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.

There are less than 30 pairs of Blue Swallow left in South Africa and only 2% of the grassland habitat which they rely on for feeding and breeding, is conserved in formal protected areas. The Blue Swallow Monitoring Project is coordinating and working with several key partners to monitor Blue Swallow populations and their breeding success in KZN. Almost all Blue Swallow nest sites occur on private or communal land and thus collaboration with the landowners and raising awareness of the plight of this species is critical for its future. There are currently seven people contributing to data collection and the team is monitoring more than 150 Blue Swallow nest sites in an attempt to cover all the priority areas in KZN. The monitoring efforts are essential to inform the conservation of this highly threatened species and assist in prioritizing sites for future involvement in biodiversity stewardship and other conservation initiatives.

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.

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.

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.