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Ecoregion Description

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Species Richness

# of Endemic Species


560: Zambezian Highveld

Major Habitat Type:

tropical and subtropical upland rivers


Helen Dallas, Freshwater Research Unit, Department of Zoology, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa


Paul Skelton, South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, Grahamstown, South Africa


Mozambique; Zimbabwe


The Zambezi Highveld, located within Zimbabwe, is situated on the great Southern African central plateau (IUCN 1992). This ecoregion is delineated based on the northern subregion of the Highveld (temperate) aquatic region of Skelton (Skelton 1993) and follows the contours of the interior plateaus of Zimbabwe above about 600 m.

Main rivers or other water bodies:

The Zambezi Highveld includes the headwaters and highland streams of the Zambezi River basin in the north, the Save River in the east, and the Limpopo River in the south.


Although the ecoregion is within tropical latitudes it has a relatively cool climate because of its altitude (>600 m). There is a warm rainy season (November to March) followed by a cool, dry season (April to mid-August) and then a hot, dry season (mid-August to October) (Gratwicke 1999). Rainfall varies from less than 400 mm per year in the Save and Limpopo catchments to 1,000 mm in some of the central areas (Hughes & Hughes 1992).

Freshwater habitats:

The aquatic habitats found on this plateau are large and small rivers, numerous dambos, a few artificial reservoirs, and isolated floodplains. The headwater streams of the Highveld are small and clear but revert to swollen and turbid rivers after the rains (Gratwicke 1999). Rivers and streams of this plateau flow in two directions with some feeding the Zambezi River system and others feeding the Save River system. Both rivers then flow through Mozambique and into the Indian Ocean. Perennially waterlogged dambos are widespread and cover approximately 12,000 km2 (Owen 1994). Most dambos occur at an altitude above 1200 m and are associated with a mean annual rainfall greater than 800 mm. Most streams depend on dambos for their dry season flow (Magadza 2000). Two prominent wetlands are the Chipinda Pools and the Save-Runde floodplain. Chipinda Pools is a cluster of large perennial pools in the Lundi River valley, located in Gonarezhou National Park. The 40 km2 Save-Runde floodplain, which includes the Tamboharta Pan, occurs in the southeastern part of the ecoregion and is one of the few floodplain areas in it (Chabwela 1994).

Terrestrial Habitats:

This ecoregion falls mostly within the terrestrial Zambezian biogeographic zone and the vegetation is predominantly dry miombo woodland. Grassland occurs along the Great Dyke, a broad ridge in the center of the ecoregion (IUCN 1992). Soils, which are largely derived from gneissic granite, are sandy, well drained, and have low fertility (Campbell 1994).

Fish Fauna:

About 39 fish species live in the waters of the Zambezian Highveld. Several of the river systems, including the Pungwe and Save River, have an impoverished fish fauna (Bell-Cross & Minshull 1988). The families Alestiidae, Amphiliidae, Anguilladae, Cyprinidae, Cichlidae, Clariidae, Kneriidae, Mochokidae, Mormyridae, and Schilbeidae are represented.

Description of endemic fishes:

Although moderately rich in aquatic species, this ecoregion has no known endemics. 

Other noteworthy aquatic biotic elements:

Aquatic mammals include the marsh mongoose (Atilax paludinosus), the African clawless otter (Aonyx capensis), and hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius). About 38 aquatic amphibians; 8 aquatic reptiles, and 17 freshwater molluscs inhabit the Zambezian Highveld. Little information is available on the aquatic ecology of the numerous dambos in the region, though they are known to provide cover and food for indigenous terrestrial fauna and migratory birds (Katerere 1994). Dambos also provide a distinctive habitat for aquatic vascular plants; of the 109 dambo species recorded, eight are found exclusively in this habitat (Magadza 2000). The wetland butterfly, Mashuna mashuna, has been recorded in high level dambos (Gardiner 2000). Both the Chipinda Pools and the Save-Runde floodplain are rich in bird life and provide watering areas for several large mammals (Fishpool & Evans 2001).

Justification for delineation:

The fauna of this ecoregion is largely Zambezian. It is believed that the fish fauna originated from the more tropical equatorial region and that deteriorating ecological conditions during the Pleistocene have resulted in reduced or depauperate faunas in many rivers of this ecoregion (Bell-Cross & Minshull 1988).

Level of taxonomic exploration:

Fair. With the exception of fish (Marshall In prep; Bell-Cross & Minshull 1988), ecological information is limited, particularly for invertebrates (Mtetwe 2000). A substantial amount of research has been undertaken on the several artificial reservoirs in the region, but little work has focused on the riverine environments or the dambo areas (Marshall). Marshall and Gratwicke (1998) (Marshall and Gratwicke 1998-1999)urge further monitoring of the occurrence and distribution of fish species throughout Zimbabwe. In particular, they cite the lack of information available for the southern barred minnow (Opsaridium peringueyi) – all four specimens of this species are over 40 years old and the species has not been collected in recent years, suggesting that it may be imperiled.


Bell-Cross, G.,Minshull, J. L. (1988). "The fishes of Zimbabawe" Harare, Zimbabwe: National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe.

Campbell, B. M. (1994)"The environmental status of the Save Catchment" In Matiza, T.;Crafter, S.A. (Ed.). Wetlands ecology and priorities for conservation in Zimbabwe. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

Chabwela, H. N. (1994)"Current threats to the wetlands of Zimbabwe" In Matiza, T.;Crafter, S.A. (Ed.). Wetlands ecology and priorities for conservation in Zimbabwe. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

Change, Ipcc Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (2001) "Climate Change 2001: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability A report of Working Group II of the IPCC". Cambridge, UK. Cambridge University Press.

Fishpool, L. D. C.,Evans, M. I. (Ed.) (2001). "Important Bird Areas in Africa and associated islands: Priority sites for conservation" Newbury and Cambridge, UK: Pisces Publications and BirdLife International (Birdlife Conservation Series No. 11).

Gardiner, A. (2000)"Review of wetland Lepidoptera of the Zambezi basin" In Timberlake, J. (Ed.). Biodiversity of the Zambezi Basin wetlands. (pp. 565-612) Harare, Zimbabwe: Biodiversity Foundation for Africa, Bulawayo/The Zambezi Society.

Gratwicke, B. (1999). "The effect of season on a biotic water quality index: A case study of the Yellow Jacket and Mazowe Rivers, Zimbabwe" South African Journal of Aquatic Sciences 24(1/2) 24-35.

Hughes, R. H.,Hughes, J. S. (1992). "A directory of African wetlands" Gland, Switzerland, Nairobi, Kenya, and Cambridge, UK: IUCN, UNEP, and WCMC.

Iucn (1992) "Protected Areas of the World: A review of national systems. Volume 3: Afrotropical". Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Katerere, D. (1994)"Policy, institutional frameworks, and wetlands management in Zimbabwe" In Matiza, T.;Crafter, S.A. (Ed.). Wetlands ecology and priorities for conservation in Zimbabwe. Proceedings of a seminar on wetlands of Zimbabwe. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

Magadza, C. (2000)"Human impacts on wetland biodiversity in the Zambezi Basin" In Timberlake, J. (Ed.). Biodiversity of the Zambezi Basin wetlands. (pp. 107-122) Harare, Zimbabwe: Biodiversity Foundation for Africa, Bulawayo/The Zambezi Society.

Marshall, B. E. (). "Fish biology, fisheries and limnology in Zimbabwe: An introduction to the literature"

Marshall, B. E.,Gratwicke, B. (1998). "The barred minnows (teleostei: cyprinidae) of Zimbabwe: Is there cause for concern?" Southern African Journal of Aquatic Sciences 24(1-2) 157-161.

Mtetwe, S. (2000) "Establishment of biomonitoring reference sites for Zimbabwe. A tool for effective integrated catchment management. Proceeding of the 1st WARFSA/WaterNet Symposium: Sustainable Use of Water Resources; Maputo, 1-2 November 2000". Zimbabwe.

Owen, R. J. (1994)"Irrigation and cultivation in dambo wetlands in Zimbabwe" In Matiza, T.;Crafter, S.A. (Ed.). Wetlands ecology and priorities for conservation in Zimbabwe. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

Skelton, P. H. (1993) A complete guide to the freshwater fishes of Southern Africa. South Africa: Southern Book Publishers, Halfway House.

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