Greater St Lucia Wetland Park World Heritage site

There are places in most countries that provide the backdrop against which a nation’s collective aspirations and challenges play themselves out at certain moments in history. Somehow the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, a World Heritage site since 1999, is just such a symbol of landscape in South Africa today. In many ways, the natural system of the wetlands provides a model of the way that conservation of a remarkable natural environment can go hand-in-hand with community involvement and development. And nowhere is this more important than post-apartheid South Africa, internationally known for both its wildlife and its long history of political and economic exclusion for the country’s majority of citizens.

It’s easy to understand why St. Lucia Wetlands was the first South African site inscribed on the World Heritage list. An integrated park of over 300,000 hectares stretching along 280 kilometres of the Indian Ocean coast, it is home to an incredible diversity of cultural and ecological treasures. Ranging from the clear waters of the Indian Ocean to wide, uninhabited sandy beaches, from a forested dune cordon to a mosaic of wetlands, grasslands, forests, lakes and savannah, the park presents exceptional aesthetic qualities and is home to hundreds of species of animals and plant life – almost 50 of which are considered threatened. Five different cultural groups, the Zulu, Swazi, Shangaan, Tonga and Gonda speakers, also live in the area.

This fragile combination of natural beauty and social diversity has elevated the wetlands to the status of an icon in the history of the environmental struggle. As former President Nelson Mandela put it during a speech marking the reintroduction of elephants to the Eastern Shores of St Lucia:
‘The Wetland Park must be the only place on the globe where the world’s 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). There can be no better icon for the holistic approach we are taking to conservation than the development of the St Lucia Wetland Park.”

A coalition to preserve the wetlands

After the communities surrounding the St. Lucia site came together in the late 1980s and early 1990s in a remarkable movement to stave off the development of mining that would have damaged the fragile ecosystems, the South African government made an unprecedented step to turn over the management of the park to a coalition of local people, companies, NGOs and government representatives – named the Wetlands Authority. It is the first time in the history of South African conservation that local people who suffered the disadvantages of apartheid are fully represented in the highest decision-making body of a major conservation area.

The park is now run with a new philosophy about the relationship between conservation and development: one cannot succeed without the other. And sustainable tourism underpins both. In the last five years, the Wetlands Authority has made tremendous strides in improving opportunities for local people through sustainable tourism development; creating and improving the infrastructure necessary to make the parks a world-class tourism destination; fostering valuable biological research (over 100 research projects are running in the park); and demonstrating the value of a coalition-approach to park management that has now become a model for other South African parks.

According to Andrew Zaloumis, CEO for the Wetlands Authority: “The St Lucia Wetlands is…a World Heritage national park that is being made, in the true sense, open and available to local and international tourists. In short, government is putting in the money to make this a world-class destination. Sixteen different parcels of land – a patchwork of state-owned land, commercial forests and former military sites – have been consolidated to create the World Heritage Park. Now access roads, tourism routes, game fences, improved beach facilities, new jetties for boat rides on the lake and new campsites for tourists are being created. There are still many challenges facing the Wetland Park. The most important is to ensure that progress continues to be made towards putting an end to the paradox of poverty amidst the plenty of nature.”

The new model embodied in the St. Lucia World Heritage site balances biodiversity protection and ecosystem rehabilitation, on the one hand, with a genuine commitment to social equity and regional economic development on the other. This integrated approach, which recognizes the value of natural assets and of people, is uniquely appropriate to conditions in South Africa as it is to conditions in much of the developing world. It relies on an active partnership between all those with an interest to promote both conservation and development in the region.



Adapted from the article, “Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park World Heritage Site,” by Andrew Zaloumis, Peter John Massyn, and Eddie Koch, which ran in the July 2005 issue of World Heritage Review (issue #40).

For more information, visit:

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