World Wetlands Day: Discover SA's 23 wetlands and why they are important

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Kosi Bay in KZN. (Photo: iStock)
Kosi Bay in KZN. (Photo: iStock)

Cape Town - World Wetlands Day is celebrated annually on 02 February, marking the date of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands in 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar.

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.

ALSO SEE: SA's natural water resources boosted as 123 wetlands rehabilitated

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:

Western Cape

Bot-Kleinmond Estuarine System

Situated within the Agulhas Bioregion, the Bot-Kleinmond Estuarine System consists of an estuarine lake, Bokkeveld shale terrain and mountains.

  • What travellers can look forward to: wide variety of birdlife for birdwatching, as well as fishing, swimming and boating.

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. Bird life changes according to the estuary conditions related to water levels.

The estuary 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

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 serves as a nursery area for fish species and supports diverse algal and shoreline animal life. It is an important area for wintering birds and the numerous breeding birds include the largest colony of gulls in South Africa, says Ramsar.

ALSO SEE: #WorldWetlandsDay: A look at SA's protected wetlands PLUS 5 you need to visit this year

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 plant species that are currently listed as extinct in the wild.

De Hoop Vlei

This coastal lake 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 exploitative activities," says Ramsar, adding that commercial tourism and fishing in these waters are not allowed.

According to Ramsar, activities on these islands only include meteorological observations, scientific research, logistic support for research and conservation and management activities.

Significant wetland formations include non-forested swamps, 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.

ALSO SEE: #WorldWetlandsDay: 5 Southern African Ramsar sites you should visit in your lifetime

Verlorenvlei

One of the largest lakes - and one of the country's few coastal freshwater lakes), this wetland has shrubland, dune systems, marshland and reedbeds.

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.

Wilderness Lakes

This wetland consists of a series of three permanent, interconnected coastal lakes linked to the Indian Ocean, as well as a dune system with 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 (many use the site as a nursery area), and diverse marine life. The lakes provide a major form of flood control.


KwaZulu-Natal

Natal Drakensberg Park

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.

SEE: 3 New Mountain Bike trails to try on the foothills of the Drakensberg

The three largest rivers in KwaZulu-Natal originate here, and the area supports numerous 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.

Kosi Bay

The site, composed of four interconnected lakes, supports diverse 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. 

Lake Sibaya

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 can be found here. 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

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 - including many that are rare or vulnerable.

Ntsikeni Nature Reserve

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 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.

SEE: MAP: iSimangaliso's St Lucia set for bold facelift

Turtle Beaches/Coral Reefs of Tongaland

This marine reserve 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.

  • 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 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.

Mpumalanga

Verloren Valei Nature Reserve

This provincial protected area is above 2000m altitude comprising more than 30 wetlands (14% of the site's area), with permanent freshwater marshes, and 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 plant diversity and is one of the last areas with suitable Wattled Crane breeding habitat.

  • What travellers can look forward to: guided tours are planned.

Limpopo

Makuleke Wetlands

Most of this area 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 and serves as a breeding ground for eight South African red-listed waterbirds.

  • 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.

Gauteng

Blesbokspruit

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.

Free State

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.


North West

Barberspan

One of the few permanent, natural water bodies in the highveld, this alkaline, freshwater lake is surrounded by grassland.

The lake supports plankton and 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.

Northern Cape

Orange River Mouth

This wetland has 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.

What to read next on Traveller24:

#WorldWetlandsDay: A look at SA's protected wetlands PLUS 5 you need to visit this year

SA's natural water resources boosted as 123 wetlands rehabilitated

#WorldWetlandsDay: 5 Southern African Ramsar sites you should visit in your lifetime

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