(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2013 Edition of BirdLife South Africa's IBA newsletter. - Ed.)
Every year the Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea leaves its breeding grounds in the Siberian Arctic and travels almost 15 000 kilometres to its wintering grounds in South Africa. It is joined by many other small shorebird species that make this long and arduous journey.
They leave their breeding grounds with the knowledge that rich pastures await: natural sites with abundant nutrients where they can forage to their heart’s content and accumulate the body mass required for the return journey. This cycle has continued unimpeded for perhaps thousands of years, but many of these migratory species are now under threat.
The West Coast of South Africa has six IBAs which provide essential habitats for migratory bird species and resident waterbirds. These sites include highly threatened estuarine habitats such as the Lower Berg River wetlands, and the Verlorenvlei, Olifants River and Orange River estuaries. The West Coast National Park, which protects the famous Langebaan Lagoon, and the Rietvlei wetlands within the urban sprawl of Cape Town also provide important habitat for many bird species.
Recent research by Professor Peter Ryan and colleagues, in which bird counts were conducted along the Western Cape coastline, found that almost all of the Palearctic-breeding migratory species had decreased in abundance since the 1980s (Ryan 2012). However, the paper goes on to suggest that these decreases may reflect changes in overwintering sites, with relative abundance increasing at sites in West Africa. South Africa has undergone considerable growth and development in the past two decades, and much estuarine habitat along the coastline has been lost. Peter Ryan points out that the Western Cape may therefore no longer provide such favourable habitat for these species.
The IBAs along the West Coast face a plethora of threats as a result of the low level of protection afforded to many of these sites. Currently only the Rietvlei wetlands and West Coast National Park are ‘formally protected’. This level of protection leads to the development of management plans and the mobilisation of resources required to implement these plans, resulting in the long-term safeguarding of habitats and species at these sites.
This is where BirdLife South Africa’s IBA Programme comes into play. Dale Wright has been compiling IBA Assessments for a number of West Coast sites and using these to prioritise areas for conservation action. In order to curb the threats facing ‘unprotected’ estuary sites, BirdLife South Africa is planning to develop Biodiversity Stewardship agreements with local landowners. Our aim is to provide better management of threatened IBAs and, hopefully, even formal protection. However, this involves intensive work, requiring a permanent presence at the specific site, and Dale is raising funds to employ stewardship officers to undertake this work.
The intention is to combine this with the implementation of Estuary Management Plans where possible. These plans have become legal requirements through the Integrated Coastal Management Act, and the development of Estuary Management Forums has taken place at a number of Western Cape estuaries. These forums are in various stages of action: some are well developed with multiple stakeholders, whereas others are just getting off the ground. BirdLife South Africa hopes that through its participation in the Protected Area and Estuary Management Forums, the conservation needs of birds may be better considered and included in planning. Additionally, through stewardship and other projects, the unprotected sites may receive increased conservation action and, ultimately, formal protection.
BirdLife South Africa also has oversight of relevant development applications for review and comment, to ensure that unsustainable and destructive developments are avoided as far as possible. In the long term these interventions have the potential to return sites to their optimum condition, hopefully making them attractive once again to our European visitors.
Dale Wright, Regional Conservation Manager: Western Cape, BirdLife South Africa
Reference: Ryan, P.G. 2012. ‘Mediumterm changes in coastal bird communities
in the Western Cape, South Africa.’ Austral Ecology: doi:10.1111/ j.1442-9993.2012.02397.x