Securing critical water sources and grassland habitat for protection in the Free State, South Africa

Murphy’s Rest Wetland and surrounding community (Photograph: Rick Dillon)

BirdLife South Africa, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, and the Department of Small Business Development, Tourism, and Environmental Affairs (DESTEA) in the Free State, together with support from the Ingula Partnership (a collaboration between Eskom Holdings (SOC) Ltd, Middelpunt Wetland Trust, and BirdLife South Africa) recently added 24,078 hectares to the network of land dedicated to conserving high-altitude grasslands and wetlands through the declaration of the Upper Wilge Protected Environment (UPWE).

With only ca. 2% of South Africa’s grasslands formally protected and a range of threats leading to increased overutilization, destruction and transformation within these critical ecosystems, the addition of new protected areas in this biome is crucial.

Located between Harrismith, Van Reenen and Verkykerskop, the new UWPE will conserve about 24,000 hectares of natural high-altitude, sourveld grassland and wetland ecosystems in the Eastern Free State. The wetlands within the Protected Environment form part of South Africa’s Strategic Water Source Areas, namely the Northern Drakensberg Water Source Area, meaning that the protected area makes a considerable contribution to conserving this critical water source, which is used by millions of people, including the residents of Gauteng’s major metropoles.

The declaration of the UWPE will greatly enhance conservation of these habitats which are essential for endemic grassland specialist birds like the Yellow-breasted Pipit, and provide extensive corridors for species requiring large areas of suitable foraging habitat, including cranes, Secretarybird, Southern Bald Ibis, Denham’s Bustard and White-bellied Korhaan. ”If we fail to conserve the natural habitats our threatened birds rely on, no amount of threat mitigation will save these species from extinction. Biodiversity Stewardship provides a critical mechanism to preserve these natural landscapes for all biodiversity and future generations of South Africans.” – Dr Melissa Whitecross, Landscape Conservation Programme Manager, BirdLife South Africa. 

Furthermore, the UWPE also protects other critically important biodiversity, including the Vulnerable Sungazer Lizard. The Sungazer is endemic to South Africa and is found in the highland grasslands of the northeastern Free State and a small population in southwestern Mpumalanga province. It is the largest of the girdled lizards in South Africa and stays in burrows in short grassland, where they’re often seen basking in the sun. Sungazers are threatened due to very low reproduction rates and habitat destruction due to conversion of grassland to farmland (maize, sunflower, and other crop farming), illegal collecting for the pet trade, and collection for the muti-industry. It has been recorded that animals do not seem to return to previously ploughed land.

All three species of South Africa’s cranes – Blue, Grey Crowned, and Wattled are found in the UWPE, inhabiting the natural grasslands and wetlands that this area has to offer. With the majority of Sungazers and cranes (approximately 99% of them) occurring on privately-owned farms in South Africa, their conservation is in the hands of landowners. The UWPE is an example of how species such as these can benefit from the establishment of a protected environment.” Bradley Gibbons, Senior Field Officer, the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

The UWPE also provides a critical, well-managed buffer zone for Eskom’s Ingula Pumped Storage Scheme and Ingula Nature Reserve, recently designated under the International Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance – an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. “Biodiversity conservation remains an integral part of the sustainable livelihoods of South Africa’s communities ensuring ecosystem services are maintained and enhanced over time. The Upper Wilge Protected Environment declaration will safeguard the long-term ecological integrity of Eskom’s Ingula Nature Reserve and Ramsar site, securing valuable ecosystem services for the region”, Mr. Kishaylin Chetty, Senior Environmental Advisor, Biodiversity Centre or Excellence, Generation Division.

South Africa strives to protect areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative, and well-connected systems of protected areas that are integrated into the wider landscapes. Currently, only 16% of grasslands in South Africa are adequately protected. Declaring an additional 24,078 hectares of grassland and wetland habitat in the UWPE will address this shortcoming and contribute towards the South African government’s National Protected Areas Expansion Strategy (NPAES), and therefore also meeting its obligations to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Biodiversity Target 11.

For more information:

Bradley Gibbons
Endangered Wildlife Trust’s African Crane Conservation Programme: Senior Field Officer 

Carina Pienaar
BirdLife South Africa: Ingula and Grasslands Conservation Project Manager

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *