iSimangaliso Wetland Park

(Year of inscription 1999; Area 239,566 ha; Site 914)

Benefits from WH designation:

  • Conservation and protection of natural resources combined with sustainable economic development

    - through effective policies and a focus on creating jobs and economic opportunities for local communities and businesses.
  • Highly developed and well-managed tourism has brought benefits

    to local communities including jobs, entrepreneur training, educational bursaries and also revenue for the Park
  • Substantial biological, social and economic research

    over decades is instrumental in developing best practice in environmental management, contributing significantly to protecting the unique biodiversity and habitats of the site.


iSimangaliso (formerly Greater St Lucia World Heritage Park), in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, is one of Africa's outstanding coastal wetlands but also includes a wide variety of landforms. These include coral reefs, long sandy beaches, coastal dunes, lake systems, swamps and extensive reed and papyrus wetlands. The Park's environmental heterogeneity, floods, coastal storms and a geographic location between subtropical and tropical Africa have resulted in exceptional species diversity and on-going speciation.

Criteria of inscription:

  • vii-superlative features

    - being geographically diverse and with superlative scenic vistas, the site has exceptional aesthetic qualities to many of its habitats and locations. Three natural phenomena are judged outstanding: i) the shifting salinity states within Lake St. Lucia; ii) large numbers of nesting turtles, resident dolphins and migrating whales and whale sharks; iii) abundance of waterfowl and breeding colonies of pelicans, storks, herons and terns.
  • ix-biological processes

    - important processes occur in multiple arenas: fluvial, marine and aeolian processes that have created the variety of landforms in the park; biogeographic overlap between sub-tropical and tropical Africa as well as terrestrial and marine; and evolutionary processes that have created the exceptional endemism within the the Maputaland Centre of Endemism, that continue today. The interplay of this heterogeneity is enhanced by major floods and coastal storms.
  • x-species & conservation

    - five interlinked ecosystems provide habitat for the most diverse fauna of the region (6,500 plant and animal species), many occurring with viable population sizes within the park. Species of conservation importance include 11 endemic to the park, 108 endemic to South Africa, and 467 species are listed as threatened in South Africa. In 2001, President Nelson Mandela said "iSimangaliso ... the only place on the globe where the world's oldest land mammal (the rhino) 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)."
  • Integrity

    - The site is of sufficient size and retains most of the key elements that are essential for long-term functioning of the ecosystems. The property consists of 13 separate but contiguous conservation units including ~ 85,000 ha of marine reserves. Threats to integrity include the protection of the catchment area and regional development (upstream water abstraction, agricultural practices and road construction); land claims; resource harvesting and local community issues; and the need for restoration of degraded habitats. A unified management system for all 13 components has been proposed to address these issues.
  • Protection

    - the World Heritage Convention Act, 1999 established the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority, the entity responsible for the conservation, protection and presentation of the site. It contracts Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the provincial conservation agency, to undertake certain day to day conservation activities. iSimangaliso also contains four Ramsar sites (St. Lucia Lake System; Turtle Beaches/Coral Reefs of Tongaland; Kosi Bay Lake System; and Lake Sibaya) that recognise the ecological functions of wetlands as well as their importance as resources of economic, cultural, scientific and recreational value. iSimangaliso also has a formal buffer zone around it within which potentially damaging industrial developments such as mining, prospecting and fracking are prevented.

Some key successes:

  • World Heritage status is integrated with national legislation

    to combine conservation and protection of natural resources with sustainable economic development.
  • Well developed tourism

    which provides revenue for conservation activities and local communities and is carefully zoned to minimise environmental impacts.
  • Strong focus on

    community benefits

    with many community development projects, economic empowerment, job creation and settlement of 75% of the land claims against the Park.
  • There is a

    substantial amount of biological, social and economic research

    , which contributes significantly to development of best practices for management.

Some major challenges:

  • Local communities disengaged

    - some people living in or near the Park are not engaged in, benefiting from, or supporting tourism.
  • Ensuring sustainable resource use

    by local communities versus protection of the site's OUV.
  • Effective settlement of

    land claims

  • Hydrological changes

    through historic man-made interventions are still impacting the Lake St Lucia system and these are exacerbated by climate change.
  • Invasive plant species

    pose a long term threat, needing active removal/habitat restoration.

Case study lessons - expected and unexpected contributions of a World Heritage Site

Conservation and protection of natural resources combined with sustainable economic development

- iSimangaliso is a "People's Park" with a focus on development and rehabilitation. Approximately 3,500 temporary jobs and hundreds of permanent jobs have been created since its WH listing. About 100,000 people from 14 land claimant groups and 14 traditional authorities live in villages surrounding the Park and community conservation programmes have been and continue to be key to minimising conflicts and maximising benefits. Work with neighbouring communities fosters good relations and ensures they derive direct benefits through access, business and employment. Access benefits have revolved around settling past land claims, and issues of natural/customary resource use (e.g. fishing). Direct benefits include through land care and infrastructure contracts; rural enterprise programmes; sustainable agriculture and natural resource use; training opportunities (e.g. in tourism, leadership, environment education, arts, and cultural heritage). The Park also has a higher education programme for local youth to access degrees and diplomas at Universities and Technical colleges.
World Heritage status has prevented industrial developments such as mining and ports either in or directly adjacent to the site. The South African government deliberately selected nature-based tourism as the development driver for this region, and iSimangaliso has been 'a driver of economic up-liftment and social regeneration'. It is estimated that nature-based tourism businesses in KwaZulu - Natal Province are competitive with other land uses and could provide revenues of >US$60 million/year to local stakeholders while helping to meet conservation goals.

Highly developed and well-managed tourism has brought benefits

- iSimangaliso is marketed as one of South Africa's icons and tourism in and around the Park has grown by over 80% in 10 years and the increase in international visitors to the iSimangaliso region has been greater than any other area in KwaZulu-Natal. The Park has been zoned to accommodate the high visitation rates, maximise revenue and minimise environmental impacts from tourists: low intensity use/wilderness core, where access is by foot except for staff; moderate use, where visitors can view wildlife from vehicles and from scattered camps and hides; and high intensity use in 7 development nodes, with roads, educational displays, guided walks, accommodation and other facilities.

Substantial biological, social and economic research

- Research has been instrumental in developing best practice at the site, with all human uses of iSimangaliso being subject to intensive management, research and monitoring. The Park currently has over 120 registered research projects. One topic looks at the ongoing threat to the Park from damage to the hydrology and salinity of the wetland system caused by transformation of the upper Mfolozi Swamps by agriculture and artificial breaching of the estuary mouth by the Umfolozi River. Socio-economic research that included iSimangaliso has provided pertinent results to conservation planning, showing that: a) accounting for opportunity costs substantially decreased conflicts between conserving biological diversity and extractive uses through agriculture, forestry and mining; and b) accounting for economic benefits arising from conservation together with reducing potential policy conflicts with development plans can provide opportunities for successful strategies that combine conservation and sustainable development.

Prepared by: Melita Samoilys; Photos: iSimangaliso Wetland Authority, UNESCO World Heritage Centre web site)