Wildlife Mosaic on the Elephant Coast

The Elephant Coast lies in the northeastern corner of Kwa-Zulu Natal and was once criss-crossed with ancient migration routes created by these gentle giants. This exciting destination stretches from St. Lucia in the south to Kosi bay in the north, across to the Lubombo Mountains in the west, and includes the Hluhluwe game reserve, famous for its great rhino population, the largest concentration anywhere in Africa. A huge variety of habitats and eco-ystems with unlimited diversity are linked and inter-connected to form the Elephant Coast, where visitors are truly spoilt for choice. Home to Africa’s oldest game reserve, once the royal hunting ground of King Shaka, Hluhluwe is credited with ensuring the white rhino’s survival after being hunted to near-extinction. Here visitors can encounter the “big five” ‘ elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion ‘ and enjoy the sight of a myriad of rare other creatures. Bird watchers can delight in two of southern Africa’s birding hot spots, Mkhuze and Ndomo, with more than 600 recorded species in the area. Two of the rarest are the Pel’s fishing owl and the Palm Nut vulture. What makes the Elephant Coast unique is that it not only gives visitors access to a wealth of wild life, but also 250kms of pristine coastline along the Indian Ocean that forms part of the Greater St Lucia Wetlands Park. The “big five” expands to include the largest marine mammal, the Humpback whale, in addition to ragged tooth sharks, manta rays and giant morays ‘ to name a few ocean residents. Among the many turtles that can be seen is the largest sea turtle, the endangered Leatherback, who along with the Loggerhead turtle chooses this coastline as their nesting ground. South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela described the St Lucia park as the “only place on the globe where the oldest land mammal (the rhino) and the biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an eco-system with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine animal (the whale).” The Greater St Lucia Wetlands Park incorporates an astonishing variety of habitats, ranging from mountains to grasslands, forests, wetlands, mangroves, dunes, massive stretches of beach and offshore coral reefs. Of the 22 sites nominated in 1999 for World Heritage status, St Lucia was one of only five successful appointments. Criteria are naturally stringent ‘ a candidate has to be unique, dynamic, exceptionally scenic and home to all sorts of strange, rare and beautiful creatures. Lake St Lucia is the largest estuary in southern Africa ‘ part of a 36 000 hectare spread of tidal water. Some ancient creatures have been calling it home for around 140 million years ‘ here you will find fish fossils including the coelacanth, which Nelson Mandela mentioned. This now-famous two-metre long fish was thought to be extinct but was captured here on video. Colelacanth research is continuing. Millions of years ago Maputaland was submerged beneath the sea, and waves washed against the rocks of the Lubombo mountains, which have fossilised coral reefs on its slopes to prove it. Geological shifts caused the sea to retreat and this exposed a vast terrace about 200km wide. Wind action piled the sand high along the new shore in a series of dunes while the formerly fast-flowing rivers meandered across a huge flood plain. When they finally met the coastal dunes, these rivers dammed up into a system of shallow lakes and pans forming the Greater St Lucia Wetlands Park. The wetlands have attracted an abundance of wildlife including hippo, crocodile, buffalo, waterbuck, kudu, nyala, impala, duiker and reedbuck together with elephant and cheetah. It has a long history of conservation dating back to 1895 and extends from the Mozambique border for more than 220km south to Cape St Lucia. The area consists of five distinct but inter-connected eco-systems. They include the coast, with its rocky and sandy beaches and clear, tropical waters, the Mkhuze swamps and the lake itself ‘ the largest in Africa, where fresh water from the rivers mixes with the salty seawater. The eastern shore consists of a ridge of forested sand dunes. Some of the highest vegetated dunes in the world occur along this coast and to the west are flat grasslands and wetlands covered with elegant lily and reed-filled pans during the wet summer months. The western shores have fossil-rich cliffs, dry forests and grasslands and some of the last remaining patches of sand forest in KwaZulu-Natal. No wonder it qualified for World Heritage status. The sea temperatures along this stretch of coast seldom drop below 20 degrees, making it the perfect place to explore what lies beneath the surface. The southern-most coral reefs of Africa can be found at Sodwana Bay. where divers can discover another world, home to 95 identified species of hard and soft corals, sponges and many other incredible invertebrates. I have mentioned the Humpback whales, the ragged tooth sharks and manta rays, but there is a host of other fish species here (1200 to be exact) which include tiger rock cods, rubber lips and huge potato bass. There has never been dynamite fishing or anchoring along these shores, so visitors are assured of pristine reef. Wild life rangers based at Sodwana Bay and Cape Vidal have nurtured the many turtles who crawl on to the beaches at night to lay their eggs from the end of October through to January and will take visitors to see them during the breeding season. In January and February the babies break their eggs and slowly move to the sea. Sodwana Bay is riddled with great diving spots, including Anton’s Reef, the Chain Reefs, the Pinnacles and Gullies, and numerous submarine canyons, vast valleys with caves and underwater dunes that are constantly changing and shifting. Wonderful things to see include ribbon tail rays, sand sharks, giant sand mussels, cuttlefish, predatory starfish, shoals of silver fish . . . so pick your dive operator’s brain to ensure you experience as much as you possibly can in this exciting seascape.

May 2006
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