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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.

Coming soon!

Coming soon!

Coming soon!

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

The Mesic Highveld Grasslands

The Mesic Highveld Grasslands (MHG) are located in the wetter, eastern zone of the highveld plateau of South Africa, and is a vital water production landscape – many wetlands, pans, and five major river systems have their origins in this grassland bioregion and therefore falls within the Northern Drakensberg Strategic Water Source Area (SWSA), one of 21 identified areas important for surface or groundwater sources, covering 8% of South Africa and supplying 50% of the mean annual runoff.

The MHG is characterised by high plant and bird diversity and endemism, including four Centres of Plant Endemism (CEs), one Endemic Bird Area (EBA), and four current Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), which will be incorporated into three Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs), which are globally recognised high-priority areas for a diversity of taxa and supported by numerous global stakeholders and organisations. Many threatened bird species, such as large raptors, cranes, and endemic larks and pipits make extensive use of the private land to forage and breed.

Unfortunately, the MHG are generally poorly protected, mostly due to the economic importance of this region. Many key economic activities take place in this ecosystem, including mining (especially coal-mining), agriculture, cultivation, plantation forestry and urban settlement. Generally, the lack of physical barriers such as mountains or large rivers leads to the relatively uncontrolled expansion of these activities which further reduces vegetation cover, disrupts the soil profile, and modifies water movement above and below the soil. These disruptions can have far-reaching impacts on the ecosystem, and the services delivered to the people and the economic activities that rely on a healthy environment.

BirdLife South Africa, in co-operation with other NGOs and with the support of the Free State Department of Small Business Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (DESTEA), continues to promote Biodiversity Stewardship as a valuable method to conserve biodiversity in the Free State Province. To ensure these areas are sustained in the future we need to work with private landowners to conserve the natural grassland habitats which occur on their properties. One way to do this is through the declaration of Protected Environments under the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act (NEMPAA). This level of formal protection offers the next most secure form of protection after a nature reserve, where agricultural activities can continue alongside biodiversity conservation.

Current post-declaration support to the landowners in Protected Environments include the following activities:

  • Avifaunal monitoring – general species presence and absence, as well as breeding monitoring for priority species;
  • Input into grassland health and burning patterns using remote sensing techniques;
  • Assistance with any environmental challenges reported by the landowner;
  • Research activities on threatened and priority species;
  • Administrative assistance to the management authorities of the protected areas;
  • Environmental education and awareness projects with schools and communities; and
  • Eco-tourism development across the region, with two trained bird guides present and available in the area.

Protecting Our Grasslands

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, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. 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 landowners 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 allowing agriculture to continue according to a specific management plan. 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.

In 2018, BirdLife South Africa developed a detailed guide to birding in the Memel region, including all of the Sneeuwberg Protected Environment. The guide can be downloaded here.

BirdLife South Africa is currently engaged in post-declaration support to the landowners, ensuring implementation of the management plan, and avifaunal monitoring, all while restarting landowner engagements for a second stewardship phase aimed at expanding the protected area and conducting species and grassland management research.

Photo credit: C. Pienaar

The Upper Wilge Protected Environment, declared on 21 January 2022, is located, between the towns of Verkykerskop and Van Reenen within the Harrismith district. The properties surround the Ingula Nature Reserve and the project was initiated by the Ingula Partnership. The Protected Environment comprises of 59 separate properties with a total extent of 24 078 hectares.

The reasons for declaration are as follows:

  • It has critically important grassland and wetland biodiversity which is secured through this initiative;
  • It is extremely important in terms of its location for protecting critically important wetlands and the associated freshwater biodiversity;
  • It assist with the provision of the ecosystem services derived from the area, such as water purification, carbon sequestration and natural resources;
  • It contributes 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 thus contribute towards the creation of an effective buffer zone, or zone of influence, for the reserve.

BirdLife South Africa, as the lead partner working in the UWPE, is assisting with post-declaration support to the landowners, liaison with the provincial government, management plan implementation, and avifaunal monitoring of the region.

Photo credit: C. Pienaar


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

South Africa is currently assisting with the legal process of the declaration, as well as drafting of the management plan, and avifaunal monitoring.

Photo credit: C. Pienaar

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

Situated near Van Reenen on the escarpment between the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal, this 8 000 ha nature reserve was initiated by the Ingula Partnership: a partnership between BirdLife South Africa, Eskom, 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. The partnership and work in this project originated through the presence of the Critically Endangered White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi in the 1 200 ha wetlands protected by the Nature Reserve. BirdLife South Africa is currently tasked with monitoring the avifaunal diversity (more than 340 bird species have been recorded since 2003), threatened species’ breeding events and habitat suitability on the Nature Reserve, as well as coordinating environmental education and avitourism events.


BirdLife South Africa is currently working towards the declaration of a new Protected Environment to act as a corridor between the existing Protected Areas in the Eastern Free State, and further conserve grassland and inselbergs as key habitat for several of the threatened birds occurring in the area. Several landowners have already indicated their willingness and signed letters of consent to form part of this project.

Misbelt Grassland

Protecting Our Grasslands

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, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. 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 landowners 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 allowing agriculture to continue according to a specific management plan. The fact that protected areas can be proclaimed on privately owned land is made possible through the innovative national Biodiversity Stewardship Programme.

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


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. Seeing the benefits of a protected environment, several landowners joined the GLPE in 2023 to contribute 7,400 ha of grasslands, wetlands and rocky outcrops. 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. BirdLife South Africa gained the support of the provincial conservation governing body, Mpumalanga Tourism and Park Agency, and the willingness of Dullstroom Trout Farm and a neighbouring property belonging to Eland’s Valley Guest Farm, which supplies Middelpunt Wetland with lateral inputs (seeps). The nature reserve was declared in 2022 and was later recognised as a Wetland of International Importance by the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran) in 2023. BirdLife South Africa developed the Management Plan and has entered into a co-management agreement with the landowners to help implement the objectives.

BirdLife South Africa and the Escarpment Bird Club established the Steenkampsberg Birding Routes to help guide and advise people who want to explore the countryside around Dullstroom in northern Mpumalanga Province. The purpose of the birding routes is to create awareness about high-elevation habitats and their species, while also creating a financial incentive for landowners to conserve biodiversity on their properties if they derive income from eco-tourism.

Explore the countryside beyond Dullstroom by touring one of three local day birding routes. These routes will take you through some of the most diverse and breathtaking scenery of the Steenkampsberg at the transition of the Grassland and Savanna Biomes. Enjoy nearly 400 species of birds inhabiting wetlands, rocky outcrops, escarpment forests and near-pristine grasslands.

Steenkampsberg Birding Route

Ntsikeni Nature Reserve is located in southern KwaZulu-Natal Province, between Underberg and Kokstad, and protects an area of 9 200 ha. The reserve spans an entire local catchment and is situated within the Southern Drakensberg Strategic Water Source Area, supplying water resources to many downstream users. The reserve protects one of the largest high-elevation wetlands in South Africa, which has also been declared a Ramsar site (i.e., a wetland of international importance). Ntsikeni Vlei is one of the few sites in Africa to support the globally Critically Endangered White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi). Ntsikeni Nature Reserve has been identified by the White-winged Flufftail International Working Group (under the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement, AEWA) as an important site for the conservation of the species.

The reserve is bordered to the south and east by many villages of the Umzimkhulu Local Municipality within the Harry Gwala District Municipality. Ntsikeni Nature Reserve provides a means to alleviate poverty and develop skills in the area through community-based projects. This not only improves the appreciation and extrinsic value that communities have for nature, but also creates more opportunities for job creation through improved ecosystem service delivery. Due to lack of resources and expertise, these benefits are not being realised by the community resulting in several ecological and social issues that threaten the biodiversity protected by the reserve.

BirdLife South Africa’s primary focus is conserving the most important sites for species and their associated habitats, mitigating direct threats to these, and creating an enabling environment to facilitate effective conservation through local community-level engagement. The Ntsikeni Nature Reserve Community Project seeks to address the issues hindering effective conservation through (1) eco-tourism development, (2) habitat restoration, and (3) reserve infrastructure. These projects will ensure that the ecosystem services provided by the reserve are restored and maintained for future generations to benefit from.

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.