Ramsar Wetlands: Barberspan and Blesbokspruit

Named for the city in Iran where the treaty was signed in 1971, the Ramsar Convention is an international treaty aimed at conserving wetlands deemed to be of economic, cultural, scientific and recreational value. South Africa currently has 21 RAMSAR recognized wetlands – Barberspan, Blesbokspruit, De Hoop Vlei, De Mond, Natal Drakensberg Park, Kosi Bay, Lake Sibhayi, Langebaan, Ndumo Game Reserve, Nylsvley Nature Reserve, Orange River Mouth, Seekoei-vlei Nature Reserve, St Lucia System, Turtle Beaches and Coral Reefs of Tongaland, Verloren Valei Nature Reserve, Verlorenvlei, and Wilderness Lakes.

Listed as a Ramsar site in 1975, the Barberspan Reserve in the North West Province of South Africa is connected via a channel with the Harts River and includes a permanent river and stream, permanent freshwater pools and a seasonal freshwater lake. The pan was created when, in 1913, a local farmer initiated the digging of a channel to divert water from the Harts River to the pan. With Barberspan being very flat and lower than the river, sufficient water runs off the river during the rainy season to keep the pan wet through the winter months in this summer rainfall region. This has proven to be very beneficial for birds, particularly waterfowl, which gather at Barberspan when pans in the surrounding areas dry up. The Barberspan Bird Sanctuary offers nature lovers the opportunity to see up to 365 bird species at different times of the year, including several rare migratory species. There are strategically place bird hides, and parts of the pan are open for canoeing. Powerboats are prohibited. The main threat to the continued health of the reserve’s ecology is runoff from fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides used on surrounding agricultural land.

Situated east of Springs in Gauteng, Blesbokspruit covers an area of around 60 square km and incorporates the Marievale bird sanctuary. It is home to an estimated 4,000 yellow-billed ducks and around 1,000 spur-winged geese in the dry winter season, when the water levels are artificially maintained and surrounding habitats dry up. However, disrupting the seasonal fluctuations of the wetland is thought to have resulted in a decline in the area’s biodiversity. Also, water being pumped into the Blesbokspruit is polluted with chemicals, primarily from Grootvlei mine, which has negatively impacted aquatic species upon which birds rely. Nevertheless, the Marievale Bird Sanctuary is a popular bird watching site with up to 300 bird species residing in, or visiting, the wetland throughout the year.