"The park is a major natural asset that has the potential to play an important role in fostering economic growth in the region," said Andrew Zaloumis, CEO of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority at the signing ceremony March 24.
Former South African President Nelson Mandela has said, "iSimangaliso must be the only place on the globe where the oldest land mammal [the rhinoceros] and the world's biggest terrestrial mammal [the elephant] share an ecosystem with the world's oldest fish [the coelacanth] and the world's biggest marine mammal [the whale]."
The goal of the development, empowerment and conservation project in the Isimangaliso Wetland Park and surrounding regional area is to improve ecosystem functioning of the Lake St. Lucia and Umfolozi River System through restoration of key ecological processes while stimulating local economic development.
Lake St. Lucia estuary empties into the Indian Ocean on South Africa's east coast. (Photo courtesy iSimangalio Wetland Park Authority)
"The project is innovative because it combines conservation objectives with spatial development approaches for fostering local economic development," said project leader Paola Agostini, World Bank economist in the Africa region. "It is essential that the benefits must reach local people so that their energies can be mobilized for environmental protection."
Financed by the Global Environment Facility for US$9 million, about 66 million rand, the project will start the restoration of wetland habitats of global importance.
Zaloumis said, "Our goal in the next five years is to meaningfully increase the flow of fresh water into Lake St. Lucia and move the park from being an underdeveloped tourism asset to a major territorial asset that will play an important role in the region's economic growth initiative."
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is in a malaria risk area, but Zaloumis says the World Bank grant will enable the park to participate more fully in the Lubombo Spatial Development Initiative. Established in 1999 to control malaria transmission in the area linking Swaziland, northern KwaZul-Natal and southern Mozambique, the initiative has been successful in reducing numbers of cases, organizers say.
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park was listed as South Africa's first World Heritage Site in December 1999 in recognition of its natural beauty and unique global values.
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park has the greatest congregation of hippos in South Africa. (Photo by Mark Turner)
The area is home to the Swazi, Thonga and Zulu people, each expressing a distinct culture, language and customs, including 700 year old fishing traditions.
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park, formerly called the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, stretches 220 kilometers (136 miles) from Cape St. Lucia north to Mozambique and encompasses 14 distinct nature reserves.
The 332,000 hectare (1,281 square mile) park contains Africa's largest estuary system, three major lake systems, eight interlinking ecosystems, most of South Africa's remaining swamp forests, and 25,000 year-old coastal dunes that are among the highest in the world.
The park's attractions include spectacular mountain ranges and access to the southern-most coral reefs in Africa.
The park is inhabited by black and white rhinos, leopards, elephants, hippos and crocodiles, zebras and antelopes, 526 bird species and more than 3,000 plant types. Dolphins, humpback whales, sea turtles and some 250 fish species inhabit the coastal waters.
Surrounded by forested coastal dunes, Lake Sibaya is South Africa’s largest natural freshwater lake. (Photo courtesy iSimanaliso Wetland Park Authority)
Tim Condon of the Zululand Wildlife eForum said, "The outstanding work of the IWP Board and staff are to be congratulated under the helm of its CEO Andrew Zaloumis, whose late father, Noly, was the prime mover to achieve this wonderful wetland park project, he'd be very proud! This project exists because of the pioneering work of the Natal Parks Board, since the early 1920s."
"This international support and stamp of approval should provide a wake-up call to the local tribal communities falling under the Tembe Traditional Authority, as to the significance and contribution this project provides for the future of the local people," said Condon.
Condon called upon the local communities to "stop the approval of illegal development activities" and to keep people from trespassing into the state protected dune forest areas.
The illegal development dispute sites in the dune forest are within the designated protected area at both Bhanga Nek on Kosi Bay and farther south at Mabibi on Lake Sibaya.
Condon also called on the Tembe Tribal Authority to use this example of international support for conservation to justify measures to defuse their Mbangweni tribal community groups' opposition to the Trans Frontier Conservation Area Usuthu/Ndumo Game Reserve project further to the northwest.
The proposed trans frontier conservation area is situated on the border with Mozambique where the Pongola River joins the Great Usutu River and adjacent to the Tembe Elephant Park.
Condon says the game reserve project "holds similar valuable prospects" as iSimangaliso Wetland Park but is located in a region "where the strict enforcement of basic law and order has collapsed and is long overdue."
Park officials also announced the investment of R125 million into its tourism product and an education program for local youths. Zaloumis said the program, which now supports 80 local entrepreneurs will be broadened and local young people will be empowered to become the park managers, CEOs and tourism entrepreneurs of tomorrow.
Bursaries have been approved for eight students now registered with KwaZulu-Natal University and Durban University of Technology in fields related to tourism, conservation, development and financial management.
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