Agulhas National Park to expand after the acquisition of historical wetland

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Soetendalsvlei in Agulhas National Park.
Soetendalsvlei in Agulhas National Park.
PHOTO: Supplied/SANParks
  • The Agulhas National Park is set to expand after the acquisition of a wetland.
  • The new area will add more than 2 300 hectares to the park.
  • The wetland was acquired via a donation to WWF South Africa.

To commemorate World Wetlands Day, South African National Parks (SANParks) announced the expansion of the Agulhas National Park through the incorporation of a significant wetland.

World Wetlands Day is commemorated annually on 2 February and aims to raise awareness about the significance of wetlands for water security and biodiversity.

The expansion is thanks to a partnership between the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) South Africa, who, through a generous donation, took ownership of the Vissersdrift property for incorporation into the Western Cape park last year.

The move secured 90% of the Soetendalsvlei wetland and added 2 345 hectares to the park.

The vlei gets its name from the Dutch ship, Zoetendaal, which was wrecked in 1673 en route from Jakarta.

The survivors, who made it to shore, walked inland and found freshwater at the vlei.

They were so grateful that they named it after their ship.

Birds over Soetendalsvlei's waters
Birds over Soetendalsvlei in Agulhas National Park.
Supplied Sanparks

They were helped by a local Khoikhoi chief and cattle trader back to Cape Town, explained Luthando Dziba, SANParks' Managing Executive: Conservation Services.

Soetendalsvlei is Africa's southernmost freshwater lake and plays a critical role in recharging groundwater and supplying fresh water for local agriculture, said Dziba.

It drains into the Heuningnes River, which connects with the sea at De Mond Nature Reserve between Struisbaai and Arniston. Here, the Heuningnes estuary provides a safe haven for migrating birds and breeding fish.

Dziba said:

By turning this area over to conservation and reducing alien plant infestation and other pressures, the hope is that Soetendalsvlei's ecological functions will be safeguarded into the future – in line with this year's World Wetland Day theme of restoration. Wetlands internationally are among the most threatened ecosystems and often overlooked and degraded.

Dziba added that the acquisition would also protect inland salt pans, many of which were under threat from urban development, mining and agriculture.

It would protect rare veld types, such as the critically endangered Central Rûens Shale Renosterveld, Vulnerable Agulhas Sand Fynbos and Limestone Fynbos, which face similar threats.

"Soetendalsvlei is designated both a critical biodiversity area and an important bird area, supporting over 60 water bird species, including several birds of concern, such as the Damara tern, great white pelican and two flamingo species, along with over 21 000 migrant and resident birds that are recorded here annually," said Dziba.

"Part of the Vissersdrift property supports pockets of milkwood forests around the vlei, which once offered shelter to the first inhabitants of this area. South of this property lies the Denhami property that was recently acquired by the National Parks Trust, which is also to be included as part of the core of the park."

Dziba added:

Although it does not have wetlands on it, it is the link between the Sandberg Mountain and the Soetendal vlei, supporting the ecological functionality of the vlei system.

According to Dziba, the Soetendalsvlei and wetland properties add substantial value to the park's cultural and archaeological attributes.

"Historically, people used the adjacent salt pans for harvesting salt for local use and later to export to Cape Town. About every 50 to 100 years, the vlei's bed is exposed through droughts, such [as what] happened in April 2019 when one could see some of these archaeological and cultural artefacts. Among the first management actions [we] will be to clear the alien infestation on the north-western end of the property, and to address the erosion control, to sustain the ecological functioning."

SANParks will now begin planning and implementing veld and wetland rehabilitation, as well as look at fences, access control and other uses on land.

Morné du Plessis, the CEO of WWF South Africa, said:

In the conservation world… it's important that we take a moment to celebrate our successes – and the acquisition of this critically important wetland area for incorporation into Africa's southern-most national park is one such milestone.

"We are proud to have been able to facilitate the expansion of the Agulhas National Park with a wetland that plays such a significant role in a functioning ecosystem. We are immensely grateful both to our generous donors and SANParks for their efforts in securing this wetland for future generations."

Dziba said that estuaries and wetlands were the most threatened and least protected ecosystems in South Africa.

"The inclusion of this area into the Agulhas National Park not only expands the park, but also contributes towards the protection of a critical wetland ecosystem for the Overberg region and its people. It is through productive partnerships such as this that we can achieve great things as we strive towards meeting the ambitious goals in the new Global Biodiversity Framework agreed in Montreal recently."

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