DEPUTY Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Rejoice Mabudafhasi on Friday handed over a Ramsar certificate to Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife for the designation of the Umgeni Vlei Nature Reserve as a wetland of international importance.

Ramsar sites are declared under the 1971 Convention on Wetlands, a treaty signed at Ramsar in Iran, committing member countries to maintain the ecological character of internationally important wetlands.

Wetlands are South Africa’s most endangered ecosystems, according to the South African Biodiversity Institute’s (Sanbi’s) 2011 National Biodiversity Assessment, the first to assess the country’s wetland systems critically.

South Africa designated Umgeni Vlei Nature Reserve a Ramsar site last March, bringing the total number of Wetlands of International Importance to 21, eight of which are in KwaZulu-Natal. The Sanbi assessment reveals that South Africa has already lost about 50% of its original wetland area, and only 11% of what remains is well protected, while 71% is not protected at all.

The world marks World Wetlands Day on February 9. It is a yearly event commemorating the signing of the Convention on Wetlands at Ramsar.

Ms Mabudafhasi said: "Given their importance for water supply and food production, wetlands are a key element of achieving the goals of poverty eradication worldwide. They can literally be lifesavers — e.g. springs, particularly in arid regions that support dry season food production, water and grazing for livestock."

South Africa has been working on preserving wetland biomes through its Working for Wetlands programme, part of the Expanded Public Works Programme, since 2002. The programme has put R725m into the rehabilitation of 1,011 wetlands countrywide.

The Department of Water Affairs said this had improved or secured the health of more than 80,000ha of wetland, and provided 17,575 "employment opportunities".

The Endangered Wildlife Trust said this year’s World Wetland Day marked the culmination of one of the most successful Wattled Crane breeding seasons in recent times. The Wattled Crane is one of five critically endangered bird species in South Africa.

"The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s African crane conservation programme and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife are excited to report that the 2013 KwaZulu-Natal aerial survey of cranes yielded the highest count of wattled cranes since the start of the surveys 20 years ago. Two hundred and sixty-one wattled cranes, including chicks, were counted during the survey," the organisation said.

The cranes are completely dependent on wetlands for their long-term survival and approximately 85% of all South African wattled cranes were found on privately owned farms.

"South Africa’s wattled crane population is finally stable and showing a slight increase in KwaZulu-Natal, where approximately 90% of the country’s population is found. We fitted leg colour rings to a total of 16 chicks this season — this is the highest number of wattled crane chicks ever ringed in one season since the start of colour ringing of wattled cranes in 1987," said the programme’s senior field officer Tanya Smith.

Wattled crane conservation in KwaZulu-Natal is sponsored by Rand Merchant Bank through the implementation of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Drakensberg Crane and Wetland Conservation Project, in collaboration with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and KZN Crane Foundation.

© BDlive 2014