Lebombo ironwood, white seringa, pod mahogany and mighty baobabs are able to flourish in these habitats, but do not provide significant food sources for large mammals.
#9. Mopane / bushwillow woodlands
The granite bedrock eco-zone in Kruger is characterised by gentle undulating downs and a flat landscape. The soils produced by granite tend to be sandy and low in nutrients, but can gather in valleys to form clays capable of supporting dense vegetation. A particularly dominant vegetation type in this eco-zone is red bushwillow, which is a favoured food source for browsers such as elephant, kudu and impala and attracts apex predators. The H9 and H14 roads heading towards Phalaborwa Gate take visitors through some of the best parts of this landscape.