South Africa was a relatively early adopter of the principles of ecotourism, which The International Ecotourism Society defined as “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”
More than half of the country’s total population lives below the international poverty line, in large part due to the class and racial divide created by decades of Apartheid. And many of the most popular South Africa attractions draw visitors thanks to their rich biodiversity and exceptional natural beauty.
With 22 national parks spanning 3.7 million hectares (about 4% of the country’s total area), it makes sense that South Africa has emerged in the last 20 years as a haven for nature-lovers and wildlife enthusiasts. Here are a few of our favorite eco-friendly South Africa attractions you won’t want to miss when you visit:
Located in eastern Mpumalanga, this 29,000-hectare nature reserve protects the Blyde River Canyon, which includes gorgeous sections of the Ohrigstad and Blyde Rivers as well as parts of the striking Mogologolo, Mariepskop and Hebronberg massifs.
One of the main attractions are the geological formations known as Bourke’s Luck Potholes (a.k.a. Giant’s Kettles). The striated rocks and colorful plunge pools are stunning when seen from the pedestrian bridges above.
Don’t miss a drive through the canyon’s famed Panorama Route, where landmarks such as God’s Window, Wonder View and The Pinnacle will take your breath away!
This wildlife rehabilitation facility garnered international attention in August of 2015 thanks to a visit by Britain’s Prince Harry. The conservation organization was founded by Petronel Niewoudt, a former captain in the Endangered Species Protection Unit of the South Africa police force.
Situated on a beautiful game reserve on the banks of the Vreek, Noord-Kaap and Queens River in Mpumulanga, the centre’s mission is to rescue orphaned, abandoned, injured and displaced animals; rehabilitate them with the help of veterinary doctors and volunteers; and release them back into the wild whenever possible.
Volunteers at CFWA have an opportunity to work with their experienced team, learn about hand- rearing and infant care and species nutrition, and to work closely with orphaned rhinos and care for a variety of other wildlife species.
Named after the Afrikaans word for “Dragon Mountains,” this picturesque chain forms the eastern portion of South Africa’s Great Escarpment, which peaks ranging from 6,600 to 9,800 feet. It stretches over 600 miles, forming the border between Lesotho and both the Eastern Cape and the KwaZulu-Natal Province, and between KwaZulu-Natal and the Mpumalanga Province.
The stunning, largely treeless slopes are the continent’s most southerly high mountains, providing cooler habitats at lower elevations than most African mountain ranges. High rainfall makes this the source of the Orange River (southern Africa’s longest), as well as the world’s second-highest waterfall, Tugela Falls (which drops a total of 3,107 ft).
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to a rich variety of plant life: Of the 2,153 total species, 119 are listed as endangered and 98 are either endemic or near-endemic. There’s an equally impressive diversity of wildlife, including around 300 bird species and wildlife such as the rare southern white rhino, black wildebeest, eland, reedbuck, baboons and numerous other species.
If you’re looking for an authentic wildlife conservation project to volunteer with during your time in South Africa, the INGWE Leopard Research Center offers a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in the African bush while also contributing to vital scientific research.
Leopards are the only “Big 5” species that still roams free outside the protections of the country’s national parks and game reserves. Currently listed as Threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, this apex predator is facing rampant habitat loss and increased persecution by humans in retribution for killing livestock.
INGWE’s mission is to conserve and protect leopards by gathering research data on leopard density, behaviour and population, which helps the South African government make better policy decisions. Volunteers get a unique opportunity to assist researchers by visiting game reserves where they monitor leopard populations via camera trapping, helping to catalogue camera trap data and identifying individual leopards as well as other species.
Located inside Kapama Private Game Reserve, the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre specializes in the conservation of rare, vulnerable or endangered animals. But their primary focus is on my personal favorite of the Big Cat species, the speedy, spotted Cheetah.
Their mission is multi-fold: They treat and rehabilitate orphaned and injured animals, breed certain rare and endangered species in captivity, release captive-bred Cheetahs back into the wild, and work to educate students and wildlife enthusiasts from all over the world via conservation-related activities.
Their intensive, hands-on Student’s Program work side by side with full-time staff to help out with daily tasks such as feeding, animal care and cleaning. Along the way, they learn about ecotourism and conservation principles while getting up close to gorgeous animals that also include Wild Dogs, Black-Footed Cats, Lion, African Wild Cats, Sable Antelope, and more.
One of the largest game reserves in all of Africa, Kruger National Park covers 7,523 square miles (220 miles long and 40 miles wide) in the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces. Though it became the country’s first national park in 1926, some areas have been protected since 1989, and it remains one of the world’s most beloved ecotourism attractions.
As far as wildlife safaris go, Kruger rivals Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya’s Masai Mara in terms of jaw-dropping encounters. With around 2,800 African Lions, 12,000 African Elephants, 27,000 Cape Buffalo, 2,000 Leopards and over 10,000 Rhinoceros, visitors are virtually guaranteed to get the quintessential “Big 5” experience.
But there are also myriad lesser-known species of flora and fauna that make Kruger a favorite among nature-lovers, including over 500 species of birds, 147 large mammal species, 114 reptiles, and 33 amphibians. If you’re really lucky, you might get to see the endangered African Wild Dog: Kruger is home to nearly half of the remaining population of around 400 individuals.
Opened in 1991 in the shadow of the majestic Mariepskop mountain, Moholoholo specializes in rescuing and rehabilitating orphaned and injured animals. The Center is run by wildlife conservation expert Brian Jones, whose lectures on the subject earned him a 2003 Terra Nova Award nomination and got him featured on the National Geographic Channel.
Of course, some animals are incapable of being released back into the wild, so the Center features a number of permanent residents, including rescued Lions from an Egyptian Circus, Queen the Crowned Eagle, Chui the Leopard, and Jolly & Juba the Cheetah. All of them serve as wildlife ambassadors for their educational programs, with attract over 1,000 visitors per month.
Visitors will learn all about the problems South Africa’s endangered species face and the challenges associated with conservation and habitat protection. They’ll also learn about the Centre’s successful breeding projects, which include the release of 160 Servals (a beautiful wild cat) into areas where they’d gone extinct as well as being the only facility in South Africa to have successfully bred the endangered Crown Eagle. –text & photos by Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 21 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution to Rolling Stone. Along with his photographer wife Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.