St Lucia Wetlands

The Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park is situated on the east Coast of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa about 275 km North of Durban (28°0’S 32°30’E). It is South Africa’s third-largest park, spanning 280 kilometres of coastline, from the Mozambican border in the north to Mapelane south of the St Lucia estuary, and made up of around 3,280 km² of pristine natural ecosystems, managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. The park includes the St Lucia Game Reserve, False Bay Park, St Lucia Marine Reserve, Sodwana Bay National Park, Maputaland Marine Reserve, Cape Vidal, Ozabeni, Mfabeni, Tewate Wilderness Area and Mkuze Game Reserve.

Like many tidal estuaries, Greater St. Lucia has diverse wildlife reflecting the concentration of diverse ecosystems created by variations in the degree of salinity from season to season, year to year, and location to location within the park. The estuary is the largest in Africa and boasts, among other attractions, the world’s largest forested sand dunes, which reach up to 180 m (600 feet). Swamps along the border of Lake St Lucia, and “sponge” areas are fed by water seeping through the dunes; these provide critical refuges to freshwater life when the lake salinity is particularly high.

The park consists of five individual ecosystems. These ecosystems function totally independent yet fully integrated with each other. The five ecosystems in the park are:

  • The Marine System – characterised by the warm Indian Ocean, containing the southernmost coral reefs in Africa, as well as sub-marine canyons and long sandy beaches.
  • The Eastern Shores – a coastal dune system consisting of high linear dunes and sub-tropical forests, grassy plains and wetlands.
  • The Lake System – including two estuary-linked lakes of St Lucia and Kosi Bay, plus the four large freshwater lakes of Lake Sibhayi, Ngobezeleni, Bhangazi north and Bhangazi south.
  • The Mkhuze and Umfolozi Swamps – with swamp forests and extensive reeds and papyrus marshes.
  • The Western Shores – which includes ancient shoreline terraces and dry savanna woodlands.

Lake St Lucia – A World Heratige Site

Though less well known than larger southern African parks like Kruger National Park and the Okavango Delta, St. Lucia supports more species, and for some, St. Lucia is critical habitat. These include the White-backed and Pink-backed Pelican, Greater and Lesser Flamingos, Madagascar Fish Eagles, and some 530 other bird species. It is also home to the largest population of hippopotami in South African parks. Elephants were reintroduced in 2001. Two sea turtle species use the beaches for laying eggs. The coastal reserve includes not only beaches but offshore coral reefs, and Humpback Whales migrate along this section of the coast. It is the one park in Africa where hippopotami, crocodiles, and sharks can be found all in the same area.

Satellite image of the park, with the borders of several conservation areas outlined in yellow.

The park is also famous as a home to coelacanth, a fish species from millions of years ago that was known to scientists from fossil records and presumed to have been extinct until a live specimen was found in a trawler net in 1938 just off the African coast. Scientists have since found a number of these four-legged fish in very deep, rocky, marine environments, but it is still a very rare fish and protected under international law. On November 27, 2000, three living specimens of coelacanth were found and photographed in a submarine canyon off the coast near Sodwana Bay inside the St. Lucia Reserve.