Orange River Mouth Wetlands Restoration Project

The Orange River mouth wetlands area is situated on the Atlantic coast of South Africa at the mouth of the largest river in South Africa. It is located in an arid region that lies on the border between South Africa and Namibia and is the first trans-border Ramsar site. It is also considered as a rare ecological occurrence in this particular area.

The Orange River mouth is a delta and consists of a range of braided troughs dotted with channel bars, sandbanks and islets. It has a tidal basin, large intra-fluvial marshes, salt marshes and widespread mudflats. Because of the relatively low salinity the vegetation in the lower section of the river includes large concentrations of plant species like Saltworts Sarcornia and phragmites australis reeds.

Rich and Diverse Bird and Fish Life

Around 253 species of wetland birds make the Orange River mouth wetlands their home, of which over 100 species are water birds. It is also a stopover area for several species of migratory birds. Internationally significant numbers of the Kelp Gull, Cape Cormorant, Hartlaub’s Gull and Cape Shoveler frequent the area. During the summer season various migrating bird species are seen, including the Curlew Sandpiper and the Little Stint. Nationally significant bird species include the Great White Pelican, Greater Flamingo, Lesser Flamingo, White Breasted Cormorant, Damara Tern, Caspian Tern, Common Tern, Pied Avocet, Chestnut Plover, Little Bittern, Black Necked Grebe, Maccoa Duck and the African Spoonbill. Although the area continues to be richly populated by a great variety of bird species, numbers have decreased and some species are under threat, including the African Black Oystercatcher, Cape Cormorant and Damara Turn, to name but a few. In addition to the bird species that are under threat, several endemic fish species like the Namaqua Barb and the Rock Catfish are also at risk. Its banks are no strangers to flora, with cultivated growths such as grapes flourishing alongside the river.

Aerial View of the Orange River (Photo: Wikimedia)

Aerial View of the Orange River (Photo: Wikimedia)

Diamond Mining and Agriculture

Several factors have severely impacted on the Orange River mouth wetlands area and have degraded as much as 40% of the landscape. These factors include:

  • Activities linked to diamond mining and lucerne cultivation
  • Artificial flow regulation of the river
  • Activities linked to mosquito control
  • Poor management of the river mouth
  • Algal blooms during low flow conditions due to overuse
  • Invasion of alien plant species

Conservation and Restoration Project

Although the Orange River mouth wetlands site was placed on the Montreux Record in 1995 because of the severe degradation, rehabilitation efforts only started taking shape in 2001 when Alexkor SOC made a commitment to restore the salt marsh. A Working for Wetlands project did minor rehabilitation work in 2005 and only in 2013 restoration activities became part of the management plan for the site. In 2014 the Endangered Wildlife Trust started a Sea Programme with the goal of assisting with invasive plant research and avifaunal monitoring. The Orange River mouth wetlands was declared as a provincial nature reserve in 2015 and South Africa started working with Namibia to re-instate long-term monitoring of the estuary’s ecology.