Sunday, April 20, 2008

A World Heritage Site

The Greater St Lucia Wetland Park is situated on the fairly remote coast of northern KwaZulu-Natal. It was the first (of now 8) sites in South Africa to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status in Dec 1999. The park is also a Ramsar site - derives its name from Ramsar in Iran, where the first Convention on Wetlands of International Importance was signed in 1971. South Africa was one of the original signatories and remains an active member of Ramsar ever since. This Heritage Site was renamed in 2007 and is now called iSimangaliso, meaning "miracle" in isiZulu - to reflect its unique African identity and also to avoid confusion with the Caribean island (country) St Lucia.

The bridge on this photo was built in the mid 1950's and to this day, represents the only access road across the estuary to the (holiday) town of St Lucia. Prior to the bridge, a pont was in use between the town and mainland.

St Lucia's wide variety of ecosystems and natural habitats provide for a great variety of animal species. During a boat cruise on the estuary, visitors can be assured of seeing hippo - either in the water or on land.

Other creatures commonly encountered in this park include crocodile. Luckily, these reptiles are protected in St Lucia, so they won't end up as consumer handbags or shoes!?

St Lucia attained UNESCO status as a natural (> cultural) heritage site, because this remarkable coastal reserve involves 5 major ecosystems: coral reefs, long beaches, coastal dunes, swamps as well as extensive reed and papyrus wetlands. Pictured in this photo is part of a mangrove swamp, where the trees/shrubs grow in shore-mud and tangled roots are visible above ground.

Worldwide, wetlands are (historically) perceived as valueless wastelands - of little productive use to society (with no economic value to land owners). With education comes knowledge - so that now, more respect is revealed for these fragile ecosystems.

St Lucia is renowned for its diversity of birds - over 420 species have been recorded. Yes, take a closer look (at the photo, right). During another boat cruise on the estuary, the skipper detected these Spotted Dikkop. They were as well camouflaged in nature as on my photo, and only someone with an "eagle" vision or with a well-practised eye would be able to spot these birds.

This was a very special sighting, during which we watched the Goliath Heron first spear its prey, and eventually flip the fish into the air, only to catch it nimbly before swallowing it in one piece. Jokingly the skipper suggested that the fish would now "carry on swimming" inside the heron's tummy. As momentum, I have a series of photos capturing this event, as well as a short video of the heron eventually flipping up the fish before swallowing it in one gulp.

All kinds of egrets frequent the water's edge, but spotting a Great White Egret is a special occasion. This bird is identifiable by its entirely black legs and feet. Single birds such as this one are usually found standing motionless.

Trivia: Egrets belong to the heron family in which the white ones are known as egrets.

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