Perhaps one of the first visitors of South Africa’s northeast coast was a Zulu man called Jeqe, the personal assistant of King Shaka. When the King died in 1828, Jeqe was doomed to being buried alive with the body of the deceased King. Instead, Jeqe fled to the north, where he discovered the Land of the Thonga People and he couldn’t believe his luck. Not only had he escaped certain death, he had stumbled into a sub-tropical paradise of lakes, rivers, beaches and forests.
The diversity of life made a deep impression on Jeqe. Once it was safe for him to return to the hills of Zululand, he told his people of his travels through this special region. “I saw wonders and miracles in the flat land and the lakes of the Thonga” Jeqe was quoted as saying. Today, the Zulu people still pay tribute to this region in one of their sayings: ”UboneisimangaesabonwauJeqekwelamaThonga”, which translates as : ”If you have seen miracles, you have seen what Jeqe saw in Thongaland.
Almost 200 years later, the word iSimangaliso – which means miracle and wonder- was sourced from this proverb to name the protected area that conserves that was formally known as the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park. It was South Africa’s first World Heritage Site, declared in 1999, deemed worthy of global importance because of its outstanding natural features.
TURTLES AND TITANIUM
Probably the two best known species of iSimangaliso’s oceans are the critically endangered Leatherback and endangered Loggerhead turtles that come to nest and lay eggs on the Park’s beaches every October and November. The hatchlings leave the nests a few months later in January and February, another great time to visit the Reserve. (Turtles are usually disturbed by people and vehicles, which reduce their chances to lay eggs, so visitors are allowed on the beaches only in the company of approved specialist local guides.
These are impressive creatures; Leatherbacks can weigh more than a tonne and dive many hundreds of meters to feed off deep-sea jellyfish, while the Loggerhead is smaller (it can weigh in access of 140 Kg). Both have suffered huge declines in population numbers, largely as a result of long-line fishing trawlers that haul them out of the water indiscriminately.
The turtles lay up to 800 eggs each on the northern beaches of iSimangaliso, but only one or two hatchlings out of every thousand will make it to the breeding age of ten years (Logggerheads) and 25 years (Leatherbacks)
The Park is often seen as vital for their conservation. iSimangaliso is the most important breading ground of these populations of Leatherbacks & Loggerheads.
Since 1963 conservationists have monitored the turtles as they have to come to breed on the beaches here, and the study is one of the longest of its kind in the world. The results are encouraging. Initially the were just 10 Leatherback and 100 Loggerhead females nesting every year, but today both numbers have increased eight-fold and this breeding group represents75% of the total southwest Indian Ocean population.
However, the turtles and iSimangaliso’s other creatures almost lost their sanctuary during the 1990’s, when mining companies wanted to dredge large parts of the shoreline and forested dunes for ilmenite, a mineral which is processed into titanium. This black sand may be valuable as an industrial and consumer product, but the ilmenite in the sands of iSimangaliso is critical to the survival of these endangered turtles. They have no sex chromosomes, so anything above 29 degrees Celcius, it’s a female and anything below, it’s a male. Without ilmenite’s warmth, most hatchlings will end up males, effectively dooming this population to extinction.
Fortunately, concerned citizensand organizations fought back and mining was banned in 1996, ensuring that not only could the turtles carry on thriving, but the rest of this beautiful park was saved from industrial degradation. A few years later, iSimangaliso became the country’s first World Heritage Site. From almost being dredged to oblivion, the park is now a sanctuary to natural diversity and a beacon of conservation.
Fly Africa Safaris is leaving for iSimangaliso on 16 February 2017. Although we are going to some game fishing in Sodwana, the main purpose of this safari i8s to go and see the turtle hatchlings at Bangha Nek near Kosi Bay. We will report back on this once back home….watch this space!!!