iSimangaliso’s critical habitat restoration through stewardship

16 Oct 2017

In a prime example of innovative thinking, a ground-breaking agreement in 2000, between economic sectors that are usually polarised, resulted in a partnership that has created enormous benefits for the environment and in particular people who live on the margins of society. Today, the Eastern and Western Shores sections of iSimangaliso stand proudly as a leading example of what can be achieved when working together for the greater good.

Before and after: The sweeping open grasslands and pans of the Eastern Shores of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park were once covered by millions of exotic tree plantations. The removal of some six million pines has resulted in the re-emergence of this incredibly important habitat supporting enormous biodiversity.

The innovative land incorporation agreement was between the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority and SiyaQhubeka Forests (SQF, owned by land restitution communities together with Mondi). Various other parties including SAFCOL, the then Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF), Department of Environmental Affairs and communities were part of the negotiations.

In the late 1990s, former iSimangaliso CEO Andrew Zaloumis supported by former Minister of Environment Valli Moosa, motivated for and received National Cabinet approval for the SAFCOL plantations in and adjacent to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, that were planted on hydromorphic soils, to be incorporated into the Park and restored to natural areas. At the time, the Park was highly fragmented but still included pristine conservation areas. Some of these areas were integral to eco-system functioning but with conservation-incompatible land uses such as commercial plantations, fell between the pristine areas and were excluded from the Park.

The Lake St Lucia system is a RAMSAR wetland of international importance and is the centrepiece of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park which was listed as South Africa’s first World Heritage Site in 1999 following a nomination by President Mandela.

Commercial plantations, wetlands and coastal grasslands covered some 15 951ha of the Eastern and Western Shores of the Park. These plantations had been identified as one of the dominant threats to the hydrology of the Lake St Lucia system and its associated wetlands (more so in droughts) and to the survival of endemic wetland species as far back as 1966 by the Kriel Commission. Commercial plantation species such as Eucalyptus consume up to five times more water than indigenous vegetation, have deeper roots enabling greater access to the water table and consequently outcompete indigenous vegetation. This reduces grazing, browsing and fruit production which has a knock-on effect on crocodiles, birds and other animals. The lowering of the water table also affects the resilience of the system.

Since its listing as a World Heritage Site in 1999, Lake St Lucia has felt the ravages of the two worst droughts in recorded history, which were exacerbated by the negative impact of plantations on water balance. The result was the drying up of wetlands fed by ground water. In addition, because of the risk to plantations, fire/controlled burning could not then be used as a tool to revitalise indigenous vegetation and maintain grasslands.

The effects of the environmental degradation were far-reaching. The region in which iSimangaliso is situated is marked by 80% unemployment and more than 15 000 families (80 000 people) depend significantly on Lake St Lucia for their livelihoods (grazing, fish and other natural resources). Commercial line and prawn fisheries are also dependent on this wetland system.

Andrew Zaloumis (Chair) and Peter Gardiner of Mondi (V/C) led a task team that pioneered a public/private/community partnership solution that implemented Cabinet’s decision in a way that optimised economic and ecological sustainability, and resulted in the inclusion of new high value wetlands and grasslands being incorporated into the greater Park. This was built on collaboration and trust between commercial forestry and conservation. At the first meeting, Peter Gardiner recalls “Bill Bainbridge, Andrew Venter and Andy Blackmore immediately picked up the main issue was “water and wetlands” and they made sure I fully appreciated the wonderful biodiversity and scenic values of iSimangaliso.”

Implementation of the land incorporation agreement has, after some 17 years of work, resulted in the retraction of plantations and restoration of wetlands, and the inclusion of new wetlands into the Park. Some 14 200ha of SiyaQhubeka land has been incorporated and fenced into the greater iSimangaliso Wetland Park. An additional 9000ha of Department of Forestry land has been rehabilitated back to natural areas and incorporated into the Park.

The land that was brought into the Park was assessed on hydrological indicators and soil types, as well as economic viabilities of plantations and tourism. A 158km eco-track was delineated primarily based on ecosystems. This eco-track was the first of its kind globally. The eco-track separates commercial forestry areas from conservation areas. In SQF areas, former SAFCOL plantations have been retracted from hydromorphic soils in line with Mondi’s new philosophy of new generation plantations. Partners contribute in line with their specialities. For example, SQF manages firebreaks and iSimangaliso does game management. Maintenance of the 120km outer boundary fence is shared. Game roam freely in the SQF areas, while small enterprises benefit from honey production, firewood collection and timber farming support schemes.

iSimangaliso Land Care Manager Carl Myhill says: “Fire is an essential management tool for maintaining eco-systems’ functioning and biodiversity, and especially for iSimangaliso’s endemic grasslands which are amongst the last of their kind and of high conservation value. It is an integral part of iSimangaliso and its conservation agent Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s management strategy to maintain ecosystem functioning and biodiversity and retain these habitats for grazing game species.”

iSimangaliso programmes include job creation: local SMME contractors and several thousand workers are contracted for land care and rehabilitation programmes as well as construction of park infrastructure; community entrepreneurship and higher education; and community ownership and management of tourism lodges and tourism activity businesses. Lake St Lucia now generates some 8000 direct local tourism jobs and some 7% of KZN’s tourism GDP. Each year over 220 local schools visit the Park and participate in the Park’s environmental education programme together with some 550 000 visitors.

The plantations also act as a buffer for the Park adding another layer of protection from residential, agricultural, and industrial-related encroachment and increase the carrying capacity of the Western Shores section of iSimangaliso, allowing for higher game numbers.

During the drought of 2008-2012, with 80% of the uMphathe river catchment plantation free, the Lake Narrows retained fresh water at a time when the rest of the Lake was either hyper-saline (twice the salinity of sea water) or bone dry. Unlike previous droughts, ground water seepages keep wetlands and pans alongside the lake functioning. These became refuges for animals, in particular, for the 800 hippo and 1200 crocodile in the system. Notably with the recovery of the wetlands, crowned cranes and secretary birds are increasingly seen in the area. Their presence is a clear sign of restoration and the recovery of wetlands and major ecosystems.

The Western Shores section of iSimangaliso has become a prime birding destination with raptors being a particular attraction. These crowned cranes were photographed by local guide Stacey Farrell in 2016.
Pans that had been dry for over 20 years started filling up in some cases within weeks of the trees being removed. Lake St Lucia and the Western Shores – part of which is one of the first protected areas in Africa, originally proclaimed in 1895 – are starting to look, feel and smell like wildest Africa once more.

Says Park Operations Director Sizo Sibiya: “The rewilding of major eco-systems includes reinstating originally occurring game on the Western Shores, essential for trophic cascades – the tumbling food chains that include bulk grazers/feeders such as buffalo and elephants. The retraction of plantations and inclusion of SQF land has been a significant part of enabling this historic rehabilitation.”

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