Meet Mpondoland’s new BioBlitz All-Stars

The Great Southern BioBlitz was a wonderful opportunity for the passionate young Mpondoland team to come from nowhere and snatch a place in the spotlight plus a star rating – ranking fourth in the southern hemisphere for the number of observations uploaded to iNaturalist!


Meet Mpondoland’s new BioBlitz All-Stars

The Great Southern BioBlitz was a wonderful opportunity for the passionate young Mpondoland team to come from nowhere and snatch a place in the spotlight plus a star rating – ranking fourth in the southern hemisphere for the number of observations uploaded to iNaturalist!

Lumko Mboyi captures images of riverine plants at Silaka nature reserve during the 2023 Great Southern BioBlitz. Photo by Ziyanda Mpati


There is an Nguni proverb, “Inkunzi isematholeni” – which speaks to succession planning and means, “The bull that will sustain the herd will always come from the calves.”

That is exactly what the youth biodiversity stewardship scheme has aimed to achieve in Mpondoland, that glorious but under-resourced region running from the Mthawuvumi river (previously Mtamvuna) south along the coast to the Mthatha river. Now we have seen the outcome of that scheme blooming prolifically as young people threw themselves into displaying Mpondoland’s natural riches in the Great Southern BioBlitz – and this one region of the Eastern Cape succeeded in making nearly a tenth of the 91 000 observations achieved across southern Africa!

They were working in a particularly special space. Together with the magnificent sandstone cliff and rock formations, the highly diverse marine life and human archaeology that dates back almost 30 000 years, Mpondoland’s natural riches make it suitable to be recognised as a world heritage site.

CEET EcoTrainer Phindile scans across the Msikaba gorge near Lusikisiki in Mpondoland. Photo by Lumko Mboyi



In Mpondoland, many people still struggle with deprived and difficult living conditions. Yet much of the community also recognises the importance of the goods and services provided within the wonderful ecosystem around them, from medicinal and cultural herbs to sacred sites for initiation schools.

Many are concerned about the environmental impact of proposed development projects, from extracting oil and gas to building a toll road through areas where critical biodiversity is poorly protected. Unprotected areas are also under increasing pressure from agriculture, commercial forestry, overgrazing, excessive burning of grassland and mining.

As well as working with groups of livestock farmers, various NGOs including SANBI, Conservation Exposure Education & Training (CEET), Sustaining the Wild Coast and Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Association (ECPTA) have been helping to grow a concept of local youth stewardship for the biodiversity of Mpondoland.

For GSB2023, a team pooled from Conservation Exposure Education & Training, Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Association and Port St Johns Local Municipality took on Silaka nature reserve south of Port St Johns. Photo by Mandisa Wopula


Mpondoland’s range of habitats – rivers, ocean, cliffs, gorges, grassland and forest – all add to the exciting range of species here, both for the EcoRangers’ work and for the tally of the Great Southern BioBlitz. Almost 200 plants are found only in Mpondoland, earning the area the title of a centre of plant endemism.

The large majority of Mpondoland’s endemics are believed to be ancient species that have been largely unchanged for millions of years (palaeoendemics). Many of these endemics are very narrowly distributed along the coastal belt. The endemic woody plants mostly occur in stream and river forests within 15 kilometres of the sea.

It remains a mystery why nearly all these endemic species are clumped together and confined to certain areas – even though adjoining areas have similar landscape (topography) and soil composition (substrate).

Top left: African hyacinth (Ledebouria sandersonii) is locally common in eastern South Africa. Top right: This chafer beetle (Leucocelis haemorrhoidalis) belongs to the scarab family. Bottom: Strenuous conservation efforts helped the Cape vulture (Gyps coprotheres) recover from endangered to vulnerable in 2021. Photos by Lumko Mboyi



Plenty of young people in Mpondoland combine respect for their natural heritage with awareness of the region’s important environmental issues – and eagerly enrol with CEET as EcoRangers.
The Great Southern BioBlitz has taken off like a rocket in the region. The project was launched in 2020, when Cape Town was the only South African participant. More SA cities joined the hunt in 2021 and in 2022, Mpondoland’s EcoRangers first participated.

They immediately showed stunning form. They delivered a spectacular 2 197 observations from just 14 people. That is an average of about 157 observations per person!

Fired up by this, CEET Wildcoast helped four teams organise and motivate for the 2023 Great Southern BioBlitz in late November:

  • Silaka & CEET EcoRangers from the forested gorges of the mighty Umzimvbu river mouth in Port St John’s
  • Lambasi & Mbotyi CEET EcoRangers from the wide Pondoland-Ugu sandstone grasslands of Lusikisiki
  • Mkhambathi ECPTA Team & CEET EcoRangers along the coast
  • Amadiba SWC team & CEET EcoRangers also on the coast
Top: Lindelani Mbulalwa (centre) accepts his GSB 2023 prize of a field pack containing a SANBI/ECPTA T-shirt, book on medicinal plants, thumb drive and notebook to track observations. Bottom: Another prizewinner in the high-achieving Mpondoland area was Mzwandile Hagile (left). Photos by Ziyanda Mpati

All for 4

Looking at their results, four seemed to be the key to the Mpondoland team’s success . . .


Various citizen-science enthusiasts also came out in full force so that Mpondoland ended up with 53 observers in the field – nearly four times as many as just one year earlier!


They made 8 496 observations over the four days of the BioBlitz – and their total was nearly four times as many as in 2022. Even their average number of observations was up to 160 per person.

As a result, Mpondoland was ranked fourth not only in South Africa but also in the southern hemisphere for the number of observations uploaded to iNaturalist.

(From left to right) The orchid Dracomonticola virgenea is the only species in its genus. It is indigenous to the Eastern Cape, KZN and the Free State in South Africa and to Lesotho. The vivid red star (Rhodohypoxis baurii) is found in the mountains of the Eastern Cape and KZN. The white squill (Scilla nervosa) tends to grow in clumps in grassland and bushveld.  Helichrysum aureum can be found from the North West and Limpopo all the way south to Humansdorp. Photos by Vathiswa Zikishe


Mpondoland mostly benefitted from the fact that the 2023 Great Southern BioBlitz was held in late November, about a month later than usual – a peak time for grassland species. Results were mixed for the other six regions competing from the province of the Eastern Cape, however.

Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan municipality, known as a five-biome city, is another biodiversity hub in the province. But observations there fell from 1 045 in 2022 to 345 in 2023 and with 30 species of conservation concern observed dropping to just three! Even given the lower number of observers as well, the late November timing was certainly not favourable for Gqeberha.

On the other hand, the timing was perfect for Makana municipality to mobilise students and staff from the Rhodes University botany department as the core of their team – who led them to a strong finish.

Umzimvubu partners all geared up and ready to bioblitz at Qacha’s nek near the Lesotho border (top left). Matatiele Eco-Champs breathe in the peace of the Mountain Lake nature reserve (top right). Photo by Vathiswa Zikishe. Keen Eco-Rangers cheer in Day Two of the Great Southern BioBlitz in the Eastern Cape (bottom). Photo by Nicky McLeod


The Mpondoland team’s performance really lived up to our province’s renown as the Land of Legends. But the Eastern Cape’s other regions that also achieved well did so by being strategic and collaborating – selecting partners with a common goal, targeting sites with, for instance, fewer farming activities. As our Mpondo friends like to quote, “Xa ufuna ukufika ngokukhawuleza, hamba wedwa; xa ufuna ukufika kude, hamba nabantu” or, if you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far go together.

Sinegugu Zukulu ( is a plant enthusiast from Mpondoland, whose mission is to build bottom-up environmental custodianship capacity among local Mpondoland youth.

Lumko Mboyi has a passion for botany, people and conservation and heads up the CEET sustainability and ecology unit in the Eastern Cape. His background is in environmental sciences and he is completing his master’s in botany, having been involved in projects such as invasive alien plant management, vulture conservation and protected areas expansion planning.

Vathiswa Zikishe is the Eastern Cape node project coordinator for SANBI’s CREW (Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers) programme. “Ten years from now,” she says, “my heart will beam with contentment to see deep rural Eastern Cape communities aware of plant conservation, new plant species being discovered and the CREW EC node abuzz with activities.”


This heat map shows the distribution of GSB 2023 observations across the southern hemisphere. Graphic: GREAT SOUTHERN BIOBLITZ 2023


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