iSimangaliso Wetland Park in the north-east coast of South Africa has all the typical large African wild animals, like elephant, white and black rhino, lion, wild dog, leopard and hippo.
But what makes the park truly special are the thousands of other species, all crammed into a long and narrow 200km stretch of northeastern South Africa.
While Kruger, Serengeti and Chobe National Parks are deserved icons of Africa, protected areas like iSimangaliso are as important. By some estimates, this World Heritage Site has more species of animals per square kilometre than any other protected area in Africa.
Xander Combrink from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is a conservation scientist who know the park better than most. From 2009 to 2012, he researched his PhD on the ecology of the Nile crocodile in Lake St Lucia. As part of iSimangaliso, the lake has the largest single population of crocodiles in the country.
During his research he spent most nights looking for crocodiles, catching and releasing more than three hundred of them to study. In the process he covered every square metre of the lake and it’s shores. If anyone knows Lake St Lucia, or understands crocodile behaviour, it’s Xander.
Now he’s got the humble title of Support Technician, which is an absurdly dull name for what must be a fascinating job: Keeping track of all animal species in the park, among other things.
Sound simple? Not really.
“iSimangaliso is just so special,” Xander explained. “Despite being only 3 300 square kilometres compared to Kruger’s 20 000 square kilometres, iSimangaliso has 118 reptile species (KNP 112), 62 snake species (KNP 54) and 49 amphibian species (KNP 46).”
“So even though iSimangaliso makes up less than 0,3 per cent of South Africa’s surface area, we have 53.4 % of all the described snake species in RSA, Lesotho and Swaziland, 30.8% of all the described reptile species and 41.5% of all frogs and toads in the region.”
“Among other taxonomic groups, there are also 228 spider species, 139 dung beetles, 282 butterflies, 526 birds, 129 species of coral, 812 marine molluscs, 991 ocean fish, 48 fresh water fish and 325 species of seaweed!”
“This really is a biodiversity hotspot, with a disproportionate number of species, making it extremely valuable. If you want to put conservation money into a particular area and you want to protect the most possible species, then iSimangaliso is THAT place in South Africa.”
Visitors to the park are able to book night-drives with local guides who have the park’s permission to do so. Fortunately for me I was able to tag along with the ultimate expert.
For a few nights I joined Xander- and his three sons Stanis, Anno and Bernard - as they looked for frogs and snakes to photograph in the south, near the town of St Lucia.
The first night we came across a snake in the road. Xander hit the brakes and jumped out the car, picking up the snake before it slithered away. It was a rhombic egg-eater – not unduly rare – but he was so excited to show me the snake that I figured he had won the lottery!
The second night we waded through some shallow wetlands. As Stanis and Xander led the way with their torches, I tried not to worry about any crocodiles that may have been lurking.
Stanis is an expert frog finder. First up was a tiny water lily frog, which is no bigger than a thumbnail. He also found several painted reed frogs, whose bright colours make them some of the prettiest frogs.
Then on the edge of the marsh he knelt down and found a rare spotted shovel-nosed frog.
It looked unlike any other frog I’d seen: a stout, brown species, dotted with luminous yellow spots. Xander explained that it uses its pointed snout and oversized forelimbs to dig into wet soils, looking for prey.
It wasn’t stereotypically beautiful, but it was wonderfully bizarre. The spotted shovel-nosed frog – found only in northern KwaZulu-Natal - could well be an emblematic species of iSimangaliso, which is itself unique in so many ways.
“We’re at an important interface here, between the tropical and sub-tropical regions,” Xander explained.
“There are some species which are found in cooler climates further south, which have their northern-most distribution in iSimangaliso. And we have many tropical species which have their southern-most distribution in the park.”
“There’s also a huge altitudinal gradient from 1 200 metres on top of the Lebombo Mountains in the west, right down to the coast in the east.”
“Finally, the diversity of habitat is just incredible. Mountains, swamps, 300kms of uninterrupted coastal dune forest, a huge mosaic of wetlands, grasslands, bushveld, coral reefs and deep ocean canyons with remarkable fish like the coelacanth.”
The park is blessed with some of the largest fresh water lakes in Southern Africa. In the south is Lake St Lucia, the largest estuarine system on the whole African continent. In the north of the park Lake Sibaya is the largest freshwater lake in South Africa. The four interconnected lakes at Kosi Bay near Mozambique are also unique in Africa.
No wonder that iSimangaliso was South Africa’s first World Heritage Site, proclaimed in 1994. Much of its appeal – and conservation importance - lies with the thousands of less obvious species that thrive in the diverse habitats.
“It’s great when the general public, or even conservation managers, become excited about the smaller things,” Xander told me. “Most people just think about the rhinos, elephants or lions.”
“So when someone gets excited about a spotted shovel-nosed frog, that’s a big thing for me. I consider that a major achievement and success in conservation.”
“We must instill a love in people for all wild animals because otherwise we’re going to lose it all one day to mining, agriculture or forestry.”
To visit iSimangaliso, go to www.isimangaliso.com. For guided tours, go to www.heritagetoursandsafaris.com, www.elephantlakestlucia.co.za or www.shakabarker.co.za.
Also see: Instagram: Llove_wild_africa