ACT - Volume 9 Issue 2 

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A Wetland Named Miracle 

By Peter Chadwick

The Zulu word for miracle, iSimangaliso, is also a wetland park on the east coast of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. A magical place that has it all – from deep ocean gorges and coral reefs to salt and freshwater marshes, forested dunes, mangroves and dry woodlands which abound in game species. Home to a greater diversity than Kruger or Botswana’s Okavango Delta, iSimangaliso is South Africa’s third largest national park and was declared a World Heritage Site in December 1999. The first evidence of human habitation within the park dates from the early Stone Age, while the St Lucia estuary was first discovered in 1552 and was first named as “Rio de la Medaos do ura” or River of the dows of Gold - in 1554, by sailors of the Portuguese ship Saint Benidict. Renamed Santa Lucia in 1575, it received the distinctive honour of being declared as South Africa’s first game reserve in 1895.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park comprises 328,000 ha and extends from Kosi Bay in the north to Mapelane in the south. It also incorporates the entire Lake St Lucia, the St Lucia and Maputoland Marine Reserves, the Coastal Forest Reserve, Kosi Bay Nature Reserve and Mkhuzi Game Reserve. To the north is the Mozambique border and the Ndumo and Thembe Game Reserves, and in the west, the equally famous Umfolozi and Hluhluwe Game Reserves.

The 280 km of pristine and tranquil beaches are the stage for one of nature’s great spectacles during the summer months, when leatherback and loggerhead turtles heave themselves onto the beaches to laboriously dig holes in which to bury their eggs. The cast includes migrating humpback whales, dolphins and whale sharks. Marlin and sailfish attract deep-sea fishermen, whilst the warm Indian Ocean contains the southern most coral reefs and submarine canyons in Africa. It is amongst these submarine canyons that a population of that strangest of fish, the coelacanth, was recently discovered. The coral gardens, reefs and overhangs found within iSimangaliso are home to over 80 percent of South Africa’s fish species. Sharks also occur in good numbers with other species such as ragged-tooth, Zambezi and tiger shark, and even the great white puts in an occasional appearance. During the warm summer months, the whale shark can often be watched from close quarters. Dolphin species including the bottle-nosed dolphin and the spinner dolphin can be sighted, as well as the humpback whale. The myriad lakes, islands and estuaries are listed as a RAMSAR site. They comprise excellent habitat for the Nile crocodile and the largest and most southern population of about 800 hippos. The wetland is also habitat to Africa’s highest density of common reedbuck. The lake is one of the most important breeding areas for water birds in South Africa, supporting large numbers of pelicans, storks and flamingoes. 

The St. Lucia and Kosi Bay systems form the two estuary-linked lakes, with Lake St. Lucia covering 36,828 ha – among the largest in Africa. It is a huge shallow lake with an opening to the sea through a very narrow estuary. In times of drought, salinity levels within the lake may rise to that of the surrounding sea. Plant and animal life have become especially adapted to tolerate these huge fluctuations in salinity. Apart from the open water expanses of the lake, there are mudflats, salt marshes, reed beds and mangroves, all providing a variety of habitats for numerous species of fauna and flora. It is at Kosi Bay where one can see the famous system of fish traps that the local Thonga communities have been using for generations. The traps are built in such a way to allow small fish to escape through the gaps of the traps, thereby allowing for a sustainable harvest of fish. The Kosi Bay system is also reputed to be the most pristine lake system in South Africa and comprises of four lakes with a series of interconnecting channels. Other freshwater lakes include the Sibayi, Bhangazi North and South and the Ngoboreleni.

On the eastern shores of the lake, the inland grassland systems are separated by coastal dunes, which provides habitat for the shy red duiker and the endangered samango monkey. Forest birds abound with Narina trogon, red capped, bearded and brown robin chats, green twinspot, green coucal and red-backed mannikin being some of the species encountered. Amongst the dense forest patches and leaf litter, the highly endangered Gaboon viper occurs. This snake is extremely well camouflaged and is seldom seen by people, being mainly active at night. The park is home to a total of 53 snake species and 42 species of lizards. Five of the 50 amphibian species are endemic to KwaZulu Natal.

No trip to the iSimangaliso St Lucia Wetland Park would be complete without a visit to Mkhuzi Game Reserve. It is a mecca for bird lovers with over 420 species having been recorded. There are an astonishing variety of habitats ranging from the broad stretches of acacia savannah to the slopes of the Lebombo Mountains. Rare sand forest also occurs here and this is the habitat of rare species including suni, crested guineafowl, grey-hooded kingfisher, broadbill, neergaards sunbird and pink-throated twinspot. The reserve has a good number of hides placed strategically and with patience one can be rewarded with a sighting of game species such as kudu, nyala, blue wildebeest and impala as they move to and fro from the waterholes. Night drives provide the opportunity to view many of the nocturnal species and leopard sightings are noteworthy. 

Overall, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park offers something for everyone and is a premier tourism destination with reportedly up to a million visitors each year. It offers good tourism facilities from camping to exclusive lodges. Private enterprise is increasingly becoming involved within the park and local communities are being allowed greater access. The iSimangaliso is all set to be a role model for conservation in Africa. 

Peter Chadwick is a wildlife photographer and conservationist.