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Protecting Our Estuaries

Protecting Our Estuaries

Estuaries are well-known for their biodiversity, particularly their spectacular birdlife and important fisheries. They perform a myriad of essential services, such as water purification, flood attenuation, and providing nursery areas for fish and staging areas for significant populations of migratory birds. Yet they remain one of the country’s most threatened ecosystem types, in part due to their lack of formal protection. Many of South Africa’s most important estuaries for conservation have little or no formal protection. Unprotected, estuaries face an increasing number of threats, including over-abstraction and pollution of their rivers, encroaching development and intensifying human disturbance, as well as an overall lack of management. Launched in July 2015, the project looks to formally protect and improve conservation action at priority estuaries within IBAs in the Western Cape.
Funded by WWF South Africa’s Elizabeth Harding Bequest, the project has focused on driving conservation action and protected area expansion at two of the highest priority estuarine IBAs in the Western Cape, namely the Berg River Estuary and Cape Whale Coast IBAs. This includes the re-establishment of a Conservancy in the middle and upper reaches of the Berg River estuary, covering more than 20,000ha; and ongoing work towards protected area declarations on privately-owned riparian properties at the Berg River and Klein River estuaries. In 2018, the project received additional funding from the Rupert Natuurstigting for a 5-year programme of work looking at the formal protection of estuarine waterbodies themselves, and allowing for a continued presence in the estuary conservation landscape in order to achieve greater protection and sustained action for these vulnerable, but highly valuable ecosystems.

Broadly, the project seeks increased formal protection for a severely under-protected ecosystem: estuaries, including the wider estuarine functional zone and surrounding critical biodiversity and ecological support area. The project is focused on formal protected area expansion at privately-owned properties along the south bank of the Klein River estuary, ranked 5th in South Africa in terms of its conservation importance, in part due to its remarkable birdlife, and one of two major estuaries in the Cape Whale Coast Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) in the Western Cape Fynbos Biome. The project domain extends from Walker Bay Nature Reserve eastwards towards Stanford and comprises threatened estuarine and coastal wetland ecosystem types, as well as critically endangered Agulhas Limestone Fynbos. The project also looks to improve conservation action throughout this area, with increased management, awareness, and security of key natural assets.

An effective, community based, communication strategy has attracted significant interest from stakeholders in the landscape, with an additional five landowners engaged in discussions around biodiversity stewardship during this reporting period. To date, negotiations have been entered into at thirteen out of fifteen properties, including identification of preliminary and full biodiversity site assessment requirements and a phased approach to the protected area declarations. Protected area declarations are being prioritised in terms of a site’s biodiversity value, its importance to safeguarding the estuary and landowner willingness. The subset of properties identified for the first phase of declarations includes three potential nature reserves and a protected environment. The proposed nature reserves would be declared first, while the project would look to sign up other landowners to the protected environment before declaring. While the project will continue to be open to new landowner interest, the scoping phase of the project has been completed.
Most negotiations have proved positive, with landowners giving permission to undertake biodiversity site assessments on their properties and signaling willingness to participate in the project further. Full biodiversity site assessments have been completed for six sites. The results of three were presented at the February 2022 Stewardship Review Committee; however, members asked for further detail on their future development plans, so revised presentations will be given at the May Committee meeting. Preliminary biodiversity site assessments have been completed for nine properties so far, with a further three currently underway. A minimum of two more full biodiversity site assessments are planned for the next reporting period. Reports summarising the findings of these surveys, including species lists and photo galleries, have been produced for each site. These are made available to their respective landowners during a short presentation highlighting key findings, and are very well received. The Intention to Declare MoU and Resolution documentation has been finalised for the proposed nature reserves (three sites) and protected environment (two sites), after comment from the relevant landowners and the project’s legal support team.
Stewardship discussions have identified the key environmental issues being faced by landowners and include, amongst others, invasive alien plant (IAP) cover and fynbos security. The camera trap monitoring programme introduced in 2020/2021 has been well received and has already produced significant data. The project remains a standard agenda item in a variety of Forums, including the Klein River Estuary Advisory Forum. A presentation on the project was given at the Walker Bay Conservancy AGM in December 2021, which elicited a great deal of interest and support.

South Africa’s estuaries are one of the country’s most productive habitats. Known for their biodiversity and the important functions they perform, such as providing nursery areas for fish, and feeding and staging areas for significant populations of migratory birds, estuaries constitute one of the country’s most valuable, but vulnerable ecosystems. Many are at risk from multiple threats, including unsustainable land use and unsound land management practices, in part due to their lack of formal protection.

BirdLife South Africa’s Western Cape Estuaries Conservation Project looks to address this gap by seeking formal protection and sustained conservation action for this under-protected ecosystem. Funded by WWF South Africa’s Elizabeth Harding Bequest, the project is focused on the expansion and proclamation of protected areas at three high priority estuaries, identified as Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) in the Western Cape, and on working with landowners to improve conservation action within these estuaries and their catchment areas to further enable their maintenance and management.

The sites, the Berg River Estuary IBA at Velddrif on the West Coast, and the Klein River and Bot-Kleinmond River Estuaries near Hermanus, which form part of the Cape Whale Coast IBA, are some of the most important estuaries in South Africa for conserving birds and biodiversity. Havens for several internationally and nationally important bird species populations, including African Black Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini, Cape Cormorant Phalacrocorax capensis, Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus, Caspian Tern Sterna caspia and Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus, as well as significant populations of congregatory waterbirds, such as Red-knobbed Coot Fulica cristata, these estuaries are some of the most valuable in the country for nature conservation, particularly with respect to their bird and fish fauna.

All three estuaries are IBAs; places of international significance for the conservation of birds and other biodiversity. The estuaries’ rich birdlife offers substantial tourism and recreational potential, as do their natural settings, if managed appropriately. They are vital as a nursery for juvenile fish, many species of which form the basis of employment for the local communities, as well as being fundamental to supplying the wider commercial fishing industry.

Under threat from encroaching development, and increasing human disturbance and exploitation, as well as the reduction and pollution of their freshwater inflows, amongst other pressures, these estuaries are highly vulnerable to further degradation and an accompanying loss of biodiversity.

The key objectives of the project are:

• To facilitate formal protected area expansion at these unprotected estuaries through biodiversity stewardship agreements, or similar management models focused on the environment.
• To improve conservation action within the estuaries and their catchment areas, to help landowners tackle the environmental issues they’re facing. By working closely with all relevant stakeholders, including conservation agencies such as Cape Nature, local, provincial and national government bodies, as well as existing forums, such as the Estuary Management Forums, any and all actions aimed at furthering or securing the conservation and protective status of these sites will be identified and progressed with the full cooperation of all parties.

For more information on the project, please contact Giselle Murison at giselle.murison@birdlife.org.za

Protecting Our Grasslands

Protecting Our Grasslands

The Greater Lakenvlei Protected Environment (GLPE) was established in 2017 and protects a vast network of wetlands on the Steenkampsberg Plateau. Several threatened and endemic bird species use these wetlands as breeding and overwintering habitats. The Protected Environment is used as a platform to engage with farmers to better steward and conserve wetlands on their properties. Several farms are in the process of being added to the GLPE, contributing over 10,000 ha of protected land. The GLPE faces many threats, the most destructive of these being the expansion and growing number of open-cast mining applications on the periphery.

BirdLife South Africa, in co-operation with other NGOs, continues to promote Biodiversity Stewardship as a valuable method to conserve biodiversity in the Free State Province. Many threatened bird species, such as large raptors and cranes, make extensive use of the private land to forage and breed. In order to ensure these areas are sustained in the future we need to work with private land owners to conserve the natural habitats which occur on their properties. One way to do this is through the declaration of Protected Environments. A “protected environment” is a class of protection under the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act (NEMPAA), which offers the next most secure form of protection after a nature reserve. The fact that protected areas can be proclaimed on privately owned land is made possible through the innovative national Biodiversity Stewardship Programme.

In 2016, a spectacular area of the north-eastern Free State around the village of Memel became the first area in the Free State province to be declared as a “protected environment”. The 17 456-hectare protected area, known as the Sneeuwberg Protected Environment (SPE), was gazetted on Friday 29 July 2016.

The Sneeuwberg Protected Environment lies within a strategic water source area, feeding rivers that provide water for our cities. It is also rich in fauna and flora and falls within the Grasslands Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA). The area is important for unique and threatened bird species such as the threatened Wattled Crane, Southern Bald Ibis, Blue Korhaan, Denham’s Bustard, Yellow-breasted Pipit and Rudd’s Lark. Other important species to occur in this mountainous grassland environment include the Oribi and the Giant Girdled Lizard.

In terms of the gazette notice, the purpose of the declaration is to:

  • Regulate the area as a buffer zone for the protection of and conservation of the provincial Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve;
  • To enable landowners to take collective action to protect unique and threatened grasslands, wetlands, and the associated animals; and,
  • To ensure that “ecosystem services” derived from the area (such as water production) are sustained.

BirdLife South Africa continues to provide support to the Management Authority of this Protected Environment, for example BirdLife South drafted the Management Plan for the Protected Environment and assists with the implementation of the plan. We also provide administrative support where needed.

BirdLife South Africa, in co-operation with other NGOs, continues to promote Biodiversity Stewardship as a valuable method to conserve biodiversity in the Free State Province. Many threatened bird species, such as large raptors and cranes, make extensive use of the private land to forage and breed. In order to ensure these areas are sustained in the future we need to work with private land owners to conserve the natural habitats which occur on their properties. One way to do this is through the declaration of Protected Environments. A “protected environment” is a class of protection under the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act (NEMPAA), which offers the next most secure form of protection after a nature reserve. The fact that protected areas can be proclaimed on privately owned land is made possible through the innovative national Biodiversity Stewardship Programme.

The recently declared Upper Wilge Protected Environment is located in the eastern Free State, between the towns of Verkykerskop and Van Reenen within the Thabo Mofutsanyane District Municipality (DC19) and the Phumelela Local Municipality. The properties are also located in close proximity to the Ingula Nature Reserve. The Protected Environment comprises of 59 separate properties with a total extent of 32 216 hectares.

The Land Owner Association was established in 2018 and the Protected Environment was declared in 2021.

This site is critically important for the following reasons:

It has critically important biodiversity which will be secured through this initiative and will contribute to achieving provincial and national conservation targets;
It is extremely important in terms of its location for protecting critically important wetlands and the associated freshwater biodiversity;
It will contribute to Protected Area expansion targets at the provincial level and it is located in a site deemed as a national priority for protected area expansion;
The site is located in close proximity to the Ingula Nature Reserve and will thus contribute towards the creation of an effective buffer zone, or zone of influence, for the reserve.

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A new landowner near the town of Vrede in the Free State is interested in declaring a new 1 200 ha Nature Reserve with a large multi-species cliff line breeding colony, including Southern Bald Ibis. The area also conserves natural grasslands and a section of the Venterspruit – a tributary to the Vaal River.

The declaration has been requested by the landowner and all relevant documents are currently being prepared for handover to the MEC of DESTEA. This will be followed by publishing of an Intent to Declare in the Government Gazette, and a two-month public participation period.

Nelsonskop, one of the prominent features of the Wilge Stewardship area, as seen from Ingula Nature Reserve.
The Ingula Project

In 2003 the Ingula Partnership was established between Eskom, BirdLife South Africa and the Middelpunt Wetland Trust with a common conservation objective of managing the Ingula Pumped Storage Scheme as a sustainable conservation site. It is a classic example of how an industrial undertaking can be integrated within a conservation area and will hopefully provide a model for future conservation initiatives. BirdLife South Africa has been actively involved in the project through continuous on-site monitoring and research initiatives, as well as scientific input into key threatened species and their habitat management. Since the declaration of the Ingula Nature Reserve, our Project Manager is also now jointly coordinating the eco- and avitourism aspects with the Eskom Visitors Center and Environmental team.

BirdLife South Africa and Conservation Outcomes have established a long-term partnership to support the conservation of KwaZulu-Natal’s natural heritage. This partnership is enhancing the conservation of key areas in the province and providing assistance and support to land holders who would like to contribute to conserving important biodiversity. The Mistbelt Grassland and Forest Conservation Project is in the process of working with landowners to secure seven properties with key threatened bird habitat and breeding sites, including over 2000 hectares of mistbelt grassland for Blue Swallows and key wetland areas for Wattled Crane and other threatened species. Of these, four properties are in the process of being declared as Nature Reserves while landowners have opted for Protected Environment and Biodiversity Agreement status for the other three sites. The Conservation Outcomes-BirdLife SA partnership in KZN is thus also supporting Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife to meet their conservation targets, monitoring threatened bird populations and providing land owner support to manage properties once they have been protected.
The partnership is currently looking to expand its work to include conservation projects focused on the threatened Cape Parrot, whilst also supporting land holders in the northern KZN region of Zululand to develop conservation projects which support rural development and the local economy.

Protecting Our Wetlands

Protecting Our Wetlands

Three local birding routes are currently being developed in partnership with the Escarpment Bird Club. The routes and associated information resources are due to launch mid 2022.

The Greater Lakenvlei Protected Environment (GLPE) was established in 2017 and protects a vast network of wetlands on the Steenkampsberg Plateau. Several threatened and endemic bird species use these wetlands as breeding and overwintering habitats. The Protected Environment is used as a platform to engage with farmers to better steward and conserve wetlands on their properties. Several farms are in the process of being added to the GLPE, contributing over 10,000 ha of protected land. The GLPE faces many threats, the most destructive of these being the expansion and growing number of open-cast mining applications on the periphery.

The White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi) is listed as Critically Endangered, with an estimated global population size of fewer than 250 mature individuals (BirdLife International 2016). It is considered to be the rarest and most threatened rallid species in Africa (Taylor et al. 2015). Ethiopia and, more recently, South Africa are the only two countries where the White-winged Flufftail is known to breed, with only one confirmed site in South Africa: Middelpunt Wetland (Colyn et al. 2020). The White-winged Flufftail was first seen at Middelpunt Wetland in 1992 after many years with no presence records in the country.

Those who saw the bird (Deon Coetzee, Dr Warwick Tarboton and Malcolm Drummond) were concerned about the condition of the wetland and engaged with the owner, Michael Jansen, to rehabilitate and conserve it. A lease was eventually signed in 1994 and Middelpunt Wetland Trust was formed as the vehicle through which to operate. The Trust succeeded in having five kilometres of artificial drainage channels filled in 1995, immediately improving the condition of the wetland.

In 2002, Dullstroom Trout Farm purchased the farm portion that contains most of Middelpunt Wetland to protect the main catchment area for their trout dams directly downstream of the wetland, and to safeguard the White-winged Flufftail and its habitat. BirdLife South Africa was invited to administer Middelpunt Wetland Trust in 2011 and since then has led national efforts to conserve this highly threatened species.

Dullstroom Trout Farm has been supportive of BirdLife South Africa’s research objectives by allowing studies to take place at Middelpunt Wetland. It is through these studies that the first breeding record of the White-winged Flufftail was made in South Africa. Dullstroom Trout Farm joined the Greater Lakenvlei Protected Environment in 2017. Whilst this form of protection limits activities that could threaten biodiversity, it does not prevent them entirely. Middelpunt Wetland is the only confirmed breeding site of the White-winged Flufftail in the southern hemisphere and thus requires the appropriate legislation to safeguard this irreplaceable habitat for many years to come.

South Africa is a contracting party to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) and the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA). Under both treaties, the White-winged Flufftail receives the highest level of protection. In 2008, the International Single Species Action Plan (ISSAP) for the White-winged Flufftail was adopted. BirdLife South Africa was instrumental in assisting the Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment (DFFE) in coordinating the third White-winged Flufftail International Working Group (WWF IWG) meeting held in Dullstroom, South Africa in November 2019.

At this meeting, it was decided that more formal protection was needed for Middelpunt Wetland to prevent the species from becoming extinct from threats such as mining. Declaring Middelpunt Wetland as a nature reserve (ISSAP activity 1.3) is considered the highest priority objective that needs to be accomplished by the South African Government. BirdLife South Africa gained the support of the provincial conservation governing body, Mpumalanga Tourism and Park Agency, in meeting this objective. BirdLife South Africa also identified the importance of a neighbouring property belonging to Eland’s Valley Guest Farm, which supplies Middelpunt Wetland with lateral inputs (seeps). The declaration of the nature reserve is about to enter the public participation phase.

Recognizing and Rolling-out Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures (OECM)

What is an OECM?

Only officially defined by the CBD in 2018, an OECM is “a geographically defined area other than a Protected Area, which is governed and managed in ways that achieve positive and sustained long-term outcomes for the in-situ conservation of biodiversity, with associated ecosystem functions and services and where applicable, cultural, spiritual, socio-economic, and other locally relevant values”.

Essentially, OECMs are sites with high biodiversity and ecosystem services value, found outside of the formal protected areas network that provide conservation as an objective (even if it is not the primary objective) in addition to the site’s foremost land use objectives. OECMs can encompass a range of different approaches to governance and conversation management, including agreements signed through Biodiversity Stewardship.

What is the reason for this project?

Through Biodiversity Stewardship, South Africa has been highly effective at expanding the conservation estate (comprised of protected and conservation areas), particularly on privately and communally owned land. Protected areas are legislated under the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act of 2003 and are reported nationally and internationally. Conservation areas, however, have not been well recognized and reported in South Africa. The result is that South Africa is under-reporting and falling short of national and international area-based conservation targets e.g. Aichi Target 11 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and more recently, the draft CBD Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework targets. The new area-based target calls for 30% of the world’s marine, freshwater and terrestrial spaces to be well-protected and conserved by 2030 through an expanded, well-connected network of protected areas and ‘other effective area-based conservation measures’ (OECMs). The project aims to identify and assess potential OECMs in the Western Cape, focussing initially on assessing and reporting existing, qualifying conservation areas. This project will also look to understand and quantify the capacity and resource requirements needed to assess OECMs in the province, and provide training to key stakeholders to support the assessment and reporting of OECMS in the Western Cape.

Who is involved in this project?

Funded through a grant from the WWF Nedbank Green Trust Leslie Hill Succulent Karoo Trust, BirdLife South Africa is coordinating this exciting work in collaboration with CapeNature and Conservation Outcomes with support from the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment, South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), Wilderness Foundation Africa and the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.

What are IBAs?
Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), as defined by BirdLife International, constitute a global network of over 13 500 sites, of which 113 sites are found in South Africa. IBAs are sites of global significance for bird conservation, identified nationally through multi-stakeholder processes using globally standardised, quantitative and scientifically agreed criteria. Essentially, these are the most important sites for conserving.

Habitat loss, alteration and degradation threaten South Africa’s biodiversity

No one likes to start with the negative, but as a conservation NGO one of BirdLife South Africa’s objectives is to mitigate threats to our birds and the habitats on which they depend. The primary threats to birds and other biodiversity, both in South Africa and abroad, are habitat loss and habitat degradation. The main factors underlying habitat loss and degradation include alien invasive species, overgrazing, agricultural and industrial expansion, incorrect fire regimes, pollution, alterations to water courses and declining water quality (Marnewick et al. 2015, Taylor et al. 2017).

There are a number of key challenges that contribute to the above threats. Approximately 60% of the IBA network is unprotected, leaving these sites vulnerable to habitat transformation and mismanagement. Habitats within many IBAs are poorly managed, leading to habitat degradation, especially in unprotected sites.

Now let’s talk about the fun part, in that our important strategy to overcome threats to our birds! The Landscape Conservation Programme’s vision is to see critical sites and habitats, and associated ecosystem services, better protected and sustainably managed for the benefit of birds, other biodiversity, and people. The Programme’s mission is to identify, protect and manage a network of sites that are important for the persistence of birds, their habitats and other biodiversity, through scientifically-based programmes, through improving the conservation status of IBAs and KBAs, through supporting the sustainable management and equitable use of natural resources, and through encouraging people to enjoy and value nature.

The former* IBA Programme’s 2018-2023 Strategy outlines the below objectives and many of these will be incorporated into the Landscape Conservation Programme Strategy for 2021-2025:

Strategic objective 1: Strategic, integrated landscape planning
The KBA Programme’s approach is to develop and implement high quality and high impact projects, focusing on qualitative outcomes instead of perverse quantitative targets.

*BirdLife South Africa’s Conservation Division underwent a restructure during 2019 and the IBA Programme and Terrestrial Bird Conservation Programme were combined into the new Landscape Conservation Programme. 

Strategic objective 2: Safeguard the most important sites for birds
A comprehensive network of IBAs includes all sites important for birds. Priority sites are safeguarded, as protected areas or conservation areas, in order to mitigate severe impacts from climate change, to prevent unsustainable development and habitat loss, and by improving habitat management.

Strategic objective 3: Improve habitat management in KBAs
Support habitat management through providing bird-friendly habitat management guidelines, developing innovative management planning, improving monitoring effectiveness, enhancing landowner awareness, providing advisory support, and implementing habitat rehabilitation interventions.

Strategic objective 4: Manage data
The IBA and KBA networks are identified using global scientific criteria. To ensure that the networks are defensible and that accurate data can be provided to end users, the data need to be centrally collected, stored, vetted, analysed, and made available to inform academic research and conservation planning.

Strategic objective 5: Mainstreaming
IBAs, Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) and bird species data are better represented in other spatial planning and assessment products, e.g. national biodiversity assessments, conservation plans, spatial development frameworks and protected area expansion strategies.

Strategic objective 6: Increase support
Increase awareness within the public, government and corporate sectors to gain support for IBA and KBA conservation and monitoring, and for specific projects. More specifically with landowners to create local custodians, with citizen scientists to increase data collection, with academics to fill information gaps, and with the general public to increase local support, awareness and sustainable use of IBAs and associated natural resources.

Successes:
The IBA Programme has realised a number of successes since 2010, and has been able to position itself within the sector to play significant and often leading roles in a number of initiatives which aid the Programme to realise its vision, mission and goals. These successes include:
• the revision and publication of the IBA Directory (Marnewick et al. 2015a);
• the publication of the first IBA Status Report (Marnewick et al. 2015b);
• assisting in declaring over 100 000 hectares of protected areas, and 30 000 hectares as conservation areas within priority IBAs, consisting of threatened grasslands and wetlands; accessing the first tax incentive for a protected area;
• publishing best-practice guidelines in favour of birds for the management of i) grasslands (Uys et al. 2013), ii) of fynbos (Wright et al. 2017), iii) for waterbirds in agricultural landscapes (Wright et al. 2017), and v) Fences & birds: Minimizing unintended impacts (Retief 2018);
• supporting avitourism in IBAs by publishing iv) guidelines for building mobility-friendly bird hides (Retief 2013), and v) A guide to bird watching In & around Memel (Retief et al. 2018);
• developing best practice guidelines for the expansion of protected areas through biodiversity stewardship by coordinating the publication of the vi) National Biodiversity Stewardship Guideline 2018 (SANBI in press), and publishing vii) Enhancing Biodiversity Stewardship in South Africa (Wright 2018);
• increasing the amount of citizen science data collected and submitted for birds through a strategic partnership with BirdLasser; and
• mainstreaming avifaunal spatial information into the broader biodiversity planning sector.
The IBA Programme has also developed strategic partnerships with government and private organisations, e.g. WWF-SA, the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), and Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA). Senior staff within the Programme have develop the necessary skills sets, regional and national partner networks, and institutional knowledge. These are significant institutional resources which will now allow these staff to make significant contributions to implementing this strategy. This five year (2018-2023) strategy aims to build on these previous successes, learn from past experience, utilise existing skill sets, and build on established networks to grow the work of the KBA Programme together with BirdLife South Africa’s Regional Conservation Programme.