Biodiversity => Fauna & Flora

Fauna & Flora


Generally the Klein Karoo is an exposed, windy region, hot in summer and cold in winter. Annual rainfall varies greatly from year to year. In the north-western Succulent Karoo total annual rainfall is less than 100 mm, while the figure rises to 400 mm in the eastern Karoo. Droughts are the rule, good seasons the exception. Temperatures range from minus 5oC in winter to 43oC in summer. Snow is often recorded, particularly in mountains in winter and in summer the normally dry rivers can become rapidly raging torrents for very short periods. Plants throughout the region have adapted themselves to these vastly changing conditions.

The flora of the Little Karoo today is very different from that seen by the first ‘trekboere’ and White settlers who moved into the hinterland. In those early days there were neither fences nor windmills. The only stock, relatively few in number, belonged to Khoisan tribesmen and moved with them from waterhole to waterhole.

The Klein Karoo, because of its aridity and low shrubby vegetation never supported the diverse array of herbivores found in the African savannas. Plant-eating animals of the Karoo were highly mobile and the earliest explorers reported millions of buck and larger game species roaming the plains, finding plenty of grazing. There were even hippos in some rivers, according to early reports and these animals alone need a daily feed intake of hundreds of kilograms. Yet, there was no over-grazing. The great game herds were diminished by hunting and their movements curtailed by fencing.

The natural migratory system of the huge herds and tribesmen allowed the veld long rest and recovery periods. Old records indicate there was much more grass on the plains of the Karoo when the earliest farmers arrived. Today, this is considerably less and the carrying capacity of the veld can vary from 2,5 to 10 hectares for a single sheep.

In days of yore the early settlers had no nearby doctor to turn to when they became ill. They turned to natural healing remedies of plants readily found within their surroundings. Sadly, much of this knowledge has been lost over the years mainly because people did not record these remedies. They were simply passed on by word of mouth and overtaken once chemists and medical men reached the region.

Flowering time for most Karoo plants is coupled to rainfall. It is thus almost impossible to give an exact flowering time for most species. The Karoo can flower with sudden briefness, but generally flowers can be seen in conservation areas and along the road verges in the spring, early summer and sometimes even in autumn if sufficient rain has fallen. 

Some plants break the rules. The wild pomegranate (wildegranaat) Rhigozum obvobatum, for instance sometimes does not flower even when sufficient rains have fallen but, at other times, turns the veld into a blanket of brilliant yellow.

The veld of the Karoo can be broadly divided into four vegetation types: dwarf scrub veld, grass veld, tree and shrub veld and ephemeral veld. Examples of most of these can be seen within the Karoo National Park where there are three distinct levels, each with its own ecology. These are the Upper Plateau (1 750m above sea level), the Middle Plateau (1 300 above sea level) and the Plains (about 840m above sea level). The highest altitude in this park is 1912m (6 263ft above sea level. Grass grows on the upper plateau, which because of its harsh climate is normally treeless, except for the indigenous Karoo acacia (the soetdoring, sweet thorn tree).

The most diverse group of plants in the Karoo is the Mesembryanthema. This comprising 2 000 species of fleshy-leaved, yellow and magenta flowered succulents, commonly called "vygies. This group also includes the minute, Lithops, which is difficult to see as it is normally half buried in the arid soil. The succulents also include the Aloes, Crassulas, Euphorbias, Haworthias, Hoodias, Othonnas and Sencios. Stapeliads can frequently be seen by those prepared to take the time to walk in the veld and peer under bushes. Strangely, many Karoo succulents are intolerant of sun and frost, so live their whole live in the shade of the larger, mostly spiney shrubs.

Yellow and white would seem to be the most prominent colours of spring in the Karoo. But the tapestry of the veld is coloured by the beautiful red flowers of the kankerbos Sutherlandia fructescens, the pink bells of the klokkiesbos, Hermannia grandiflora, and the brilliant red to orange hues of aloes. The gazanias which make such a garden of the road verges range from white, through all the yellows to rich oranges and gold, while the common vygies add a range of mauve pink and white. The cotton-wooly white of kapokbos Eriocephalus ericoides, soften the picture while the poisonous bloutulp (blue tulip) Moraea polystachya and Felecia moricata add delightful shades of blue.

Those who would like to discover more about the Klein Karoo flora will enjoy visiting one of the many guest farms in the Vanwyksdorp area. Many farms have "bossie trails" where visitors can learn more of the ecology. Common names such as beestong, bekvol, gifbol, bobbejaankos, boesmangif, dikvoet, sosatiebos, ounooibos and volstruistoon, which greatly amuse the tourists are given at most locations with English and Afrikaans as well as botanical names.

The succulent Karoo boasts a shy range of browsing antelope and the majority of animals are nocturnal, as is the case in arid and hot desert-like regions. At night, aardwolf, jackal, bat-eared foxes, owls, porcupines, hares, civets and genets claim back the veld. During the day, however, tortoises and other reptiles will be visible, alongside some meerkat and the odd klipspringer or grysbok. Other mammals likely to be seen include kudu, baboon, dassie and springbok. Leopard and caracal also occur in the area, but are seldom seen. Being a vastly different and unique biome, the visitor should as a rule not expect the Bushveld or Lowveld savanna "Big Five" or large herds of gregarious game.



Cape rock elephant-shrew

Cape Fox

Smith's rock elephant-shrew

Bat-eared Fox

Round-eared elephant-shrew

Cape Clawless Otter

Lesser red musk shrew

Striped Polecat

Forest shrew

Water Mongoose

Lesser dwarf shrew

Yellow Mongoose

Common split-faced bat

Small Grey Mongoose

Cape serotine bat


Melck's serotine bat

Small-spotted Genet

Vervet monkey


Chacma Baboon


Cape Hare

African Wildcat

Scrub Hare

Antbear (Aardvark)

Smith’s Red Rock Rabbit

Rock Hyrax

Riverine Rabbit

Black Rhinoceros

Pouched mouse

Cape Mountain Zebra

Grey pygmy climbing mouse

Burchell’s Zebra (with Quagga bred characteristics)

Pygmy mouse

Black Wildebeest

Short-tailed gerbil

Red Hartebeest

Hairy-footed gerbil


Grant's rock mouse


Namaqua rock mouse


Multimammate mouse


Striped mouse


Saunders' vlei rat


Karoo bush rat

Common Duiker

Spectacled Dormouse



Grey Rhebuck

Common Molerat

Mountain reedbuck

The Klein Karoo is an excellent area to see many of Southern Africa's endemic bird species. The semi-arid lowland areas around Oudtshoorn can throw up endemics like Southern Black Korhaan, Cape Peninsula Tit and Rufous-eared Warbler, as well as a host of larks. Raptors are abundant, and range from common species like Pale Chanting Goshawk, Rock Kestrel and Jackal Buzzard to more unusual types such as Lanner Falcon and Black Harrier.  More than 130 bird species have been recorded here, notably black, fish and martial eagle, Cape sugarbird and pied kingfisher.

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Van Wyksdorp Institute Van Wyksdorp Institute

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