Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment (GMBA)

Great Escarpment Biodiversity Research

What is the Great Escarpment

The Great Escarpment of southern Africa is a 5 000 km-long, semi-continuous mountain system generally considered to be the passive continental margin following the break-up of Gondwana. It can be partitioned into a western section (from Angola south through Namibia to the Kamiesberg in South Africa), a southern section (from the Hantamberge in the west to the Great Winterberg–Amatolas (GWA) and Stormberg in the east, South Africa), and an eastern section (from the Lesotho highlands and adjacent Drakensberg in South Africa – hereafter referred to as the Main Drakensberg and includes the Drakensberg Alpine Centre (DAC) – north to the Chimanimani–Nyanga Highlands in Zimbabwe–Mozambique, also known as the Manica Highlands

Why work there?

This vast region is home to about half the regions’s known centres of plant endemism (i.e. areas rich in species found there and nowhere else), and the plant and animal diversity of much of the region is poorly known. For this reason, the Great Escarpment Biodiversity Research Programme (GEBP) was initiated in 2005 at Rhodes University by Prof. Nigel Barker, an academic and researcher in the Botany Department. The project began with the initiation of a PhD study on the southern regions of the Great Escarpment, undertaken by Dr V.R. Clark. From this small beginning, the GEBP has grown into a multidisciplinary research project, and its products are now beginning to get incorporated in conservation and management projects. Prof. Barker has since taken up the position as Head of the department of plant and Soil Sciences at the University of Pretoria, and continues to co-ordinate research activities of the GEBP.


While the western Escarpment – with the exception of the Angolan component – is mostly arid and inhospitable to Afromontane floristic elements, the eastern Escarpment has been considered as a biological corridor and/or refugium for moist, temperate and montane species in southern Africa. This moist Escarpment – especially the Main Drakensberg forms a key component in White’s (1983) Afromontane archipelago. Numerous Cape (fynbos) lineages of plants are found in this Afromontane region, providing grounds for much speculation on the source of the disparate distribution of these groups. In southern Africa it has been postulated that the southern Escarpment may have at one time been a corridor connecting Cape and Afromontane elements between the Cape Floristic Region (CFR) and the Main Drakensberg.

For more information, please contact Prof. Nigel Barker