Comprising 280km of east KwaZulu-Natal coastline, and approximately 3280km2 of natural ecosystems, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is South Africa’s third-largest protected area. This 332,000 hectare park is made up of eight interlinking ecosystems, three major lake systems, most of the country’s remaining swamp forests, Africa’s largest estuarine system, numerous birdlife and wildlife, and 25,000 year-old coastal dunes. To give you some more insight into this fascinating region, we’ve put together a brief history of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
The rich and troubled recorded history of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park dates back to 1440 with the arrival the south-migrating Tsonga people, who utilised the land for hunting, grazing, and cultivation. Further back, historical remains found in the park can be traced back to the Later Stone Age, and it has been discovered that Arab traders visited the region as early as 1250. The Dutch landed in the area in 1670, followed by the British in 1822, who immediately proclaimed St Lucia a township. The first professional hunters began visiting the area in the 1850s, in search of ivory and hides – leading to the complete eradication of elephants within only 50 years. Britain annexed the area in the 1895 seeking to derail the efforts of the Boers to access the sea, and with the establishment of the park, drove the Tsonga people from their land. It was only after this that the southern section of the park was handed over to the Zulu nation and the northern section was given back to the Tsonga people.
Game Reserve Establishment
The initial reserve in the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi and St Lucia region, which was much smaller than the current day expanse, was first established in 1895, it the oldest conservation area in South Africa. Further moves to protect wildlife took place in 1944 with the addition of False Bay Park to the list of protected areas in the country. In 1975, in a conservational breakthrough, South Africa signed the international Ramsar Convention, a treaty which provides the framework for the protection of wetlands and their resources. It was then that the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park was declared.
What’s in a Name?
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park has had many names over the years. When it was occupied by the Tsonga people, it was known as Tembeland or Thongaland. However, this name fell into disuse in the early 1900s. The Tugela River mouth was named “Santa Lucia” by Portugese explorer Manuel Peresterello on 13 December 1575 – the day of the feast of Saint Lucy. In 1975, with the Ramsar Convention listing, the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park was declared.
The final renaming of the park took place in November 2007, and is derived from the story of King Shaka Zulu. When King Shaka was assassinated in 1928, his most trusted body-servant, Jeqe, fearing a similar fate, fled from Zululand, where he discovered the land of the Tsonga people. Upon arrival, the beauty that beheld him caused him to proclaim, “I saw wonders and miracles in the flat land and lakes of Thonga.” Almost 80 years later, the word iSimangaliso, meaning “miracle and wonder” was rightfully chosen as the new name for this incredible region.
World Heritage Site Status
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park was listed as South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in December 1999 in recognition of its spectacular natural beauty, unique natural values and biological wealth. The region was listed for three of the ten natural and cultural values recognised by the World Heritage Convention. These are: outstanding examples of ecological processes, superlative natural phenomena and scenic beauty, and exceptional biodiversity and threatened species. Interestingly, the park was proclaimed a World Heritage Site during an unveiling ceremony in 1999 where Nelson Mandela was the guest of honour.