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South African Journal of Science

On-line version ISSN 1996-7489
Print version ISSN 0038-2353

S. Afr. j. sci. vol.103 n.7-8 Pretoria Jul./Aug. 2007




A biodiversity monitoring framework for South Africa: progress and directions



Belinda ReyersI, *; Melodie A. McGeochII

INatural Resources and the Environment, CSIR, P.O. Box 320, Stellenbosch 7599, South Africa
IICentre for Invasion Biology, Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology, University of Stellenbosch, Private Bag X1, Stellenbosch 7602, South Africa




Global declines in biodiversity, and the associated impacts on human wellbeing, have triggered national and international agreements to reduce or halt these trends. The Convention on Biological Diversity's 2002 commitment, 'to achieve, by 2010, a significant reduction in the current rate of biodiversity loss....', is an often cited example and has caused a flurry of activity in the development of biodiversity monitoring systems. At a national scale, South Africa's National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act and associated legislation have highlighted the need for a national biodiversity monitoring framework. The National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan makes a significant contribution to the development of this framework. As South Africa begins to implement the action plan, a review of existing national monitoring programmes in terms of global and national biodiversity monitoring requirements is important. This paper presents the results of a review of these national programmes, to provide a broad overview, assess alignment with national and global requirements, evaluate gaps and discuss a way forward in the devising of a national biodiversity monitoring framework. We find that the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan aligns well with the Convention on Biological Diversity's 2010 target objectives, but differs in terms of the indicators proposed. Existing national biodiversity monitoring programmes also exhibit these indicator differences and show several gaps in indicator development and data collation. These gaps raise concern around the country's ability to report on the Convention on Biological Diversity's 2010 target, but together with the sound platform provided by the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, provide a good indication of national priorities and a way forward through a combination of short-term achievable tasks and longer-term development of programmes.




South Africa, like other biodiverse regions of the world, is experiencing rapid and extensive rates of biodiversity loss, primarily as a consequence of development-related habitat conversion.1–4 Concern over the extent of these global declines in biodiversity, and their effects on human wellbeing,5 have triggered national and international agreements to reduce or halt these trends. The 2002 commitment of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), 'to achieve, by 2010, a significant reduction in the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national levels',7,8 is one such example. The CBD's '2010 target' (hereafter referred to as the 2010 Target) has sparked the creation of national and global biodiversity monitoring systems with which to measure progress towards this and other policy targets.9 Monitoring involves the 'intermittent (regular or irregular) series of observations in time, carried out to show the extent of compliance with a formulated standard or degree of deviation from an expected norm'10 and can be used for basic research, accounting and certification, status assessment and measurement of effectiveness.11

The global interest in biodiversity monitoring is mirrored in South Africa. It is driven by the country's commitments to the 2010 Target, as well as by a spate of new national biodiversity-related policies [for example, the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (NEMBA12) and the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP13)], all of which highlight the need for a national biodiversity monitoring framework. The policies driving this framework are based on the recognition of South Africa's needs and national research requirements, namely, improved data, knowledge and understanding of biodiversity, its measurement and management, and its links to human wellbeing.

Monitoring is driven by multiple objectives and stakeholders and, as a consequence, requires more than a single approach to satisfy these manifold demands. Indeed, there are many monitoring approaches and indicators currently in use, largely due to the variety of objectives of monitoring programmes, that differ also on spatial and temporal scales.11,14–16 The absence of a single universal approach to monitoring biodiversity17,18 highlights the need for a formalized strategic approach, as outlined in Fig. 1,14,15,19,20 to serve as a framework for all biodiversity monitoring programmes. This ensures that the choice of approach is determined by the purpose and context of these programme (Fig. 1). Importantly, the 2010 Target has highlighted the need for standardized and comparable methods for measuring and monitoring biodiversity status and loss,14,21 and has identified a suite of broadly accepted indicators.8,21



In a South African context, the NBSAP,13** which aims to 'conserve and manage terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity to ensure sustainable and equitable benefits to the people of South Africa, now and in the future', makes significant progress towards the development of a national biodiversity monitoring framework. It represents the outcome of the scoping phase of the creation of a national biodiversity monitoring framework (Fig. 1). Along with the National Spatial Biodiversity Assessment (NSBA3,22), it forms the basis for the national biodiversity framework, which is, in part, South Africa's response to its obligations under the CBD.13

Although the interest in biodiversity monitoring has recently intensified, South Africa has a history of environmental and biodiversity assessment; for instance, the National State of the Environment Report23 and the National Environmental Indicators Programme.24 As South Africa moves towards implementing NBSAP and the required national biodiversity monitoring framework, it is useful to review these existing programmes in relation to national and global biodiversity monitoring requirements. This will help ensure alignment, identify gaps and priorities, and develop an effective and efficient final framework. The main objectives of this paper are thus to: provide a broad over view of current national biodiversity monitoring and assessment efforts, assess their alignment with the 2010 Target, evaluate remaining gaps, and discuss the way forward in the process of developing a national biodiversity monitoring framework for South Africa.

This will be done through a review of: (i) the focal areas and headline indicators (HIs) of the 2010 Target8; (ii) the outcomes, activities and indicators (OAIs) of NBSAP13; (iii) the indicators, used and monitored in the National State of the Environment Report (NSoER23); (iv) the indicators and monitoring programmes proposed by the National Environmental Indicators Programme (NEIP) of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism24; (v) the indicators used by the National Spatial Biodiversity Assessment3; and (vi) the targets set by South Africa's Response to the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (SARGSPC25).

NSoER23 was South Africa's first national assessment of the state of the environment. It was followed by NEIP,24 which aimed to develop a set of core indicators for environmental reporting, a key gap identified by NSoER. NSBA3,22 was the country's first comprehensive spatial assessment of biodiversity aimed at informing the policies, plans and activities of a wide variety of sectors, by pointing to broad priority areas for future conservation action. SARGSPC25 provides a status report on the implementation of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation in South Africa, focusing on target achievement and challenges facing the country.

The Biodiversity Monitoring Transect Analysis (BIOTA) AFRICA and the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) are additional examples of monitoring programmes in South Africa. The BIOTA AFRICA network is an integrated, interdisciplinary, multinational approach to the study of change in biodiversity on the African continent as a consequence of altered land use and climate in West Africa, East Africa, and southern Africa ( The BIOTA Southern Africa project concentrates on research in Namibia and South Africa. In South Africa, it includes four BIOTA observatories at which long-term monitoring activities are planned and have been initiated. SAEON is a research facility, which serves as a platform for long-term studies of ecosystems and aims to advance understanding of environmental change detection, prediction and management through environmental observatories, field stations or sites linked by an information management network ( These two programmes and other sub-national biodiversity monitoring projects were not included in this review.

Table 1 reflects the results of the review, where the 2010 Target framework (column A), the NBSAP framework (column B) and the existing indicator and monitoring programmes (column C) are aligned. The strength of this alignment is also recorded within the table. Based on this assessment, we discuss the NBSAP alignment with the 2010 Target, followed by a discussion of the current national programme alignments and conclude with proposals for a way forward.


National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, and the 2010 Target

The CBD recognizes that national participation towards meeting the 2010 Target must be informed and driven by national priorities.26 Nonetheless, the efficiency and effectiveness of meeting both national and global targets may be maximized by identifying where the alignment of national and 2010 Target goals and indicators is strongest. This will expedite short-term biodiversity assessment and reporting by focusing on the development and monitoring of those indicators meeting multiple objectives. In addition, identifying where national and global objectives differ also provides interesting insight into the relative importance of biodiversity status, threats and sustainable-use priorities across local to global scales.

In the case of the NBSAP13 strategic objectives and the 2010 Target, the latter has short-term objectives (albeit potential long-term benefits), whereas NBSAP provides a long-term national strategy, albeit with short (5-year) and intermediate (15-year) targets, and provision for updating NBSAP every five years. Nonetheless, the 2010 Target provides impetus to national strategies to achieve some objectives in the short term. NBSAP's strategic objectives and the 2010 Target focal areas are strongly aligned, with the focus on conservation of all levels of biodiversity and ecological processes, minimizing threats to biodiversity, sustainable use and the maintenance of ecosystem services (Table 1).

Mechanisms for meeting the above strategic objectives are identified in the form of 22 HIs in the 2010 Target, and as several OAIs in the NBSAP.13 There is strong alignment between NBSAP and five of the HIs, moderate alignment with nine HIs, and weak alignment on the remaining 8 HIs (Table 1). Areas of strongest procedural alignment (via indicators to be quantified) include HIs of: (i) protected areas, (ii) threatened species, (iii) the broad-scale extent of ecosystems, (iv) alien invasive species and (v) water quality (Table 1). The most poorly aligned areas from the procedural perspective include HIs of: (i) trends in non-threatened, non-rare and non-utilized species (which have been shown to be of great value in monitoring programmes27–29), (ii) the trophic integrity of terrestrial ecosystems, (ii) incidence of ecosystem failure and (iv) habitat connectivity and fragmentation. Other weakly aligned HIs are those addressing sociocultural (rather than biodiversity) sectors in South Africa, such as linguistic diversity, the wellbeing of ecosystem service-dependent communities, and the status of resource transfer. Nonetheless, biodiversity information to support and inform both biodiversity and socio-cultural policy are a strong theme in NBSAP. For example, the action plan includes the quantification and monitoring of the value of biodiversity to the economy and to people's lives (Outcome 1.1). While overarching policy goals have strong commonalities, the processes by which these goals are to be achieved differ moderately. This reflects interesting differences between South African and global priorities, as well as characteristics peculiar to South Africa's constitutional imperatives, that is, a strong focus on equity, benefit sharing and traditional knowledge that are in the main addressed by other, non-biodiversity-related, institutional frameworks.

There are two areas where the NBSAP has a clear set of objectives that do not form an explicit part of the 2010 Target HIs, namely, the threats to biodiversity from climate change and from genetically modified organisms. The former is largely dealt with outside the CBD and its global targets by, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The latter reflects South Africa's distinctive position of currently having a high GM biotechnology adoption rate and under-developed policy, and virtually no ecological research in this area.30,31 By contrast, the strong alignment in the area of invasive alien species is a consequence of South Africa's identification of the control and management of invasive alien species (IAS) as a national priority in 1995, and the implementation of significant IAS management and research programmes.25

Monitoring (along with quantification, assessment, evaluation and research) is stated as an explicit part of five of the 27 outcomes of the five strategic objectives of the NBSAP. Nonetheless, if progress towards and success in meeting all these objectives are to be evaluated, then monitoring must necessarily form an integral part of all of the plan's activities (as recognized in Activity 2.3.413). The link between the CBD and the NBSAP is formalized as one of the plan's 15-year targets under Strategic Objective 1: that 'South Africa fully and consistently meets international obligations regarding biodiversity in the context of national priorities'.


Current national indicator and monitoring programmes

A review of the existing national monitoring frameworks and programmes in terms of the NBSAP and 2010 Target monitoring requirements will assist in the identification of current needs and set a future course for biodiversity monitoring in South Africa. Many of these programmes were established before the advent of the CBD and NBSAP targets, yet could provide essential information or even be modified to align with these new developments. They form an essential component of the creation of a national biodiversity monitoring framework. There are three stages during the design phase of biodiversity indicator development, as shown in Fig. 1. These include the identification of indicators, further development of each indicator, followed by the drawing up of a monitoring programme, in which data will be collected with the use of each indicator. We have used these same stages to assess progress in this review (Table 1: C). This overview concentrates on only those NBSAP outcomes that align with the 2010 Target HIs.

The alignment between 2010 Target focal areas and identified indicators from national frameworks is strong for HIs associated with biodiversity status, trends and threats, and for water ecosystem services. Alignment is moderate for HIs of genetic diversity and sustainable use, and weak for the rest (Table 1: C1). These trends also reflect the priorities and sectoral foci in existing and proposed monitoring programmes which informed the NBSAP. Although SARGSPC has not identified indicators, and is only in the goal-setting phase (Fig. 1), it makes an important contribution to the development of a national biodiversity monitoring framework by addressing key gaps in the NEIP around indicators of sustainable use, genetic diversity and indigenous knowledge (but limited to plant conservation). The absence of these indicators from NEIP is perhaps a reflection of the history of biodiversity monitoring in South Africa, where these issues have only recently begun to receive attention from the biodiversity sector (e.g. sustainable use and genetic diversity) or fall within the mandate of other sectors (e.g. ecosystem services and indigenous knowledge).

Assessing the alignment of indicators which have already been developed (NSoER, NSBA, Table 1: C2) and for which data have been collated, reveals more gaps. While some alignment exists for indicators of biodiversity status, trends and threats, very few indicators have been developed for the focal areas of sustainable use, ecosystem integrity and services. Almost no indicators have been identified or devised for the socio-cultural themes of indigenous knowledge, access and benefit sharing and resource transfers. These gaps are potentially a result of both the historical sectoral focus mentioned above, but are also strongly influenced by data availability and the resources required to collect new data. This is demonstrated by the comparatively good data and indicator development at a national scale on ecosystems and selected species distributions, compared to the general absence of data and developed indicators at the sub-specific level, for example, population trends, and genetic diversity. Another information need that becomes apparent is the establishment of thresholds (see Fig. 1), especially those for sustainable use and management. Regardless of the purpose, monitoring presumes the existence of information on a 'norm' or 'standard' against which levels and directions of change may be assessed.20,26 Without this baseline information, indicators of sustainability cannot be evaluated. In terms of indicators of ecosystem integrity and services, water quantity and quality have received most of the attention. This reflects the country's prioritization of water resources and the excellent data collation by the national water management sector over many years.

National gaps in the current monitoring (Table 1: C3) of these indicators are apparent in Table 1. Although many indicators have been proposed in the NEIP (Table 1: C4), very few have actually been developed and implemented. This gap raises concerns over South Africa's ability to report on many of the 2010 Target HIs, which are largely trend-based and thus require repeated assessment and reporting through monitoring programmes. Some of the proposed indicators and monitoring programmes may have trend data available in 2010, but immediate action is required to develop these biodiversity assessment and monitoring programmes to meet this deadline.


Priorities for the development of a national biodiversity monitoring framework

The NBSAP provides a sound starting point for the development of a national biodiversity monitoring framework, which aligns well with South Africa's international 2010 Target reporting commitments. However, Table 1 makes it clear that there is much work to be done in converting this alignment into an implemented national biodiversity monitoring framework. Indeed, it would appear from Table 1 that South Africa will not be able to report on most of the HIs or OAIs by 2010 without paying urgent attention to the creation and implementation of the framework. Framework development includes relatively easy tasks like the collation of existing data for established indicators (for instance, the status of threatened species, and trends in the abundance of some species) or the reassessment of existing indicators (for example, NSBA ecosystem status) to generate trend information. It also includes the tasks of identifying and devising indicators and collecting data for HIs or OAIs where they do not exist (e.g. measures of genetic diversity, population trends, sustainable use, and indigenous knowledge).

It is important to recall that Table 1 does not reflect the totality of monitoring requirements for South Africa's biodiversity and indicates only those elements of interest to the 2010 Target. The development of a national biodiversity monitoring framework should focus on issues beyond 2010 identified by the NBSAP as important to the country. Table 1 and the resultant national priorities do, however, provide a good place to start this rather daunting task.

South Africa's position at the beginning of the process of developing a biodiversity monitoring framework is not unique; indeed, the creation of the NBSAP and NSBA makes it more advanced than most countries. In addition, several of the 2010 Target HIs are themselves still in the development phase.32 While some of these headline indicators are well-established, globally recognized and have a history of assessment and application [such as the Living Planet Index33 and the status of threatened species (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species34)], others have received comparatively little attention, and have not been fully developed or broadly adopted.32

It is thus clear that, in taking on this challenge, not only are scientific expertise and capacity fundamental,6,14 but, as emphasized by de Heer et al.,35 Dobson et al.16 and Gregory et al.,36 the results of the creation, testing and implementation of indicators and monitoring programmes should be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals to establish both their credibility and widespread acceptance.



By focusing on the easy to achieve tasks, South Africa will be able to meet some of its reporting commitments for the 2010 Target and the NBSAP's 5-year targets. Furthermore, an urgent synthesis of existing knowledge and scattered data sets will highlight key gaps in our knowledge.16 This focus should not, however, come at the expense of the more challenging tasks. Biodiversity monitoring remains essential beyond 2010, as highlighted by the longer-term NBSAP objectives and plans to renew the NBSAP in the future. By including long-term challenges and considering future gaps during the development of a national biodiversity monitoring framework, we can move beyond the generally reactive nature of biodiversity monitoring. We also need to reach beyond the continued reliance on existing data, which has resulted in the biases in data availability and understanding that we see today, by investing in biodiversity data collection. The success of this current design phase in creating a national biodiversity monitoring framework, as well as its implementation, is thus critical to stemming the loss of biodiversity in South Africa.

We thank SAEON for the opportunity to prepare this review, and the CSIR and Centre for Invasion Biology, University of Stellenbosch, for funding. Jessica Conradie and others at the South African National Biodiversity Institute are thanked for their contributions, as well as two reviewers.


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* Author for correspondence. E-mail:
** Abbreviations




Biodiversity Monitoring Transect Analysis


Convention on Biological Diversity


Genetically modified organism


Headline indicator


Invasive alien species


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change


National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan


National Environmental Indicators Programme


National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act


National Spatial Biodiversity Assessment


National State of the Environment Report


Outcomes, activities and indicators


South Africa's Response to the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation


South African Environmental Observation Network

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