/ 6 February 2023

Critical wetland added to Agulhas National Park

Soetendalsvlei plays a critical role in recharging groundwater and supplying freshwater for local agriculture. Photo: Supplied

A critical wetland, Soetendalsvlei, has been incorporated into the Agulhas National Park at the southern tip of Africa, South African National Parks (SANParks) and WWF South Africa have announced.

WWF South Africa said that through a “generous donation”, it had taken ownership of the Vissersdrift property for incorporation into the park last year, which has now secured 90% of the Soetendalsvlei wetland and added a further 2 345 hectares to the park. The main focus will be restoring the natural habitat. 

“Estuaries and wetlands are the most threatened and least protected ecosystems in South Africa,” said Luthando Dziba, SANParks managing executive: conservation services, in a statement commemorating World Wetlands Day, 2 February. 

“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.” 

Soetendalsvlei plays a critical role in recharging groundwater and supplying freshwater for local agriculture. It drains into the Heuningnes River, which connects with the sea at De Mond Nature Reserve between Struisbaai and Arniston. The Heuningnes estuary provides a safe haven for migrating birds and for breeding fish.

“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,” said Dziba.

Soetendalsvlei, which is Africa’s southernmost freshwater lake, is named after the first documented shipwreck on the Cape Agulhas coast. On 23 August 1673 the Dutch ship, Zoetendaal, ran aground. The survivors walked to a lake with fresh water and named it after their ship. And Khoikhoi chief and cattle trader helped them return to Cape Town.

Biodiversity under threat

Inland salt pans or areas of open land are under threat in the Western Cape from urban development, mining and agriculture. Rare veld types such as the critically endangered Central Rûens Shale Renosterveld, vulnerable Agulhas Sand Fynbos and Limestone Fynbos face similar threats, but will now be protected under the acquisition. 

Soetendalsvlei is designated as a critical biodiversity area and an important bird area, supporting more than 60 water bird species, including several birds of concern such as the Damara tern, great white pelican and two flamingo species, as well as more than 21 000 migrant and resident birds that are recorded annually.

The Soetendalsvlei and wetland properties also add substantial value to the park’s cultural and archaeological attributes, Dziba said.

“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 happened in April 2019, when one could see some of these archaeological and cultural artefacts.”

Clearing alien vegetation

Among the first management actions will be to clear alien invasive plants on the northwestern end of the property, and to address erosion to sustain ecological functioning. 

The park will now assume a “visible presence on the ground” and begin planning and implementing veld and wetland rehabilitation through the Working for Water and Working on Wetlands programmes. SANParks will also improve area integrity, look at fences, access control and other uses on land. 

Ross Kettles, the project manager of the nonprofit conservation organisation, Nuwejaars Wetlands Special Management Area, said SANParks and WWF-SA are now members of the NWSMA, who are the custodians of natural landscapes in the Agulhas Plain.

“Luckily, that section of wetland there [Soetendalsvlei] is very healthy so it doesn’t need a lot of management. It’s still pretty much pristine, but it’s just nice to know that it’s going to be taken care of in perpetuity,” Kettles said.

‘Rich in fynbos’

The region is a hotspot of biodiversity and endemism, boasting 3 000 plant species alone, he said. “Just on the Agulhas Plain, for example, there are more plants than there are in the whole of Europe and Asia together.

“We’ve got several little rivers and streams. Part of the year they flow one way and then later in the season as it starts drying up they start flowing another way so a river will feed a wetland for example and then as it starts drying up, then the wetland starts feeding the river. It’s not very often you get a river that is bi-directional in South Africa.”

Wetlands under threat

Estuaries and wetlands are the most threatened and least protected ecosystems in South Africa, according to the 2018 National Biodiversity Assessment. About 99% of the estuarine area and 88% of wetland area is threatened in the country, it found.

“Estuaries and inland wetlands are essential ecological infrastructure for water security, food security, tourism and recreation, as well as natural disaster risk reduction. They are also important havens for many endemic species that are threatened. Restoring and protecting these ecosystems will secure the key benefits from these ecosystems and deliver a large return on investment,” it said.
Morné du Plessis, the chief executive of WWF South Africa, said: “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.”