Declaration of the Upper Wilge Protected Environment in South Africa - International Crane Foundation

International Crane Foundation


Declaration of the Upper Wilge Protected Environment in South Africa

Skeurklip Mountain within the Upper Wilge Protected Environment. Skeurklip, or Torn Stone, refers to the two rock outcrops on the right of the mountain that appear torn in half. Blue Crane inset photo by Mark Anderson.

With just over 2 percent of South Africa’s grassland biome conserved, every additionally protected acre helps achieve our goal of conserving this important ecosystem for the future.

Much of South Africa’s remaining grasslands are privately owned, and not every private farm can be proclaimed a nature reserve. Therefore, conservation of these lands is made possible using agreements known as Biodiversity Stewardship. A good example of this strategy is the recently-proclaimed Upper Wilge Protected Environment, which is 59,498 acres in size.

This protected environment in northeast Free State province has a large proportion of wetlands providing critical habitat for Grey Crowned Cranes and Wattled Cranes. Blue Cranes are also found breeding in natural grasslands during the summer months, and all three species can be seen during the winter months when they flock together on farms within this protected environment. These flocks are made up mainly of Blue Cranes, but the likelihood of seeing all three species is high.

This area is described as a protected area encompassing privately-owned farms that allow livestock farming to continue as it is at present. Therefore, these landowners have committed to keeping their natural grasslands intact. Cultivated areas for crops, such as corn, can exist but with no further expansion of the cultivated fields.

Black and white map of South Africa with the provinces labeled. The green arrow identifies the Upper Wildge Protected Environment.

Location of the Upper Wilge Protected Environment in Free State, South Africa.


The Wilge River rushes over a small rapids.

The Wilge River that flows through this protected environment is an important source of water for many South African citizens.

The establishment of this protected environment started formally in 2017 when I partnered with two representatives from BirdLife South Africa to gain the commitment from the willing landowners in the region. The necessary steps were taken to declare it a legally protected environment in 2022. The name ‘Upper Wilge’ comes from the Wilge River, which is very important for water provision for people in cities such as Johannesburg, South Africa. With the creation of the Upper Wilge Protected Environment, this area’s critical wetlands and grasslands will now be conserved for future generations.

Story submitted by Bradley Gibbons, Highland Grassland Field Officer. Learn more about our work in Sub-Saharan Africa here.