Introducing the Tsitsikamma-Plettenberg Bay Important Bird and Biodiversity Area
November 9, 2015

by Mark Brown

Big news in recently was the national launch of the new IBA Directory for South Africa, along with the first status report for the country’s IBAs. Hang on you say – what is an IBA? And why is it relevant to the Nature’s Valley Trust? Well, I am glad you asked!

IBA stands for Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, and it is one of BirdLife South Africa’s most important conservation programmes. It speaks to all four focal areas of BirdLife South Africa – species, sites, habitats and people. It is also one of the flagship programmes of BirdLife International, bringing global relevance to the sites listed in South Africa.

The IBA Programme identifies and works to conserve a network of sites critical for the long-term survival of bird species that are globally threatened; have a restricted range; are restricted to specific biomes/vegetation types or have significant populations. More than 12 000 sites in over 200 countries now carry IBA status, and one of the successes of the program is that a growing number of these sites are getting formal conservation status in their countries. To date, it is the only global directory network based on spatially explicit information on biodiversity and has been recognised as such by the IUCN, RAMSAR and the CBD in their priority setting of sites for conservation.

The new 2015 IBA book cover

South Africa is a large country, supporting eight biomes and c. 846 bird species, of which more than 700 are resident or annual visitors, 74 of which are endemic or near-endemic and 125 of which are listed in The Eskom Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. We now have 112 IBAs in the country. Sites are not randomly chosen – there are strict standardised international criteria set by BirdLife International to ensure only the most crucial sites gain IBA status.

Historically, the IBA closest to us here in Nature’s Valley was the Tsitsikamma IBA – which carried essentially the same boundary as the Tsitsikamma Marine Protected Area. When we became aware that the IBAs were going to be reassessed, NVT recognised the value of applying to extend our IBA boundary. After discussions with Dale Wright, BirdLife South Africa’s conservation manager for the Western Cape, we mapped out a strategy to see what could be done. With other local partners, including BirdLife Plettenberg Bay and the Bitou Valley Foundation, we established BirdLife South Africa’s first Local Conservation Group (LCG), chaired by NVT Director Dr Mark Brown. The LCG was formed primarily to assist Dale with collecting valuable data needed to investigate the expansion ideas we suggested for the IBA boundary, but also to look at the role of birds and birding as an economic driver of tourism in the region.

Then the hard work started… Using our research programs as the base, NVT and BirdLife Plett members spent two years collecting valuable data. We discovered that the breeding colony of Kelp Gulls in Plett is now the largest land-based colony in S.A. Along with Cape Nature, we documented the colonisation and subsequent breeding of 7000 Cape Cormorants on the Robberg Peninsula. We confirmed stable numbers of Fynbos endemic birds through our bi-monthly bird ringing program, healthy populations of African Black Oystercatchers through our shorebird program, good numbers of important waterbirds in our bi-annual CWAC counts, and the presence of other globally threatened trigger species through some of our other work. In particular, we now knew we met the 1% or more congregation population threshold for Kelp Gulls, Cape Cormorants and African Black Oystercatchers.

The shorebird research added much valuable data to the IBA expansion project. Pictured here, from right to left, are Minke Witteveen (NVT Postgrad)and Mark Brown (NVT Director)

Our Fynbos work also played an integral role, especially the long-term bird ringing programme.

Pshew! The hard work, with our partner organisations, was well worth it, and we more than met the criteria to extend the IBA. But why extend it at all? What was the point? Well, one of the long-term goals of the Nature’s Valley Trust, and part of our mission statement, is to see the ecological integrity of the area maintained for future generations to enjoy. With over 300 species of bird in the area, and several of them either endemic or red data book listed, it is essential to ensure that adequate protection for these birds, and for other biodiversity, is in place. Holistically, NVT has recognised the value of formally linking the two Marine Protected Areas in our region – the Tsitsikamma MPA and the Robberg MPA. Treating the whole bay as a single ecological unit, including the estuaries, wetlands, Fynbos and Forest habitats makes sense from a biodiversity point of view, and has become the focus of most of our conservation work.

While the long-term work of formally linking the two MPAs will take time, it is the use of important international programmes like the Hope Spot Program (Plett Hope Spot was launched Dec 2014) and the IBA program that has enabled NVT and partners to get recognised conservation status for this area. We are proud to have played a role in not only getting the IBA expanded but in leading the ongoing work that manages conservation, monitoring, research and education programmes in the IBA. Watch this space as we press on towards to goal – a formal link of our two MPAs, and a sustainably managed system that can be enjoyed for generations to come!

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