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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Soutpansberg Mountains – A Sanctuary for Endemism and Biodiversity

A view of the Sand River, looking south.
For the month of March 2014 I was based in the Soutpansberg on a property called Medike Mountain Sanctuary.[i] My self-imposed mandate was to work on a trail through the mountains to a neighbouring property, to do a herpetological survey, learn more about the fauna and flora of the area and to simultaneously enhance my skills and knowledge of the veld.  

A view from a peak looking down on the Sand River Gorge in a north-easterly direction.
Medike Mountain Sanctuary is located to the west of Louis Trichard, Limpopo Province, South Africa. The property is owned and run by conservationists Hannes and Marietjie Underhay. They have been in the Soutpansberg area since 1986 and they have been at Medike for many years. The property is interesting as it not a nature reserve, but part of a conservation concession. The Sand River, a tributary of the Limpopo River runs through the property from South to North. There is also a railway line that runs through the property. The accommodation on the property is variable but comfortable and there is no electricity. There is a small campsite, two big cottages, a wooden house and an isolated hut called Mongezi, this is where I spent the month. 

Spinetail Millipede (Harpagophoridae), I have often seen millipedes with red on them and even millipedes with a reddish colouration, but this specimen was a very striking red. No doubt full of toxins.
This Solifuge was hunting at night. The skin on its abdomen was translucent and I can see what appears to be fat cells through the wall of the abdomen.
This Garden Orb Web Spider, Argiope, was found moving on the ground at night. I must have knocked it off its web earlier that evening without noticing.
Opistophthalmus glabrifrons. These are extreme animals and are able to tolerate the toxins in millipedes which they are partial to.
Moving through the grass, this Predatory Katydid (Perigueyella) is a formidable predator.
The Magnificent Jewel Beetle, Amblysterna natalensis. This is one of the most beautiful insects, the biology of this species is not very well know, but they are associated with Acacia(Vachelia/Senagalia) and Dichrostachys. Some species of Jewel Beetles are very long lived and larvae of over 30 years old have been reported. This individual was about four centimetres in length.

Gay Weevil (Polyclaeis equestris). Another beautiful beetle associated with
Acacia (Vachelia/Senagalia) trees.
Acanthoplus armativentris, these animals are fantastic. The larger winged individuals make a rattling sound while they are feeding. I wonder if this is to attract more individuals of the same species to the food source?

Close-up of the compound eyes of a newly emerged Dragonfly. Essentially the whole front part of the animal is made up of eyes.
 This is one of the few scorpions I saw during the month of March. Uroplectes vittatus, a beautiful scorpion, the patterning and colouration at first seems ordinary, but as soon as you look a little closer it becomes exquisite.
Pachycondyla. This is the biggest ant I have seen. Slow moving and on its own, it stopped to clean itself while I took this picture.

Medike Mountain Sanctuary has a rather large diversity of habitats. The Sand River Gorge is mostly made up of valley bushveld, but because of the mountains there are many other habitats, including grassy slopes, riverine forest, thickets, rocky ridges and even sandveld. The great diversity of habitats has led to a high species endemism and a high biodiversity in the Soutpansberg.[ii] In the future I hope to work with specialists and do more detailed surveys into the plants, invertebrates and small mammals of the region.

The following serves as an exposition of the biodiversity I documented and observed during my time in the Soutpansberg at Medike. My primary research objective during the month was to observe reptiles and work on the creation of a reptile list. What I found was only a fraction of what occurs in the area; but from a research perspective the month was very productive. I found and photographed many lizards and a few snakes.

Speke's Hinged Tortoise, Kinixys spekii, this juvenile was found basking in the road. A few days later I saw it on a civetry, perhaps it was eating arthropod exoskeletons for the calcium carbonate, a key ingredient for the development of this animal's carapace.
Lygodactylus capensis subsp. capensis, the Common Dwarf Gecko. These diurnal geckos are widespread, this is one of three species occurring in the Soutpansberg region.


To give an impression of the high reptilian diversity in the area, here is a list of lizards I found in and around the hut I was living in (30 metres in any direction): Common House Gecko; Wahlberg’s Velvet Gecko; Flat Gecko, Turner’s Tubercled Gecko; Common Dwarf Gecko; Wahlberg’s Snake-eyed Skink; Limpopo Dwarf Burrowing Skink; Rainbow Skink; Soutpansberg Girdled Lizard; Variable Skink; Peter’s Ground Agama and Flap-necked Chameleon.  Having all these reptiles around was a pleasure and it allowed me to observe them at my leisure. A few individuals became very accustomed to my presence and I got to observe some interesting behaviours. Below is a brief summary of the behaviours I observed.

Peter's Ground Agama, Agama armata. I saw several individuals of this species in the area. In cladistics Agamas, Chameleons, Monitor Lizards and Snakes are all 'closely related' and they make up a group known as the venom clade.
Trachylepis varia, the Variable Skink. These skinks are one of my favourite reptiles. This one shows a regenerated tail and a scar on its shoulder.

Flat Geckos
The taxonomic status of this species is currently unresolved. I know that it is Afrodura, SARCA (South African Reptile Conservation Assessment) lists two tentative species for the region. I am busy trying to figure out which species these are.  There were many individuals of this genus in and around my hut. They seemed to be unaffected by the Tropical House Geckos which they shared a living space with (although a follow up would need to be done to confirm this). The flat geckos moved off the walls of the house and ventured into the surrounding environment to forage at night. When it rained I would often see individuals moving swiftly over open ground back to the shelter of the hut. 

Afroedura spp, some confusion with these geckos. According to SARCA there are two tentative species in the area "A. pienaari" and "A. soutpansbergensis". Their taxonomy is still to be resolved.
These geckos are relatively slow moving and became rather tame. Many individuals of various sizes were seen to share the shelter of the hut. One rainy evening I watched a Flat Gecko enter the hut and move to a small crack on some shelving against the wall of the hut where the gecko hid for four days (it seemed to have maintained the exact same position for four days).

Afroedura spp, there were many of these Flat Geckos around the house. This is an adult. They superficially resemble house geckos, however their bodies are smooth and their movement is different.

Soutpansberg Girdled Lizards and Rainbow Skinks
When I first moved into the hut there were three individuals around the hut. My presence immediately scared one away (I only saw it on the first two days). Then there were two that inhabited their individual rocks. One was caked in mud, which suggests to me that it lived under a rock in burrow and one inhabited a large crack which ran horizontally along the surface of a large flat boulder. 

Flat Girdled Lizard, Smaug warreni subsp. depressus. This individual was caked in mud and was a regular sight around my hut until one day it was gone.
 The lizard caked in mud spent about ten days on its rock but then suddenly disappeared and I never saw it again. The lizard inhabiting the large flat rock became far more accustomed to my presence, it did however disappear for about eleven days. Where it went, I have no idea. During this lizard’s disappearance a large female rainbow skink moved into the crack and stayed for a few days. On  a certain day a large male Rainbow skink appeared and the female Rainbow Skink disappeared. Then one day the Girdled Lizard was back and so was the female Rainbow Skink. By the time I left both lizards were still on the rock.

Flat Girdled Lizard (Smaug warreni subsp. depressus). This individual was immediately scared off by my presence. 

Flap-necked Chameleons
In the grass around my hut there were a few juvenile Flap-necked Chameleons. I was unable to observe these individuals during the day as they are notoriously cryptic. I did however note that the chameleons were partial to stay in the same vicinity for a few days before disappearing and favoured sleeping locations between 60cm and 140cm. 

Chamaeleo dilepis, the Flap-necked Chameleon. These were very common and I would see between two and four a night. 
Another Flap-necked Chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis).

 Wahlberg’s Velvet Gecko
One night I watched a gecko moving across the wall of the interior of the hut. Its movement was slow and deliberate and I could immediately see that it was not the usual Flat Gecko or House Gecko. I got up and had a look and I was pleased to see that it was a Juvenile Wahlberg’s Velvet Gecko. I saw it a few more times around the hut. 

Beautiful little Wahlberg's Velvet Gecko, Homopholis wahlbergii . I saw this little guy inside my hut a few times.

Turner’s Tubercled Gecko
The first gecko I saw in the hut, the night I moved in was a big Turner’s Tubercled Gecko. This individual lived in the hut for the entire time I was there and when I saw it outside it was often making its way back in. The gecko was tame and would move around but usually making its way back to one of its two retreats that I was aware of: a gap in the wood on the base of my bed or behind a plastic curtain against a wall of the hut. 
Chondrodactylus turneri, Turner's Tubercled Gecko. These large geckos were common in the area. I often saw them moving over open ground.
Common Tropical House Gecko
These geckos are very common throughout South Africa and many people have them in their homes. My hut was no exception and I had quite a few individuals living in my hut. These geckos were aggressive to members of their same species and their creaking clicking sound was often emitted from different parts of the hut at night.

Common Tropical House Gecko, Hemidactylus mabouia, a very widespread gecko. One of the few animals that are able to thrive in association with humans and development.
The reptile diversity in the greater area seemed to be just as high. I found all the species I had around the hut plus many more in the varied habitats on the property. In total I found 30 different species of reptile in the month.[iii] During this time I saw my first representative of the Amphisbaenidae family (Worm Lizards). I was trying to photograph a gecko and it went under a large rock. I lifted the large rock and saw the worm lizard just lying there. I was stupefied and the lizard made its escape. I also lost the gecko in this series of events. 

Limpopo Dwarf Burrowing Skink (Scelotes limpopoensis subsp. limpopoensis).  Fascinating lizards, I found a total of three of these on separate occasions, all under stones in leaf-litter. The way in which they move through the leaves is incredible, like a monitor moving underwater, they hold their limbs to their sides and 'swim'.
Natal Rock Python, Python natalensis. It is always wonderful to see a python in the wild. This snake managed to get a few teeth into me while I was trying to get control of it for a photograph. The bite was superficial, but because of the amount of teeth and their sharpness, there is a lot of blood very quickly. I washed the wound a few hours later with soap and suffered no ill effects. There are many stories of nasty bacteria that creates sepsis when a non-venomous snake such as the python bite people. I am yet to meet someone who has suffered from a bacterial attack following a snake bite.
Atractaspis bibronii, Bibron's Stilleto Snake. These are small black snakes that can, despite their small size, deliver a nasty bite characterised by pain and necrosis. Not a snake to be underestimated.
Western Stripe-bellied Sandsnake (Psammophis subtaeniatus). I saw quite a few of these in the Soutpansberg. They are very common in the Limpopo Basin. They are active even during the hottest times of day and actively hunt lizards.
Another Afroedura gecko. I found many of these and look forward to finding out which species they are once the taxonomy is resolved.
A composite image of the endemic Soutpansberg Flat Lizard, Platysaurus relictus. These are really beautiful lizards and this male is in full breeding plumage. It was bold and confident of its place.
A  very large Gerrhosaurus validus, the Giant Plated Lizard.
Gerrhosaurus flavigularis, the Yellow-throated Plated Lizard. These lizards are common and move fast. They actively hunt prey and like the Sandsnake these can often be seen during the hottest part of the day. 
A chance encounter, Flap-necked Chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis) found moving around during the day. This individual was in a heightened state of terror as can be seen from its speckled colouration and gape.
Bitis arietans subsp. arietans, the Puff Adder. As can be seen in this image these snakes can conceal themselves well. I found this snake while walking through very tall grass. I am surprised I saw it all, when I think about it I wonder how many I must step past, over and even on.
Flat Girdled Lizard (Smaug warreni subsp. depressus). An endemic sub-species to the Soutpansberg range.
This is one of the best things I found during March, a Black Mamba Skull. It was fascinating to see the structure of the skull and the remains. These animals are so formidable, yet they are so delicate. Cause of death was an overdose of kinetic energy passed on by a train.
Lygodactylus ocellatus subsp. soutpansbergensis, The Soutpansberg Dwarf Gecko. This is an endemic subspecies to the Soutpansberg mountains. I have been looking for this species for some time, one afternoon I saw two but was unable to photograph them as they were very retiring. I returned to the area where I found them numerous times and was unable to see any. Just when I had resigned myself to not photographing the species I spotted one on my last day at an altitude far lower than I would have expected to find it. I am really pleased to have documented the gecko.
Homopholus wahlbergii, Wahlberg's Velvet Gecko. This full grown individual was very bold. These are large geckos and are active during the day and at night. They often eat other geckos.
This Leopard Tortoise, Stigmochelys pardalis, was the last reptilian record for my time in the Soutpansberg. I observed it while on the road out.
Although it was late summer I did encounter a few amphibians. The common Red Toad, Eastern Olive Toad and Common River Frog were the most abundant. I also saw a few Natal Sand Frogs and two very pale Russet-backed Sand Frogs. I aim do a follow up survey later this year when it is breeding season to see what other frogs can be found out there.  

The Eastern Olive Toad, Amietophrynus garmani. These toads were common and I saw many. There were a few that were around my hut and would get inside.
Schismaderma carens, the Red Toad. These beautiful frogs are common in suitable habitat and active even on sunny days. I have often found them on roofs and in trees at varying heights which suggests an inclination in this species to climb.

Natal Sand Frog (Tomopterna natalensis). I was lucky enough to find a group of these frogs calling in a pond. This one was so fixated on attracting a mate that it was unconcerned about my presence while photographing it. 

Russet-backed Sand Frog (Tomopterna marmorata). I came across two of these frogs in the whole month. They were both very 'blonde' compared to individuals I have found in other locations.
The Soutpansberg is a birding hotspot, this is due to the diversity of habitats. Medike Mountain Sanctuary offers birders a very good spread of habitats and is birder friendly. My birding highlights (I was not actively birding) were some great observations of Verreaux’s Eagle. One observation of these eagles took place while I was very high up. The eagles were flying lower than I was standing and they moved towards me while increasing their altitude and did a flyover which was just spectacular. Another highlight was a pair of Lanner Falcons reinforcing their pair bond by calling and displaying. There were also many other fantastic sightings, another worth mentioning was seeing Crested Guinea Fowl on many occasions and hearing them on a daily basis. These birds are also indecently represented on the logo of Medike Mountain Sanctuary. Medike is birder friendly and there are many specials that can be seen in the area. [iv]

Guttera edouardi subsp. edouardi, the Crested Guineafowl. These birds have the strangest character and their call matches their looks perfectly.
This composite image depicts a pair of Verreaux's Eagle (Aquila verreauxii).  I was high up in the mountains when I captured these images. The eagles rose in altitude and seemed to be curious about my presence.

The Soutpansberg boasts a large variety of mammals. The few private nature reserves and hunting ranches have plains game, but the private properties in the conservancy are refuge to many species. One can see five species of primate in the Soutpansberg, the Vervet Monkey, Samango Monkey, Chacma Baboon, Thick-tailed Bush Baby and Lesser Bush Baby. The mountains are also said to support the highest density of Leopards outside of an officially protected area in Africa (for more information on the mammals of the region see:

Sometimes one finds the craziest things. I came across these four little babies high up in the rocks on a summit in the mountains. These are Dwarf Mongoose, Helogale parvula subsp. parvula.
Continuing with the baby mammal theme, I found this tiny mouse one evening in front of my hut. To give a sense of scale those are grains of rice in the image. I have no idea what species this is.
For the month of March I recorded the following mammals: Rock Hyrax, Baboon, Tree Squirrel, Sengi, Sharpe’s Grysbok (tracks), Klipspringer, Thick-tailed Bushbaby, Bush Pig, Aardvark (tracks), Vervet Monkey, Bush buck (tracks and skull), Kudu (tracks, call and skull), Dwarf Mongoose, Banded Mongoose, Water Mongoose (tracks), African Civet (tracks, faeces), Small Spotted Genet, Leopard (scat) and then there were numerous small mammals such as scrub hares, rodents and bats.
The Sengi or Elephant Shrew (Elephantulus spp) these are fast and always a delight to see. Sometimes they freeze and one can get a photo before they are gone again.
Two observations of mammals were very special. One day I found four baby dwarf mongoose high up in the mountains while searching for geckos. The rest of the family group was all around me and they were calling and seemed highly agitated. Another memorable observation was seeing some Bush Pigs in the day high up in the mountains. It was the first time I have seen these animals (in the past I have only seen tracks and bones). I was struck by how large they are.

Procavia capensis, the Hyrax, known in South Africa as the Dassie. These animals are rock specialists and a favourite prey of many animals, including the Black Mamba and the Verreaux's Eagle.
Medike Mountain Sanctuary boasts some incredible trees. The diversity of trees in the area is very high and the property has some remarkable specimens of many species.[v] There are some really impressive Yellow Wood Trees (Afrocarpus falcatus), Kiaats (Pterocarpus angolensis), Baobabs (Adansonia kilima) and many more.

Adansonia kilima, a Baobab Tree growing on a strange plateau about half-way up the mountain. This individual was very large. I would estimate the girth to be just under three metres.  
There were some trees on the property that when I saw them the first thought I had was that I never knew they could get so large, especially high up in the mountains where people have not been able to harvest them.

Conservation in the area
In today’s world, natural areas are under a lot of pressure from human activity. Exploitation of natural resources, human encroachment due to expanding developments, poaching and general pollution – these all affect the Soutpansberg in some way. At the moment the mountains are a World Heritage Site and they form part of a Biosphere reserve. These things sound very impressive in theory, but in practice there is not much official recognition of the value of these mountains. 

Some pottery in the style associated with the Venda people. Many people have inhabited these mountains and human habitation in the Soutpansberg goes back a million years.
Pollution from outside villages and towns to the south of the Soutpansberg bring in pollutants, litter and weeds. The hills are also used by collectors who hunt and poach medicinal plants. These issues are minor compared to the human activity around the mountains. As villages get closer and land reformation takes place, it is the natural environment that is lost, habitat is eaten up, the influx of pollutants and weeds increases, human activities such as hunting, poaching, collecting of natural resources increases, having a knock-on effect on the environment. 
A stark landscape on an exposed summit. No vegetation except for the lichen, yet there are many spiders and lizards moving about on the rocks. Mining could destroy even this if valuable minerals were found in these mountains. Luckily, the rocks are considered mineraly unimportant.  
The biggest threat to the area is mining. Mining companies have so much money, they can effectively mine anywhere they like (think about the Karoo and even places like the Great Barrier Reef). If coal (or any other ‘valuable’ commodity) was found in the Soutpansberg and it was determined that it would be worth mining it, there would really not be anything people could do about it. At that level of economic activity money will have the final say and the mountains will be destroyed. 

The ripples that can be seen in this image are a result of a time when there was a period of the deposition of sediment on the shores of a great inland basin some 1 800 000 000 years ago. These rocks which were once below water are now make up a ridge that runs along the summit of the mountains. 

Despite these outside threats, conservationists in the area are working hard to protect these mountains and the fauna and flora of the reserve. These conservation initiatives are being spearheaded by Leshiba Wilderness, Lajuma Research Centre and conservationist land owners like Hannes and Marietjie Underhay at Medike.

Anyone who has been in the African Bush knows exactly how mesmerizing a view of the Southern sky on a clear night can be. With the prominence of the Milky Way running from horizon to horizon and the movement of the constellations through the night and over the days.

During March the constellation of Orion was a familiar site and later into the night Antares would rise, dragging the rest of Scorpio with it. At a certain point in the month Antares and Mars could be seen very close to one another.

This image shows the constellation of Orion. The planet Jupiter is the bright object on the left.
Watching the planets Mars and Jupiter night after night as they orbited the sun and the moon as it orbits the earth and then the stars, the outer arm of the Milky Way and the two visible galaxies that are out of our own galactic system really puts things into perspective and the absurdity of western way of life manifests itself as a feeling of emptiness and loneliness. The way people live in the world during this period of late-capitalism is so poisonous – commodification of everything, rampant consumerism, the consumption of natural resources, the extermination of life everywhere – the world does not have to be this way, yet the system has taken on its own momentum and people have enslaved themselves. Medike Mountain Sanctuary is a refuge from that world. A place where one can reconnect with what is important, a place where darkness is darkness and where birds, reptiles and insects live like they have been living for millions of years. 

[i] See for details on the property.

[ii] For more information see a detailed document on the environmental, biological and cultural assets of the Soutpansberg:

[iii] List of reptiles observed:
Peter’s Ground Agama                                    Agama armata          
Worm Lizard                                                     Amphisbaenidae
Stilleto Snake                                                     Atractaspis bibronii
Natal Rock Python                                           Python natalensis
Flap-necked Chameleon                                Chamaeleo dilepis
Olive Whip Snake                                             Psammophis mossambicus
Western Stripe-bellied Sand snake            Psammophis subtaeniatus
*Soutpansberg Flat Lizard                            Platysaurus relictus                          
*Flat Girdled Lizard                                         Smaug warreni depressus                 
Black Mamba                                                     Dendroaspis polylepis
Mozambique Spitting Cobra                         Naja mossambica
*Flat Gecko                                                         Afrodura spp                                     
Turner’s Tubercled Gecko                            Chondrodactylus turneri
Common House Gecko                                   Hemidactylus mabouia
Common Dwarf Gecko                                    Lygodactylus capensis capensis
*Soutpansberg Dwarf Gecko                        Lygodactylus ocellatus soutpansbergensis   
Van Son’s Gecko                                               Pachydactylus vansoni
Yellow-throated Plated Lizard                    Gerrhosaurus flavigularis
Rough-scaled Plated Lizard                         Gerrhosaurus major major
Giant Plated Lizard                                        Gerrhosaurus validus validus
Thread Snake                                                   Leptotyphlops spp
Spotted-necked Snake-eyed Skink            Afroablepharus maculicollis
Sundevall’s Writhing Skink                         Mochlus sundevallii
Limpopo Dwarf Burrowing Skink             Scelotes limpopoensis limpopoensis 
Rainbow Skink                                                Trachylepis margaritifer
Variable Skink                                                 Trachylepis varia
Speke’s Hinged Tortoise                               Kinixys spekii
Leopard Tortoise                                            Stigmochelys pardalis
Nile Monitor                                                    Varanus niloticus
Puff Adder                                                        Bitis arietans arietans

[iv] The following is from the document A First Synthesis of the Environmental, Biological & Cultural Assets of the Soutpansberg
 “Birds of prey are especially well represented, with 38 species, as are forest-living species, and species restricted to moist savanna (on SE side of mountain range) and to arid savanna (on NW side of the mountains). Some of the “ special” species of the Soutpansberg are Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres, Crowned Eagle Stephanoaetus coronatus, Forest Buzzard Buteo trizonatus, Bat Hawk Macheiramphus alcinus, Crested Guineafowl Guttera pucherani, Blue-spotted Wood Dove Turtur afer, Knysna Turaco Tauraco corythaix, Pel’s Fishing Owl Scotopelia peli, Mottled Spinetail Telecanthura ussheri, Narina Trogon Apaloderma narina, African Broadbill Smithornis capensis, Grey Cuckoo-shrike Coracina caesia, African Golden Oriole Oriolus auratus, Eastern Bearded Robin Erythropygia quadrivirgata, Gorgeous Bush Shrike Telephorus quadricolor, Black-fronted Bush Shrike T. nigrifrons, Golden-backed Pytilia Pytilia afra, Green Twinspot Mandingoa nitidula and Pink-throated Twinspot Hypargos margaritatus. Birdwatchers from all over the world come to the Soutpansberg to see these “ specials” and, of course, the many other species that are present here.
At least 6 Red Data-listed ‘vulnerable’ species occur here (White-backed Night Heron Gorsachius leuconotus, Cape Vulture, Martial Eagle Polemaetus bellicosus, African Finfoot Podica senegalensis, Grass Owl Tyto capensis, Pel’s Fishing Owl), and 11 ‘near-threatened’ species (Black Stork Ciconia nigra, Bat Hawk, Ayres’ Eagle Hieraetus ayresii, Crowned Eagle, Peregrine Falco peregrinus minor and Lanner Falcons Falco biarmicus, Half-collared Kingfisher Alcedo semitorquata, African Broadbill, Orange Thrush Zoothera gurneyi, Wattle-eyed Flycatcher Platysteira peltata, Pink-throated Twinspot). Although not Red Data-listed, three other rare South African species also occur here — Blue-spotted Dove, Mottled Spinetail, Golden-backed Pytilia Phytilia afra—and the Soutpansberg is the stronghold in South Africa for these species. Another very unusual species—Ruppell’s Vulture Gyps rupellii — was discovered (a single bird) living in the Cape Vulture breeding colony at Blouberg. This is the first South African record for this East African species.” (

[v] For a comprehensive tree list email me at and I will forward an electronic copy to you.