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This year’s theme is “Wetlands for a Sustainable urban future – Urban Wetlands Make Cities Liveable”.
Wetlands can be found across South Africa. In celebration of these important ecological spaces, why not visit a wetland near you and find out more about Mzansi’s wetlands.
What is a wetland?
The South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) says not all land that is wet is considered a wetland. “Wetlands are areas such as swamps and marshes, where water saturates the soil, and conditions are favourable to plants which are adapted to anaerobic – low oxygen – soil conditions,” says DEA., adding that wetlands are land areas that are “flooded with water, either seasonally or permanently”.
There are urban wetlands too, adds DEA, explaining that these wetlands are found in and around cities and suburbs.
Importance of wetlands
DEA says that wetlands offer many benefits to humans and the environment. They are hubs for biodiversity and perform important ecological functions such as controlling flooding, filtering water and improving air quality “through carbon sequestration”.
However, wetlands are under threat from urbanisation, pollution and draining of peat lands, says DEA. A tip for gardeners is to “use coco peat which is more sustainable,” advises DEA.
According to DEA, urban planners and decision-makers face the dilemma of meeting an increase in demand for land in cities while still preserving the natural environment.
“Urban wetlands play a vital role in making cities safe, resilient and sustainable. City planners, policymakers, NGOs, research institutions and communities all have important roles to play in conserving urban and rural wetlands,” says DEA, adding that while it may not be “immediately apparent”, efforts in Cape Town to “cut water consumption are also of benefit to wetlands”.
Where are SA’s wetlands?
South Africa has 23 Ramsar sites, covering 557 028 ha, which are wetlands of international importance. These are the Ramsar wetlands in each province:
Bot-Kleinmond Estuarine System
Situated within the Agulhas Bioregion, the Bot-Kleinmond Estuarine System consists of an estuarine lake, flanked by deeply weathered Bokkeveld shale terrain and mountains oriented perpendicular to the coastline.
According to Ramsar, the site is recognised as “one of the ten most significant wetlands for waterbirds in South Africa during the dry summer months” with 86 species of waterbird having been recorded there. “The bird community changes markedly from year to year according to changes in the estuary conditions related to water levels and periodic breaches of the estuary mouth.
The estuarine system is also a nursery area for fish, with 41 species from 24 families recorded, of which 19 species are dependent on estuaries to complete their lifecycle.
Langebaan National Park is a large, shallow marine lagoon that includes islands, reedbeds, sand flats, saltmarshes and dwarf shrubland.
• What travellers can look forward to: environmental education centre, bird observation hides, and several nature trails.
“The lagoon is an important nursery area for a number of fish species and supports a diverse and ecologically important algal and shoreline biota. Important for wintering and staging wading birds, and the numerous breeding birds include the largest colony of gulls in South Africa,” says Ramsar.
False Bay Nature Reserve
This is a unique area on the Cape Flats, situated between False Bay and Table Bay, consisting of about 50% permanent wetland and 49% terrestrial vegetation including the critically endangered Cape Flats Sand Fynbos and Cape Flats Dune Strandveld and some sand beaches.
• What travellers can look forward to: various recreational services, including fishing, water sports and picnics.
The site supports important populations of mammals including the hippopotamus, cape clawless otter, water mongoose, cape grysbok, steenbok, southern African vlei rat, large spotted genet and small grey mongoose. It is also home to over 60% of the bird species (228 species) in the South-western Cape.
In addition, about 256 species of indigenous plants grow on the site, including two endemic plant species – Erica turgida and Erica verticillata (Cape Flats erica) – currently listed as extinct in the wild.
De Hoop Vlei
This coastal lake of seasonally varying levels of water and salinity, formed when dunes blocked the course of the Sout River.
This site is important for numerous species of wintering and staging waterbirds, and the native turtle – common in the 1960s – has since become rare.
De Mond (Heuningnes Estuary)
This is an estuary, dune system, and saltmarsh where shifting dunes are isolating the estuary. This site is an important wintering, staging and feeding area for several species of breeding birds and locally migrant waterbirds. It is also a habitat for various reptiles, crustaceans, and the sea horse Hippocampus.
Prince Edward Islands
This site includes the larger Marion Island and the smaller Prince Edward Island which are classified as sub-Antarctic and are of volcanic origin.
“They are protected natural habitats and do not support any consumptive or exploitative activities,” says Ramsar, adding that commercial tourism and fishing within territorial waters are prohibited.
“The principal activities on these islands since their annexation by South Africa in 1947 and 1948 include meteorological observations, scientific research, logistic support for research and conservation and management activities,” adds Ramsar.
Significant wetland formations include non-forested peat lands (swamps and bogs), intermittent streams, waterfalls, freshwater ponds, crater lakes, rocky marine shores, kelp beds, sea cliffs and sand shores. The islands host numerous breeding seabirds and three penguin species.
One of the largest lakes (and one of the country’s few coastal freshwater lakes), this wetland is with associated scrub, shrubland, dune systems, marshland and reedbeds representing a transition zone between two plant communities.
The site is an important feeding area for rare pelicans and fish, for molting and breeding birds, as well as for staging wading birds. During dry periods, large numbers of flamingos gather. The site also supports notable plant species. Water is pumped for irrigation purposes, and the marshland is used for cattle grazing.
This wetland consists of a series of three permanent, interconnected coastal lakes linked to the Indian Ocean, as well as a dune system with associated thickets, woodlands, marshes, and reedbeds.
Important numbers of locally-migrant resident birds as well as staging and breeding birds use the site, which supports 285 native plant species, 32 fish species (several of which use the site as a nursery area), and a diverse marine invertebrate fauna. The lakes provide a major form of flood control.
Natal Drakensberg Park
Set in a rugged area that includes three altitudinal zones along the border between South Africa and Lesotho, The Drakensberg is “regarded as the most important mountain catchment in South Africa due to its high yield and water quality, supplying rural, agricultural, urban and industrial users downstream”.
“Conserved since the turn of the century, the entire wetland system is in near-pristine state,” syas Ramsar.
The three largest rivers in KwaZulu-Natal originate here, and the area supports numerous endemic and endangered plant and animal species.
• What travellers can look forward to: view prehistoric rock art, get involved in nature conservation or parttake in a variety of outdoor recreation activities. There’s also a research station and a conservation education center.
Composed of four interconnected lakes subject to tidal influence, an estuarine channel, and three extensive swamps.
The site supports a diverse bottom-dwelling invertebrate fauna (30 species) and a rich fish fauna, including eight endangered species. Several birds, mammals, butterflies, and plants are endemic, threatened or endangered. Large areas of swamp forest have been subjected to non-sustainable slash and burn cultivation practices.
This is the largest natural freshwater lake in South Africa, separated from the ocean by forested dunes; and includes areas of swamp forest and wet grassland.
A large variety of endangered or endemic species of reptiles, fish, birds, mammals and plants occur. The site is important for numerous species of breeding birds and supports the second largest population of hippopotamus in KZN.
The lake supports a diverse zooplankton fauna, 15 species of aquatic and 43 species of terrestrial molluscs, as well as flora and fauna unique to South Africa. A research station is located within the site.
Ndumo Game Reserve
Situated at the junction of the Usuthu and Pongolo floodplain systems, the site forms the largest floodplain system in South Africa consisting of five wetland types.
It is well known for its abundant bird life and diversity of species, and internationally important numbers of several species are supported, including many that are rare or vulnerable.
Ntsikeni Nature Reserve
Located in an area rich in wetlands, the site is one of the largest high altitude wetlands in South Africa and has undergone the least ecological change due to the protective measures in place as a Nature Reserve.
It is recognised as the second most important breeding site for the Wattled Crane in South Africa and also as significant to the endangered Long-toed Tree Frog, Oribi and other wetland dependent mammals.
The maintenance of this wetland is “under threat from commercial afforestation activities occurring outside of its borders that are a major source of alien invasive species,” says Ramsar.
St Lucia System
This coastal wetlands system is associated with Lake St Lucia and consists of several principal habitat types.
It supports the largest estuarine prawn nursery area in South Africa, and is an important migratory bird staging area, feeding ground for flamingos, and spawning and nursery area for many of the 82 species of fish supported.
It is also a breeding area for crocodiles, and its large mammals include hippopotamus and black rhino.
• What travellers can look forward to: there are many recreational offerings for visitors.
Turtle Beaches/Coral Reefs of Tongaland
This marine reserve is an important transition zone between true reef and non-limestone substrates with reef communities.
It supports 16 species of coral, 1 200 species of fish, 5 species of marine turtles, 41 species of marine mammal, and 49 species of bird. The flora is predominantly algal, and many species reach the southern limit of their distribution.
• What travellers can look forward to: water recreation is a popular activity.
uMgeni Vlei Nature Reserve
This wetland consists of permanent freshwater marshes and pools consisting mainly of grasslands and a few small areas of scrubby woodland.
The site contains endemic and nationally threatened plant species, and is a key representative remnant of the natural wetlands in the Highland Sourveld bioregion. It is an important breeding ground for several waterbirds including the IUCN Red-Listed Blue Crane, Crowned Crane, and Wattled Crane.
Verloren Valei Nature Reserve
This provincial protected area is above 2000m altitude comprising more than 30 wetlands (14% of the site’s area), with primarily permanent freshwater marshes, with emergent vegetation waterlogged for most of the season.
“The area is especially important hydrologically because it acts as a sponge in the upper catchment of important river systems for both South Africa and Mozambique,” says Ramsar.
The wetland supports high botanical diversity and is one of the last areas with suitable Wattled Crane Bugeranus carunculata breeding habitat.
• What travellers can look forward to: small-scale avi-tourism occurs and guided tours are planned.
This area is an excellent example of a floodplain vlei type, most of which lies within the Kruger National Park, bordered by Zimbabwe and Mozambique to the north and east.
Prominent features include riverine forests, riparian floodplain forests, floodplain grasslands, river channels and flood pans. Flood pans are of great importance in this ecosystem as they hold water right into the dry season, thus acting as a refuge point for wildlife and waterbirds.
Nylsvley Nature Reserve
The nature reserve has riverine floodplains, flooded river basins, and seasonally flooded grassland, with the dominant wetland type being a seasonal river associated with a grassland floodplain.
The wetland has the endangered roan antelope, serves as a breeding ground for eight South African red-listed waterbirds and is the only site in South Africa which is a recorded locality for wild rice.
• What travellers can look forward to: the area is open to tourists who usually come for birdwatching, and volunteers work in the area to help clear alien invasive plant species and build bird hides.
This bird sanctuary and nature reserve is one of the few permanent water bodies in the Transvaal region, and was formed during the 1930 construction of road and pipeline embankments for the mining industry. Now mining activities take place upstream.
It is seasonally important for several species of locally migrant waterbirds and various mammals
Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve
The largest inland wetland in SA’s highveld, it has high conservation priority as it provides water to Gauteng.
It is a world-renowned sanctuary rich in birdlife and supports several species of rare or endangered birds and mammals. The site consists of seasonal freshwater lakes, riverine floodplain, seasonally flooded grasslands, marshes and pools, and peatlands.
One of the few permanent, natural water bodies in the highveld, this alkaline, freshwater lake is surrounded by grassland.
The lake supports a rich plankton community and ten fish species, and is seasonally important for staging and breeding birds and locally migrant waterbirds.
• What travellers can look forward to: a research station and recreational facilities are located at the site.
Orange River Mouth
This wetland is a transboundary area of extensive saltmarshes, freshwater lagoons and marshes, sand banks, and reedbeds shared by South Africa and Namibia.
It is important for resident birds and for staging locally migrant waterbirds.