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Wetlands project at tip of Africa shows the way to ecological recovery

A wetlands project close to the southern tip of Africa is a shining example of environmental recovery that needs to be replicated the world over if we are to turn the tide on wetland loss

The Nuwejaars Wetlands Special Management Area (NWSMA), close to Cape Agulhas, is a unique conservation venture made up of 25 landowners who have signed title deed restrictions to protect the area. With the Elim community, they are working to restore these wetlands to ecological health for the benefit of people and nature.

The work at Nuwejaars is exactly what is being advocated for this year’s World Wetlands Day (2 February) with its focus on the restoration of wetlands and their importance as a source of freshwater. Through the restoration work taking place at Nuwejaars, including invasive alien clearing and rehabilitation along a 5km stretch of the river, a team of six now also enjoys secure, full-time employment.

These wetlands play a key role in securing regional groundwater flow for downstream communities and towns. They are also internationally important from a conservation perspective, feeding the Heuningnes Estuary at the CapeNature De Mond Reserve, a Ramsar site (one of South Africa’s 26 wetlands of international importance) and an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, and with examples of critically endangered fynbos types.

A vital part of the work at Nuwejaars is the restoration of palmiet, a unique indigenous plant that helps to purify water and sequester carbon. Thousands of years ago, dense stands of palmiet dominated these wetlands and over the centuries, they likely formed the basis of the peat-like soils found here. Peat wetlands are vital in the fight against climate change, storing carbon for as long as it remains waterlogged, while helping to reduce the impact of floods.

By the late 1990s, many of these special wetlands faced increasing threats. In many places, they were overrun by invasive alien plants, which reduced water flows by up to 10%, and they became increasingly degraded. This was one of the reasons a group of founding landowners decided in the early 2000s to create this conservation venture. WWF South Africa has been supporting the work since 2018.

Dirk Human, the chair of the NWSMA and owner of Black Oystercatcher Wines, comments, “WWF South Africa recognises the ecological importance of this area, and the role our wetlands can play well beyond our borders. We’re extremely grateful for their direct support of over the past three years, and their belief in our work long before that, and we look forward to working with them for a long time to come.”

Jan Coetzee, Land Programme Manager with WWF South Africa, says, “We are very happy to be working with the NWSMA team whose commitment to the cause is clearly evident through the variety of interventions they have been willing to take – from alien clearance to controlled burns and replanting of indigenous species. They have shown how, by working together, we can restore wetlands to ecological health for the benefit of the natural world and current and future generations.”

During the next phase of the WWF South Africa project, the team will open up the area to interpretive walking tours, leading people to a bird hide overlooking a secret waterbird spot.

In the meantime, visitors can experience the wetlands through two-hour guided wildlife tours. These sunrise and sunset tours take visitors to a secret lake expanse, now home to hippo and buffalo (reintroduced here two centuries after they became locally extinct). For more information on these tours, see www.nuwejaars.com

Meet the dragonflies of the Nuwejaars wetlands.
The importance of wetlands

Wetlands are essential to human wellbeing, inclusive economic growth and all life on land. They provide us with water, food and medicines. They protect cities and communities from floods, droughts and coastal storms. They directly support the livelihoods of a billion people as well as extraordinarily rich biodiversity. They store vast amounts of carbon – and are absolutely central to efforts to both mitigate and adapt to climate change.
From rivers to coral reefs, mountain streams to sea grass beds, marshes to mangroves, and lakes to lagoons, healthy wetlands are essential for people and nature – without them we cannot survive, let alone thrive.

  • Directly or indirectly, they provide almost all of the world’s consumption of freshwater, while wetland vegetation helps to filter pollutants.
  • 1+ billion people directly depend on them for a living
  • 40% of the world’s species live and breed in wetlands. Freshwater species alone account for more 10% of all species, despite freshwater covering less than 1% of the Earth’s surface
  • They are a vital source for food, raw materials, genetic resources for medicines; they mitigate floods, protect coastlines and build community resilience to disasters, and they play an important role in transport, tourism and the cultural and spiritual well-being of people.

Wetlands continue to be routinely undervalued…and to be lost at an alarming rate

  • Up to 87% of global wetlands have been lost in past 300 years
  • Over a third of the world’s wetlands have been lost since 1970 (contributing significantly to the huge loss of species populations over the same period)
  • Since 2000, rates of natural wetland loss have accelerated – and we are now losing 1.6% of our remaining wetlands each year
  • Losses are due to water drainage, pollution, unsustainable use, invasive species, disrupted flows from dams and sediment dumping from deforestation and soil erosion upstream.

The world’s ‘wetland blindness’ is inexplicable given the pivotal role of healthy wetlands in delivering global commitments on climate change, sustainable development and biodiversity.

Two centuries ago, hippos became locally extinct in the southern Cape, but they have now been returned to the Nuwejaars wetlands near Cape Agulhas.

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