Park of natural abundance

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FLIGHT: A fish eagle soars through the sky at iSimangaliso. Pictures: Scott Ramsay

Before breakfast, I had scuba-dived on coral reefs with turtles, dolphins and thousands of dazzling fish. By lunch time, I was photographing white rhino in the wild, and in the evening a hyena scavenged for a braai chop outside my tent.

Such is the diversity of life at iSimangaliso Wetland Park on the north-east coast of SA. The third-largest nature reserve in the country hosts the most animal species in Africa – more than Kruger National Park or the Okavango Delta.

The word iSimangaliso means “miracle” in Zulu, and was chosen to replace the name Greater St Lucia Wetland Park. How apt, because the mere existence of this 332 000-hectare wonderland is miraculous.

In the early 1990s, mining companies wanted to dredge the beaches and forested dunes for the mineral ilmenite. Processed into titanium, this black sand is used in a variety of industrial and consumer products.

Concerned citizens and organisations fought back, and the government appointed the Leon Commission to investigate the best future for what was traditionally known as Thongaland. The message came back loud and clear: “This unique combination of socio-political history, environmental and biological diversity makes this area a very special asset to the nation. There is no substitute.”

No substitute indeed. Mining was banned, and more than 3 000 animal species could carry on thriving in peace.

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TINY: Bradypodion setaroi chameleon.

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At iSimangaliso you will find the most bird species in the country (526 – or 25 percent of Africa’s), the most fish species (more than 1 400), the most butterfly species (282), the most spider species (228), the most amphibian species (50), the most coral species (about 100) and the most reptile species (128), including the largest population of crocodiles in the country (more than 1 600).

Oh, and there are also 129 mammal species, including both black and white rhino, elephant, leopard, buffalo – and the most hippos in the country (more than 1 200).

It’s no wonder then that iSimangaliso was SA’s first World Heritage Site, declared in 1999 because of its astounding natural beauty and biological diversity. The reason for this extravagance of life? A tropical climate created by the warm Agulhas current, and a complex system of lakes, rivers, beaches, forests, bushveld, grasslands and oceans.

This place of superlatives includes four wetlands which are of global ecological importance – Lake St Lucia (the country’s largest estuary), Lake Sibaya (SA’s largest lake), the Kosi Bay Lakes (a series of four lakes whose waters flow into the sea near the border of Mozambique) and finally, the coral reefs offshore (the most southerly warm-water reefs on the continent).

By now, it’s probably not surprising that here you will find some of the rarest creatures in the world. There’s no better person to point them out than Kian Barker of Shakabarker Tours, based in the town of St Lucia, where hippos and leopards are regular garden intruders. (St Lucia is the only urban area in the world surrounded entirely by a natural World Heritage Site).

A former game ranger, Kian is one of the few professional guides allowed to take guests on night drives in the park. Before we had gone 10m, Kian slammed on the brakes and jumped out of his Landy, gently plucking a tiny chameleon from the edge of a leaf.

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GREEN CREATURE: Common flap-necked chameleon.

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“It’s a Setaro’s dwarf chameleon,” Kian elaborated on the tiny creature, no longer than about 4cm.

“And it’s found only here, and nowhere else on earth. The future survival of this species depends almost entirely on iSimangaliso.”

Like Kian’s chameleon, the park’s most iconic animals are inextricably linked with iSimangaliso. Every summer, the endangered leatherback and loggerhead turtles lay up to 800 eggs each on the northern beaches near Kosi Bay, but only one or two hatchlings will make it to breeding age.

“iSimangaliso is their most important breeding ground in the south-west Indian Ocean,” said Dr Ronel Nel, a marine biologist based at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

And remarkably, it’s the very stuff which almost condemned iSimangaliso to bulldozers that creates the conditions for successful nesting. The ilmenite titanium on the beaches conducts heat through the sand, determining the sex of the turtle hatchlings.

“Turtles have no sex chromosomes,” Nel explained. “So anything above 290C, it’s a female. Anything below, it’s a male. The ilmenite is critically important to the survival of these turtles.

“Without the warmth from the ilmenite, most of the hatchlings would end up as males, effectively dooming this sub-population to extinction.”

From almost being dredged to oblivion, the park is now a sanctuary to natural diversity and a beacon of conservation.

iSimangaliso is proof that miracles do happen. - Cape Times

l Ramsay is a photojournalist travelling to 31 of South Africa’s most special nature reserves. See www.yearinthewild.com

For iSimangaliso, see www.isimangaliso.com or call Kian Barker at www.shakabarker.co.za

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