Conservation in the Swartkops Estuary and Surrounding Areas


The Swartkops Estuary itself is the most important natural area in the metro and in fact is one of the more important estuaries in South Africa.

The reasons for this are the large number and variety of invertebrates (bait species) found in the estuary. Of these the mud prawn Upogebia africana makes up over 90% of the prey biomass of the main invertebrate feeding bird species on the estuary. These also provide food for the large number of fish species that feed on the inter-tidal mud banks.

The estuary is particularly important for the birds in that 200 bird species occur regularly and it is the most important estuary for waterbirds in the Eastern Cape Province. There are a number of migrant species (wimbrel,  grey plover, curlew sandpiper to name the 3 most common) that are resident over the summer months. Most of these return to Russia and even Siberia to breed. The estuary has IBA status, this means that it is a globally important bird area. Eighteen South African Red Data species occur of which ten are present on a daily basis.

Several permanent (Pond 6) and ephemeral freshwater pans are also found in the area. These are also highly attractive to waterbirds and taken together with the intertidal mudflats the total number of waterbirds is likely to exceed 20 000 in some years.

Finally the estuary is vitally important in that it provides a nursery area for the many fish species that are found along our coastline. The Swartkops has the third largest area of salt marsh in South Africa.

The natural areas around the estuary and upper river valley are also hugely important in that they consist of Valley Thicket (formerly called Valley Bushveld), a veld type that is under threat from development and is largely unprotected elsewhere. It is also a veld type that takes several centuries, if ever, to recover if it is damaged.

These areas are protected in the Swartkops Nature Reserve, the Aloe Reserve and of course the Groendal Wilderness Area in the upper Swartkops.

These reserves are outstanding areas of natural beauty and provide excellent walking and bird watching opportunities.

The Groendal Wilderness area is under the control of East Cape Nature. This reserve provides possibly the best wilderness experience in the Eastern Cape and is popular with the hiking and climbing community. Access is controlled by East Cape Nature who have an office at the entrance. A small fee is payable to gain entrance. Maps are also available indicating the most popular hikes including some that require overnighting in caves or camping.

The prime role of the Zwartkops Conservancy is to protect and preserve these eco-systems, which is of course reflected in our name.

In order to do this the “watch dog” role of the Conservancy cannot be under-estimated. All new developments in the area are monitored carefully.

Industrial and domestic pollution, usually from sewage is probably the biggest negative factor affecting the water quality and hence the environment that the invertebrates, which are near the bottom of the food chain, live in. Pollution control is therefore a major aspect of the Conservancies activities. It is more fully covered elsewhere.

Over exploitation of the bait and fish resources is another major problem and we ensure that adequate law enforcement takes place to control this. We fully support and assist where possibly the Honourary Marine Conservation Officers (HMCOs), the Metro Environmental Management staff and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF). In addition to making sure that bag and size limits are adhered to the biggest problem is the use of illegal gill nets. This is very prevalent in the upper reaches of the river.

The problems in the nature reserves relate to the ingress of alien vegetation (mostly prickly pear, jointed cactus and various Australian acacia species). In addition the uncontrolled grazing of cattle and goats is a huge problem particularly in the Swartkops Nature Reserve. Finally the setting of snares is very prevalent in all the reserves. Regular snare hunts take place to remove these.


Our Environmental Education initiatives are important in our conservation efforts and it is pleasing to note that many of the pupils that have been exposed to these classes become our most effective “watch dogs”.

In order to view and enjoy the natural wonder that is the Swartkops please join one of our many walks or hikes in the reserves or come on a boat trip. Groups wanting to visit the area are urged to contact us so that we can help arrange your visit.