Whales, sharks and turtles have chosen well

12 August 2005

Relatively small area is host to five different ecosystems

The Elephant Coast stretches from St Lucia in the south to Kosi Bay further north, across the Lubombo Mounlains in the west and includes the Hluhluwe-Mfolozi Game Reserve.

The Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, which was proclaimed SA's first World Heritage Site in 1999, plays host to five different ecosystems within a relatively small area of 260 000 ha.

At the heart of the park is a complex system of estuarine and freshwater lakes, fed by five rivers.

The park is a 275 000 ha patchwork of separate areas linking Ihe St Lucia Reserve, St Lucia Park, False Bay Park, St Lucia Marine Reserve, Sodwana Bay National Park, Cape Vidal State Forest, Mkhuze Game Reserve and other interlocking areas. The most striking feature of the area is the 360 km2 Lake St Lucia, the country's largest inland body of water, formed 25 000 years ago when the oceans receded. The lake is fringed by mountainous dunes, covered by forest and grassland, whose peaks soar to 200 m above the beach to act as a slim buttress against the Indian Ocean.

The marine reserve teems with humpback whales, ragged-tooth sharks, whale sharks, tiger sharks, manta rays and giant moray. The endangered leatherback turtle and the loggerhead turtle use this coastline as their breeding ground.

The Elephant Coast also hosts the world-famous Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve, with all of Africa's Big Five, as well as the Tembe, Ndumo and Mkhuze reserves.

In the Border Caves high up in the Lubombo Mountains, archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation going back about 150 000 years. Traces of at least 43 other mammal species, some of which are now extinct, have been found in the same cave. There are several interesting fossil sites scattered around the lakes, mountains and flats.

Roland Vorwerk, who does the marketing for the Elephant Coast, says: "Underlying the obvious assets are the friendly Zulu and Temhe-Tonga people inhabiting the area."

He says there has been a surge of activity in the Wetland Park recently, with some encouraging developments happening in the region.

The Wetland Park is advertising 16 new jobs as it moves into top gear to boost capacity and tackle the challenges of balancing conservation with bringing benefits beyond its boundaries to neighbouring communities.

Since the Wetland Park was listed as SA's first World Heritage Site in 1999, and an authority was established to run it, with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife as conservation partners, the focus has been on rehabilitating and restoring the land, reintroducing game and putting improved and new infrastructure in place.

"With new tourism concessions awarded and a top marketing team appointed to brand the Wetland Park, it is time to bring more people on board to boost top management and areas such as research, tourism development and community delivery," says Wetlands Authority chairman Mavuso Msimamg. "Several of these posts are at senior level and once the positions are filled, our caipacity will be increased by more than 50%."

Apart from all of this, Vorwerk says, there are also a lot of private-sector developments taking place.

"The town of St Lucia has had a substantial increase in three-star accommodation in B&Bs, hotels and lodges over the past two years, and now boasts two dedicated conference facilities. Two years ago, a Swedish investor ploughed more than RIOOm into the Thanda Private Game Reserve, a new five-star lodge between Mkhuze and Hluhluwe."

Another boost has been the initiatives of the Lubombo Spatial Development Initiative, through which more than R640m has been invested in the area, mainly in the building of the Lubombo road linking the N2 to the Mozambique border at Kosi Bay from Hluhluwe, a successful malaria control programme and substantial investment in infrastructure of the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park.

"A total of R450m is earmarked for investment in eight key sites in SA`s First World Heritage Site, after an intensive open tender process," says Vorwerk. The name, the Elephant Coast, emerged as part of a province-wide branding process, which culminated in the development of a strong provincial brand in the form of the Zulu Kingdom, and eight supporting destination brands making up the Zulu Kingdom.

The Elephant Coast runs along a third of the province, and has as its primary attributes unique terrestrial and marine natural environments. The pristine 240 km long coastline is complemented by the numerous game reserves, including Big Five reserves in the area.

Two key features of the region – the Hluhluwe-Mfololozi Park and the estuary boat ride on the Lake St Lucia estuary arepopular with international tourists.

But there's a wealth of other significant niche markets that are catered to, including divers (Sodwana Bay is the southern-most coral reef of Africa), birders (more than 526 species of bird make it the birding hotspot of Southern Africa), fishing (deep-sea, offshore, lake, freshwater and fly) and, of course, the unique turtle tours.

Provincial minister of arts, culture & tourism Narend Singh believes the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park is one of the emerging strong points of the province. "This World Heritage Site is being developed to rank alongside the Kruger National Park and Victoria Falls as a tourism attraction."

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