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. Situated on the continental watershed between the Orange River (from the Vaal River) in the eastern Free State and the Tugela River in KwaZulu-Natal, Ingula and its surrounding nature reserve provides a core conservation area and act as a catalyst to encourage conservation-based management principles for surrounding landowners and for socio-economic development for local communities.

Braamhoek Dam (Photo: Du Toit Malherbe)

Ingula Partnership wins the Stewardship category at the National Wetlands Awards

The Ingula Pumped Storage Scheme

The Ingula Pumped Storage Scheme was initiated by Eskom in order to supplement the national power grid during peak times. The Bedford and Braamhoek dams are connected by underground waterways passing through a subterranean powerhouse with four generators. To generate electricity during times of peak demand, water is released from Bedford Dam which is situated in the upper site and allowed to pass through the turbines into the Braamhoek Dam situated in the lower site. Situated close to the Van Reenen’s Pass, on the provincial border between the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal, the scheme spans the escarpment of the Little Drakensberg where high-altitude wetlands provide ideal habitat for, amongst others, the Critically Endangered White-winged Flufftail.

The environmental impact assessment approved the scheme, with the ROD (Record of Decision) subject to the following conditions:

  1. Eskom was to enter into a partnership agreement with a conservation NGO to ensure that the environmental impacts were properly managed;
  2. The land obtained for the project was to be declared a nature reserve on completion of construction of the pumped storage scheme;
  3. All the erosion problems on the land were to be rehabilitated;
  4. All exotic fauna and flora were to be removed.

When the scheme was originally proposed, BirdLife South Africa objected because it was feared that the White-winged Flufftail habitat at this site would be forever lost. However, in ensuing negotiations with Eskom, it became evident that more could be achieved if Eskom and BirdLife South Africa were to work together on the environmental aspects of the project.

A Partnership for Conservation

Eskom has committed to funding projects and studies identified and approved by the Ingula Partnership steering committee since 2003. The Ingula Partnership steering committee is made up of primary members representing Eskom (Deidre Herbst and Warren Funston), BirdLife South Africa (Mark Anderson and Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson), and the Middelpunt Wetland Trust (Malcolm Drummond). The Partnership was established to monitor and minimise the environmental impacts throughout the project construction and beyond.

Through monitoring work done by BirdLife South Africa’s on-site manager (Carina Pienaar), assistant (Steven Segang) and their predecessors (Robin Colyn, Dr David Maphisa, and Sakhile Mthalane), as well as the Eskom environmental team and various citizen scientist initiatives, over 340 bird species have been recorded at Ingula. These include four regionally Critically Endangered species, i.e. the White-winged Flufftail, Wattled Crane, White-backed Vulture, and Bearded Vulture, as well as several other high-altitude grassland specialists and endemics. A number of threatened bird species have also been observed on site with breeding records on site or in the near vicinity for most, with the exception of the White-winged Flufftail and White-backed Vulture. Through David’s participation in national atlasing projects, a very impressive list of reptiles, butterflies and plants also exists for Ingula.

The upper Bedford wetlands are protected through designation as South Africa’s 27th Wetlands of International Importance according to the Ramsar Convention, and as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA), and proposed Key Biodiversity Area (KBA), providing ideal habitat for the White-winged Flufftail, all cranes, and African Marsh Harrier, with annual surveys undertaken to monitor the species’ presence. A management plan that allows Eskom to follow best practice principles in habitat management and the prevention of collisions and electrocutions is regularly revised. The powerlines within and around the Ingula site are surveyed on a quarterly basis to assess for collision and electrocution mortalities. All powerline related mortalities are kept in a central database and submitted to the Wildlife Energy Programme – Endangered Wildlife Trust (WEP-EWT). All lines within the property have been fitted with mitigation devices to prevent bird collisions.

People of Ingula

Carina Pienaar

As Ingula and Grassland Conservation Project Manager, Carina is primarily tasked with monitoring the avian populations on the  declared Ingula Nature Reserve and surrounding Protected Environments (i.e., Upper Wilge PE, and Sneeuwberg PE). This includes habitat management for three habitat types (i.e., grasslands, escarpment forests, and wetlands), monitoring breeding populations of several threatened species, monthly avifaunal surveys, implementing and updating Species Action Plans, and managing the national Southern Bald Ibis database and breeding monitoring using citizen scientists. She is also frequently engaging with provincial government, and landowners to assist with protected area expansion in the Eastern Free State and ensure a safe environment for this sensitive area and its biodiversity.

Steven Segang

Steven Segang was appointed as the Ingula Project Assistant in 2021. Steven is primarily tasked with conducting avifaunal surveys, including quarterly powerline assessments and breeding monitoring, on the Ingula Nature Reserve. As a qualified site guide, he is the primary bird guide for the nature reserve and immediate surrounds, and also does regular environmental awareness and education at the schools surrounding the Ingula Nature Reserve.

Robin Colyn

Robin Colyn acted as the on-site manager at Ingula during 2014-2017. While on site, he developed Species Action Plans (SAP) for Southern Bald Ibis, Yellow-breasted Pipit, and Wattled Crane. As part of the Southern Bald Ibis Species Champion Programme, Robin annually assessed breeding colonies within the Eastern Free State to determine breeding and/or fledging success, implemented and evaluated a Southern Bald Ibis tracking initiative and coordinated species-specific environmental education. He was also responsible for developing and implementing several remote sensing tools for habitat monitoring on Ingula, and initiated camera trap studies in the wetlands and escarpment forests on site. While on Ingula, Robin also piloted the methods for effective, least-invasive camera trapping in wetlands that lead to important discoveries on the White-winged Flufftail population in South Africa’s wetlands.

Dr David Maphisa

David Maphisa was the on-site manager preceding Robin Colyn. David grew up as a herd boy in Lesotho and obtained his PhD in Statistical Science from the University of Cape Town, with a main focus on the development of an adaptive management tool for high-altitude grasslands in South Africa. He was supervised by Dr Res Altwegg (Specialist Scientist, SANBI, and a statistics expert), Prof. Les Underhill (Statistician, Animal Demography Unit, University of Cape Town) and Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson (BirdLife South Africa). His research on the biology of Rudd’s Lark (Heteromirafra ruddi) and Botha’s Lark (Spizocorys fringillaris), and his duties in developing a baseline and monitoring the subsequent changes in the bird community at Ingula prior to construction, was critical to the current successes.

Sakhile Mthalane

Sakhile Wiseman Mthalane assisted the BirdLife South Africa Ingula Project Manager from 2011 to 2019. Sakhile was trained by Dr David Maphisa in bird identification. He worked with the Ingula conservation team on site, assisting with avifaunal monitoring, fencing patrols and atlasing species on the lower and upper sites. He also briefly took up the role as a bird guide for groups visiting Ingula.

Species Update

A camera trap study with the aim of identifying medium to large mammal species and other bird species was initiated in 2014. A total of 27 mammalia species including, Brown Hyena, Oribi and Striped Polecat were identified using the camera trap footage.

Birds of Ingula Nature Reserve

Wattled Crane (Bugeranus carunculatus)

Given that less than 200 breeding pairs of Wattled Crane are left in the wild in South Africa, Ingula is proud to have two breeding pairs within the 5km buffer zone of the nature reserve, as well as six individuals that are regularly seen flying over the lower site area, especially during winter. Observations peak during the breeding season, but their breeding within the reserve is very dependent on weather and habitat and can alternate between winter and summer months based on the availability of resources. Our most successful breeding pair has most recently moved their breeding to the spring/summer months, and has successfully raised their eighth chick to fledging in 2023.

In order to effectively conserve and manage this species at Ingula, a Species Action Plan (SAP) for the Wattled Crane on Ingula was drafted in 2015 and reviewed in 2020. The SAP addresses the ecology of the species, national and local threats, modelled optimal breeding and foraging habitat on-site at Ingula, potential territory size of breeding pairs at Ingula, as well as actions required in order to conserve the species within Ingula. Actions and recommendations are stated and prioritised according to the respective potential severity.  Additionally, time-frames and resource needs per action were also addressed. On site monitoring of the species is continued according to this document, and is available for download here.

White-bellied Korhaan (Eupodotis senegalensis)

White-bellied Korhaan can be observed on both the lower and upper grassland habitat types within, but mostly surrounding Ingula. Observations on the lower site often yield a pair, with several breeding pairs found between Ingula and Kleinfontein.

One pair was found breeding on site after the implementation of a grazing plan on the lower site. The grazing plan is the result of a current grasslands management study, aimed at the adequate improvement of the grassland habitat to cater for a variety of the threatened species breeding on Ingula. This includes recommendations made for the fire and grazing regimes, and implementing management plans for these regimes. The improvement would not only be advantageous to White-bellied Korhaan, but also to Blue Crane, Secretarybirds, Yellow-breasted Pipit, and Temminck’s Courser, to name a few.

Yellow-breasted Pipit (Anthus chloris)

Based on a priority bird breeding assessment on Ingula 23 breeding pairs were observed and mapped across the high-altitude grassland habitat present within Ingula between 2014 and 2015. However, since then the grazing management regime has changed significantly during the construction of the Pumped Storage Scheme, which caused the numbers to decrease to about 11 pairs currently breeding on Ingula. A local Species Action Plan (SAP) for this species was compiled in 2015 (revision in 2020) and is being implemented. The SAP highlights the ecological constraints and requirements of the species, national and local threats, as well as modelled optimal breeding habits on-site within Ingula. Monitoring, management and/or research actions and recommendations were stated and prioritised within an action matrix, which as part of the reserve management plan will assist in the ongoing conservation of this species at Ingula.

Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)

Two pairs and between one and three juvenile/immature birds are regularly seen throughout grassland habitat within Ingula. One pair is a known resident breeding pair, having utilised a nest structure in the Bedford area of Ingula for five consecutive years. Following powerline and fence incidents, both pairs lost one partner each in 2018 and 2019, but successfully recruited a new partner and are again frequently seen on Ingula. Breeding, where nest sites are known, are monitored annually.

In October 2015, a sponsorship by Zlin Zoo in the Czech Republic allowed for a camera trap study at the nest site at Ingula to gain further understanding regarding pair facilitation during incubation, prey utilization and breeding/fledging success. Although this study is completed, monitoring of the breeding pairs at Ingula is continued.

White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi)

Early during the Ingula project the Critically Endangered White-winged Flufftail was sighted in the Chatsworth, Bedford and Lower Wilge wetlands on Ingula’s upper site. Eskom subsequently committed itself to be the Species Champion of the White-winged Flufftail under BirdLife International’s Preventing Extinctions Programme (2013-2016), during which period important research into the species took place within the Ingula wetlands, leading to breakthroughs in the species habitat requirements and vocalisations. For more information on BirdLife South Africa’s efforts to save this Critically Endangered species, please click here.

Annual monitoring using camera traps and acoustic recording devices are still completed on Ingula, and actions implemented towards effective habitat management for the continued presence of the species in the Ingula Wetlands.

Southern Bald Ibis (Geronticus calvus)

The Vulnerable Southern Bald Ibis is frequently seen in the Ingula Nature Reserve and surroundings. There are around 10-15 breeding pairs using the reserve for breeding, and up to 30 mature individuals roosting. A special programme was implemented to relocate them from their historic natural nesting ledges which were lost due to the construction of the Bedford dam. An artificial nesting ledge was constructed in 2010 in the hope of providing them with an alternative breeding site following the loss of the historical breeding site. The artificial site is very successful, with 4-13 (average eight) chicks fledged annually since relocating in 2016. Several juveniles have been fitted with rings from this breeding colony, and two juveniles also received GSM tracking devices. Although one tracked juvenile was lost after six months, the other one provided two and a half years of movement and habitat-use data that will assist in further conservation efforts.

A national, long-term monitoring project for the distribution, numbers, survival and breeding success of the Southern Bald Ibis across its distribution in South Africa is currently in progress. A national Species Action Plan (SAP), with special emphasis on Ingula Nature Reserve, was developed in 2016 and revised in 2021. The SAP is available here. Visit the Southern Bald Ibis page with more information on the national initiatives, to assist with reporting a breeding colony, or to become involved in the species’ conservation here.

Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus)

The Martial Eagle is observed mainly during their winter breeding season, when one pair utilises a nest site in the escarpment forest habitat within Ingula. Since finding the nest in 2014, until 2017, three breeding attempts were recorded, producing two successfully fledged juveniles. The pair seemingly abandoned the nest after a failed breeding attempt in 2017, but have subsequently rebuilt and successfully fledged a juvenile from the nest during 2021, after which the nest collapsed. The pair was suspected to be using another nest in the same forest patch during 2023, but the location of the new nest is still unconfirmed.

Other bird species at Ingula

Bush Blackcap, Lemon Dove, African Crake, Cape Longclaw