Wetlands, Biodiversity and the Ramsar Convention


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biobook.jpg (30422 bytes)Wetlands, Biodiversity and the Ramsar Convention: the role of the Convention on Wetlands in the Conservation and Wise Use of Biodiversity

edited by A. J. Hails

Ramsar Convention Bureau
Ministry of Environment and Forest, India
1996 [1997]

Published by the Ramsar Convention Bureau, Gland, Switzerland, with the support of:

  • the General Directorate of Natural Resources and Environment, Ministry of the Walloon Region, Belgium
  • the Royal Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Denmark
  • the National Forest and Nature Agency, Ministry of the Environment and Energy, Denmark
  • the Ministry of Environment and Forests, India
  • the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, Sweden

Copyright © Ramsar Convention Bureau, 1997

Reproduction of this publication for educational and other non-commercial purposes is authorised without prior perinission from the copyright holder, providing that full acknowledgement is given.

Reproduction for resale or other commercial purposes is prohibited without the prior written permission of the copyright holder.

The views of the authors expressed in this work do not necessarily reflect those of the Ramsar Convention Bureau or of the Ministry of the Environment of India.

Note: the designation of geographical entities in this book, and the presentation of material, do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the Ranasar Convention Bureau concerning the legal status of any country, territory, or area, or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.

Citation: Halls, A.J. (ed.), 1997. Wetlands, Biodiversity and the Ramsar Convention: The Role of the Convention on Wetlands in the Conservation and Wise Use of Biodiversity. Ramsar Convention Bureau, Gland, Switzerland.

ISBN 2-940073-22-8

Design: Centre for Environment Education, Amnedabad, India

Cover photographs, clockwise from left to right: Lake Gregory, Australia. Photo: Stuart A. Halse Fishing community at Lake George, Uganda. Photo: Paul Mafabi White-faced Tree Ducks at Djoudj National Bird Park, Senegal. Photo: Seydina Issa Sylla

Printed by : Swift Press Pvt. Ltd. Ahmedabad

Available from: Ramsar Convention Bureau, Rue Mauverney 28, CH-1196 Gland, Switzerland, Fax: +41 22,999,0169, e-mail: ramsar@hq.iucn.org or IUCN Publications Services Unit, 219c Huntingdon Road, Cambridge CB3 ODL, United Kingdom, Fax: +44 (1)223 277175, e-mail: books@iucn.org.


Wetlands are among the most productive life-support systems in the world and are of immense socio-economic and ecological importance to mankind. They are critical for the maintenance of biodiversity and perform a great role in the biosphere. Ironically, wetlands have been perceived as wastelands associated with disease, difficulty and danger. Emphasizing the negative impacts and ignoring their importance, these habitats were considered obstacles in the path of progress and hence drained, filled, despoiled and degraded for economic gains. The wetland loss has been responsible for bringing to the verge of extinction countless species of animals and plants. Inadequate understanding of the crucial role and utility of wetlands is a matter of serious concern.

Recognizing the importance of wetland resources, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar, 1971) has been instrumental in world wide action at the governmental level for conservation and wise use of wetlands. In its first 25 years, the Ramsar Convention has played an important role in promoting awareness of wetlands and providing technical support to governments for conservation and management of these ecosystems on a sound ecological basis. By implementing the Strategic Plan recently adopted by the 6th Conference of Contracting Parties, the Ramsar Convention's work will become more closely related to the broader concerns of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Commission on Sustainable Development.

I am happy to note that the RamsarConvention towards its 25 year celebration has brought out this publication on Wetland Biodiversity. The publication covers a wide range of issues relating to the status, diversity, conservation issues, policies and management aspects related to wetland biodiversity for all the seven regions of the world as identified by the Ramsar Convention. The overview of wetland biodiversity followed by some case studies from each of these regions and the role of the Ramsar Convention to promote conservation of wetlands are highlighted in the publication.

I hope that the publication would be useful to conservationists, policy planners, researchers and other interested groups.

Captain Jai Narain Prasad Nishad
Minister, Environment and Forests, India


This publication could not have come to its successful conclusion without the assistance, both technical and logistical, of many individuals. Initial contacts with case study authors were aided by Roger Jaensch, Ilona Lodzina, and James McCuaig. Particular thanks are extended to Pablo Canevari, Pam Cromarty, Joanna Ellison, Wendy Evans, Max Finlayson, Stuart Halse, Roger Jaensch, Magnus Ngoile, Janet Owen, and Allan Smith for their time and expertise in reviewing various sections of the text.

Ramsar's Secretary General, Delmar Blasco, ably led the Bureau staff in their supportive role throughout the preparation ofthe text and, in particular, thanks are due to the Bureau's Technical Officers, Montserrat Carbonell, Tim Jones, Tom Kabii, and Satoshi Kobayashi, and the Bureau's Senior Policy Advisor, Mike Smart, for their technical help and advice. Thanks are also due to Dwight Peck who prepared the maps and gave invaluable assistance with the production of the text, Valerie Higgins who helped in the final preparation of the text, and Mireille Katz who gave constant support and encouragement throughout the project. Many other people have helped in various small but significant ways and I am indebted to them all.

The Ramsar Bureau extends its thanks to the many individuals who willingly provided photographic material for the publication and to Dr. C. L. Trisal, Ministry of the Environment and Forests, India, who gave considerable assistance in the production of the book.

Sandra Hails

Editor's Note


Since birds are both conspicuous and well studied components of wetland animal communities they are frequently mentioned in the chapters which follow. As a consequence it was decided to standardise the scientific names of the species, avoiding some of the regional variations which would otherwise have arisen. We used as our standard text:

Sibley, Charles G. and Monroe Jr, Burt L. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale University Press, New Haven & London.

To preserve the regional character of the chapters, we left the common names of birds as they were defined by the authors; this has produced some inconsistencies between chapters. We encouraged authors to include common names of both animals and plants wherever possible but since the latter are less frequently used by botanists, they do not always accompany the scientific names of the plants.

Conservation Status

Many authors made reference to the number of threatened or endangered animal species recorded in the large number of wetlands referred to in this publication. Since this was variable, reflecting local, national or regional levels of threat, we attempted to make the statements more clear and furthermore to highlight the number of wetland animal species which are considered globally threatened. Thus we have indicated within the text those species which appear in the 1994 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. The full reference for this publication is:

Groombridge, B. (ed.). 1993. 1994 Red List of Threatened Animals. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, U.K.

In the European chapter we deviated slightly from this system by identifying those birds species which were considered of Global Conservation Concern or which had an Unfavourable Conservation Status in Europe in BirdLife International's 1994 assessment of birds in Europe, i.e. those that were included in Categories 1-3. The full reference for this publication is:

Tucker, G.M. and Heath, M.F. 1994. Birds in Europe: their Conservation Status. Cambridge, U.K.: BirdLife International (BirdLife Conservation Series No.3).


Captain Jai Narain Prasad Nishad, Minister of the Environment and Forests, India
Peter Bacon
Michael Smart
Tom Kabii
Holger Kolberg, Mike Griffin, Rob Simmons
Seydina Issa Sylla, Demba Baldé
Geoffrey I. Cowan
Fethi Ayache
Paul Mafabi
Faizal Parish
Zakir Hussain
Chen Kelin, Yan Chenggao
Lew Young
Arvinder S. Brar
Hasashi Shinsho
Ghaith Fariz, Yassin Al-Zhou'bi
Rebecca D'Cruz
Tim Jones
Gerald Dick
Ugis Bergmanis
Albert Martinez Vilalta, Francesco Giró
Jane Madgwick
Montserrat Carbonell
Sandra Caziani
Roberto P. Schlatter
Sue Wells
Luis Germán Naranjo
Michael B. McCoy
Kenneth W. Cox, Gilberto Cintrón
Jim Hawkings
Saskatchewan Wetland Conservation Corporation
Mauricio Cervantes
Dwight K. Shellman, Roy G. Darville
Roger Jaensch
Joanna Ellison
Stuart A. Halse
Brian Rance, Wynston Cooper
Edward Mayer, Susan Brown
The Ramsar Bureau



By Peter R. Bacon, Department of Zoology, University of the West Indies, Trinidad


The combination of aquatic and terrestrial conditions that produce what we describe as 'wet-lands' makes these ecosystems among the most complex in the world. Within a wetland, the environmental characteristics are determined largely by hydrologic processes which may exhibit daily, seasonal or longer-term fluctuations, in relation to regional climate and geographic location of the site. These factors produce a great range of wetland types globally, the majority of which have extremely variable conditions in the many habitats which they contain (Table 1). As a consequence, the variety of living organisms which has adapted to the different wetland habitats tends to be high, with all major groups of plants and animals present.

Table 1. Range of natural habitats within different temperate and tropical wetland ecosystems

Inland freshwater lake/USA (1).
Rock bottomUnconsolidated shore
Unconsolidated bottomEmergent marsh wetland
Aquatic bedForested wetland
Rocky shore.
Basinal freshwater wetland/Trinidad (2) .
Saturated forested wetlandIntermittently exposed unconsolidated shore
Tidally saturated forested wetlandSemi-permanently flooded aquatic bed
Permanently flooded emergent herbaceous wetlandChannels and pools
Seasonally flooded emergent herbaceous wetlandMarginal terra firma
.Inlier terra firma
.Secondary forest and disturbed marsh
Coastal wetland/Surinam (3).
Stagnant brackish and hypersaline poolsHigh Fiddler-crab zone of tidal mudflats
Drying up lagoonsFirm and tough clay banks
Tidal lagoonsLower foreshore sandy beach
Soft tidal mudflatsBack slope sandy beach
.Dry firm clay

1 Cowardin et al., 1992; 2 Bacon, 1988; 3 Swennen and Spaans, 1985

Box 1 documents the biodiversity of Nariva Swamp, Trinidad, exemplifying the variety of organisms occurring at just one site. The remainder of this chapter examines the factors responsible for the biodiversity of wetlands, such as Nariva Swamp, and the components of such biodiversity. By reference to several tropical and temperate sites, it considers some of the ecological and economic implications of loss of this biodiversity and concludes by discussing why the protection of wetland biodiversity is of both national and international importance.

Diversity and Productivity of Wetland Plants

A variety of topographic gradients exist in wetlands and these influence the nature of the colonising vegetation. Gradients exist between terrestrial uplands and flooded basins, lakes or river beds. In coastal situations they occur in relation to tidal fluctuations which produce great habitat variability on the shoreline (e.g. Table 1), as they do across lagoons and the zones of nearshore coral reefs. Wetland vegetation may respond to the topography and hydrology with a distinct zonation pattern formed by the dominant plant species, particularly in tidal situations, or produce a complex mosaic of plant communities around minor local variations in height.

bio2.jpg (19154 bytes)Zonation patter in a coastal wetlands, Carriacou: from land in foreground through salina, black mangrove, red mangrove and tidal channel to the open sea. (Photo: Peter Bacon)  

Further variability is introduced to inland wetlands by seasonal fluctuations in the rainfall or inundation pattern. The area covered by a wetland may expand and contract with the seasons and thus produce a border of plant communities adapted to alternate flooded and dry conditions. The 'varzea' wetlands of the Amazon floodplain, for example, extend for hundreds of kilometres and show a distinct change in the degree of adaptation of the plant species as one goes from the permanent river channel to the upland terra firma. In temperate wetlands, spring flood and summer drawdown introduce a similar variability in terms of the nature and availability of plant habitats. As a result, wetlands support diverse plant communities, particularly the inland wetlands associated with major drainage systems in both tropical and temperate regions. The US National List of plant species that occur in wetlands compiled by Reed (1988) included 6,728 species. This diversity is reflected at individual sites, such as the 243km2 Cache River-Cypress Creek wetland, a Ramsar site in Illinois, USA, where 138 woody plants, 251 non-woody vascular (flowering) plants and 11 ferns were present (USFWS, 1994). However, under more extreme conditions, such as the arctic Tundra, high mountain peat bogs and hypersaline saltmarshes in the dry tropics, the diversity is lower, even though a range of highly specialized plants will be present.


Within its 60 km2 basin on the east coast of the small tropical island of Trinidad, the Nariva Swamp contains some 15 distinct communities of flowering plants with over 300 species. The plants range from submerged and rooted aquatic plants in flooded marsh areas, through stands of freshwater swamp forest on elevated banks and channel margins, to mangroves lining tidal channels on the seaward side. The plant communities form the basis of a food web supporting more than 600 species of animals (microfauna and meiofauna not included).

Range of plant communities in Nariva Swamp

Mangal(Sclerophyll, brackish water forest; dominated by mangroves)
Swamp Wood(Orthophyll, freshwater forest), Mixed Swamp Wood, Immortelle Swamp Wood
Palm Swamp Forest(Megaphyll, freshwater forest; dominated by palms), Moriche Palm Swamp Forest, Royal Palm Swamp Forest, Roseau Palm Swamp Forest
EVERGREEN SEASONAL FOREST (on islands and wetland margins)
SEMI-EVERGREEN SEASONAL FOREST(on islands and wetland margins)
LITTORAL WOODLAND (Tree vegetation on seaward border)
MARSH Sedge Marsh (Cyperus), Aroid Marsh (Montrichardia), Reed Marsh (Phragmites), Floating Marsh (Water Hyacinth, Water Fern, lilies)

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Freshwater habitats: Open channel bordered by low marsh with swamp forest in the background, Nariva, Trinidad. (Photo: Peter Bacon)

Animal Groups and Species Recorded at Nariva Swamp

Insects2439 & larvae*0234

- waterbirds 32



* Larvae of non-aquatic insects(Source: Bacon et al., 1979)

Many wetland plants, or hydrophytes, grow in dense and prolific stands. For example, in Papyrus Cyperus papyrus swamps in Lake Naivasha, Kenya, Jones (1983) reported a harvestable standing crop of 30 tonnes per hectare compared with only 10 tonnes per hectare of grass from the finest European pastures. After harvest, this amount of Papyrus biomass was replaced in about nine months. Table 2 shows that many other types of wetlands are highly productive. The ready availability of water, which transports nutrients and removes waste products, and the frequent association between plant roots and microscopic organisms able to use nitrogen, allow wetland plants to grow rapidly and produce large quantities of organic matter. In tropical wetland plants, such as mangroves, this primary production can go on all year and reach levels comparable to the most intensively mechanised agricultural production, for example sugar cane crops. Plants play a critical role in the structure and productivity of coral reefs in nearshore wetland environments. In many areas, the reefs can be described as 'cor-algal' reefs because of the close association between the corals (animals) and species of algae (plants). Other algae living in the coral tissues aid in the production of organic matter and are largely responsible, thus, for the high productivity of the reefs.

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An aerial view of seasonal drawdown zone on a lake margin. (Photo: Peter Bacon)

Table 2: Productivity of selected wetland ecosystems

Wetland typeLocationAnnual production, tonnes per hectare per year (above ground only)
Estuarine mangroveSri Lanka12
Tidal saltmarshLouisiana, USA14
Riparian forestLouisiana, USA14
Freshwater (reed) marshDenmark14
Freshwater (Papyrus) marshKenya30
Freshwater (reed) marshWisconsin, USA34
Tropical seagrass bedCaribbean70
(Sources: Amarasinghe and Balasubramanian, 1992; Hopkinson et al., 1980; Conners and Day, 1976; Anderson, 1976; Jones, 1983; Klopatek, 1978; Vicente, 1992)

Diversity of Animals in Wetlands

The species diversity and high production levels of wetland plants support even more diverse animal communities. The vegetation distribution patterns and water level fluctuations make a range of continuously changing wetland habitats available at different times of the year to aquatic, terrestrial and arboreal animals. Wetlands support a wide variety of grazing and browsing animals, including several large mammals such as African Buffalo Syncerus caffer and Hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius in Africa, Capybara Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris and manatee Trichecus spp. in the Neotropics, Asian Water Buffalo Bubalus bubalis in Asia and Moose Alces alces in North America and Eurasia. Many species of rodent, such as the beaver Castor spp., Muskrat Ondatra zibethicus and Nutria Myocastor coypus in North America and Europe also depend on wetlands. A number of invertebrates, particularly snails and crustaceans, and some fish, such as Grass Carp Ctenopharygodon idella, graze on water plants and convert these to animal biomass, in some cases impoverishing wetland vegetation. Herbivorous diets are often generalized, but some South American fish feed exclusively on fruits from swamp forest trees and, thus, aid in seed dispersal. On coral reefs, a variety of green, red and brown seaweeds provides food for a great diversity of invertebrates and fish. Some of these, such as damselfish (Pomacentridae), behave like gardeners by protecting and trimming the plants that they hide among and feed upon. The range of plant species in the different wetlands, and their flowers, fruits and seeds, ensures a rich diversity of associated animals.

However, much of the vegetable material produced by wetland plants does not enter food chains directly. In mangrove swamps, for example, only about 10% of leaf production is grazed by snails, crabs and insects, with the remaining 90% falling into the water where it decomposes. Decomposition is brought about initially by microbes, largely marine bacteria and fungi, which break up the leaves and other plant parts. Microbes not only reduce the vegetable matter to smaller and smaller particles of detritus, but they increase the protein content by their presence and make the particles increasingly attractive to a wide variety of aquatic invertebrates. Similar processes occur in other types of wetlands, particularly many inland and tidal types in which decaying plant materials tend to accumulate before they can be consumed. The litterfall of dead leaves, flowers, fruits and twigs may be up to 17 tonnes per hectare per year in riverine and estuarine wetlands (Lugo et al., 1990). The result of such litterfall is the production of a complex detritus-based food web which supports a great diversity of invertebrates, fish and amphibians, with fishes, frogs and toads being characteristically associated with wetlands. Larger predatory reptiles, birds and some mammals feed on the abundant food resources supported by decomposing plant parts. Characteristic wetland predators include crocodilians, freshwater turtles, the Anaconda Eunectes murinus, otters, dolphins and waterbirds. Wetlands of the Ebro Delta in Spain support 48 resident species of fish, 29 species of amphibians and reptiles, 27 mammals and 46 resident or migratory birds (MAPA, 1991) and this important Ramsar site forms one of the European case studies.

Many different kinds of birds with a wide range of feeding and breeding habits are found in wetlands. Among the 104 species recorded in the Black River Morass, Jamaica, were 11 seabirds, 36 waterfowl, 7 birds of prey, a kingfisher and 49 forest birds (Bacon, 1987); while 251 species have been found in the Cache River Basin, Illinois, USA (USFWS, 1994). According to Weigers (1990) some 40 species of birds commonly breed in the somewhat restricted wetland forests in Western Europe. In the case study of the St. Lucia estuarine system of South Africa (a Ramsar site), some 350 species of birds are reported, including 90 species of waterfowl, such as ducks, geese, two species of flamingo and 15 species of herons and egrets.

bio7.jpg (12531 bytes)An aquatic algal-invertebrate community on a mangrove root, Jamaica (Photo: Peter Bacon)

Many wetlands have such abundant food resources (both living plants and their decomposition products) that they can be utilized by species other than the permanent residents. Entry by 'visitor species' serves to increase further the diversity of animals that may be seen in wetlands from time to time. The life cycles of many species of marine shrimps include a period spent feeding in coastal estuaries or marshes. Several marine fish spawn in mangrove swamps or use these habitats as a nursery for their young because of the ready availability of small food materials and the security provided by mangrove roots. In addition, mangrove swamps are used for nursery and feeding by a range of coral reef-inhabiting species, while the reefs provide sheltered conditions along the coast which encourage mangrove establishment; this suggests that these associated wetland types are mutually supportive.

Migration into wetlands to benefit from food or favourable habitat conditions does not occur only in aquatic species, such as shrimp and fish. Many freshwater environments show seasonal fluctuations in water level which influence grazing and other feeding behaviour. Seasonal drawdown in water level permits the movement of animals, including livestock and their herders, into wetland basins, where they utilize the abundant, lush plant resources. In the Nariva Swamp, Red Brocket Deer Mazama americana, Collared Peccary Tayassu tajacu and Agouti Dasyprocta aguti and smaller rodents migrate from the swamp margins and interior islands during the dry season and occupy habitats populated by aquatic species at other times. In effect, any area of the swamp basin will support two different faunas at different times of year, thus increasing the diversity of animals which can be supported by one set of resources. Movement of herders into wetlands as flood waters retreat and fresh grazing areas become available, is discussed in the case study of the sebkhas of North Africa in a later chapter.

Many wetlands provide habitat for other important faunal components, serving as resting and feeding stations along migratory flyways for ducks, waders and shorebirds which benefit from the diversity of food organisms. The seasonal influx of passage migrants serves to increase the biodiversity of many wetland sites. In their study of coastal wetland habitats in Surinam, South America, Swennen and Spaans (1985) found more than 75% of the foraging waterfowl were migrants of northern origin, with only a minority being local resident species. For the eight families studied in an area of just 736ha of these rich and varied coastal wetlands they found 15,678 waterfowl belonging to 40 species dependent on the wetlands during the tropical part of their life cycle. This example shows that the migratory component of the bird life of wetlands is important, not only in terms of species diversity but in numbers of individuals. Similarly, the 24,000ha Cache River Basin in North America provided wintering habitat annually for nearly 200,000 Canada Geese Branta canadensis, 35,000 Snow Geese Anser caerulescens and 26,000 ducks which would breed further north (USFWS, 1994). The value of wetlands as habitat for migratory birds is documented many times in the regional case studies.

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Wetlands support a variety of waterbirds - pelicans and sandpipers at Banc d'Arguin National Park, Mauritania. (Photo: J. Trotignon, Ramsar Library)

The Economic Value of Wetland Biodiversity

Wetland plants are a major source of materials on which large numbers of people depend, particularly in the subsistence economies of tropical countries. In addition to the variety of goods produced (Table 3), the quantities exploited are impressive. Mangrove trees annually produce 7,400m3 of charcoal and 400 tonnes of bark for tanning in Panama and 120,000m3 of firewood in Honduras, while 80% of households in Nicaragua use mangrove wood for cooking (Lacerda, 1993).

Throughout the world, wetlands produce a range of animals of commercial importance, particularly as food, skins and for sport and the ecotourism business. Thus, inland wetlands in Africa produce over 1.5 million tonnes of fish annually, with a further 1.0 million tonnes from coastal marine areas. At least one million fishermen and perhaps five million workers in processing, transportation and market activities depend on these fisheries (Bernacsek, 1992). Twenty percent of commercial fish in Australia are caught in mangrove swamps; 45% were strictly dependent on mangrove resources, while 35% of mangrove dwelling species were food for commercial marine species (Robertson and Duke, 1987).

Table 3. Economic uses of tropical wetland plants (not in order of importance)

Construction materials (Housing & industry)

Scaffolding, House beams & rafters, Flooring & panelling, Thatch & matting, Chipboard, Furniture, Fencing, Bridges, Posts, Tool handles, Water pipes, Packing boxes, Boats, Dock Pilings, Railroad ties, Mine pit props


Medicines (from fruit, sap, bark, leaves)

Diuretics, Purgatives, Astringents, Febrifuges, Vitamines (mainly B group)

Treatments for: Arthritis, Leprosy, Catarrh, Rheumatism, Skin rashes, Haemorrhage, Haemorrhoids, Snake bite, Tuberculosis


Firewood, Alcohol, Charcoal, Wood (curing fish, smoking rubber & firing bricks), Peat

Textile & leather craft

Synthetic fibre (rayon), Dyes for cloth, Tannin for leather preparation (tanning)

Fishing materials

Poles for fish traps, Branches - fish attracting devices, Floats, Fish poisons, Dye for nets, Tannin - net & line preservation

Agricultural, horticultural & aquacultural products

Fodder, Fish feeds, Green manure, Peat/compost/fibre, Landscape plants, Plantings for coastal protection, Ornamental pond plants, Insect repellent

Food & beverages

Sugar, Vinegar, Honey, Alcohol, Cooking oil, Tea substitutes, Fermented drinks, Masticatories, Condiments from bark, Vegetables from fruit, propagules & leaves


Contraceptives, Aphrodisiacs, Cigar substitutes, Drilling lubricant, Matchsticks, Paper (various kinds), Hairdressing oil, Waxes, Incense, Glues

World trade in crocodilians from tropical and sub-tropical wetlands peaked in the 1960s at over 10 million skins per year, declining to a present volume of 1.5 million. In Venezuela alone the harvest of caiman skins and meat was valued at US$9.0 million in 1989 (Thorbjarnarson, 1991). The major part of bird hunting in all parts of the world is based on wetland habitats, with significant numbers taken in some areas (Table 4). Of the millions of fish, waterfowl and mammals hunted in North America, all the fish and more than 50% of other groups come from wetlands. In the Caribbean, parks and protected areas containing wetlands have functioned as major tourist attractions for many years, particularly for their bird life. They include the Caroni Swamp, Trinidad, the Flamingo Sanctuary, Bonaire, the Lagoons of Humacao, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands National Park, which includes extensive shorebird and coral reef habitat. Annual recreational values of Caroni Swamp and the Virgin Islands National Park have been valued at US$1.0 and US$23.4 million respectively (Bacon, 1987). The major part of the foreign exchange earnings of the Turks & Caicos Islands comes from tourism based on coral reef diving. The large sport hunting industry and the rapidly expanding ecotourism sector have a multiplier effect on the economy through expenditure on transport, food, camping gear, hunting and fishing gear, license fees, photographic supplies, visitor facilities and related goods and services. Wetland faunas are, thus, of major economic importance globally.

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Crocodilians play an important ecological role in wetlands: their meat and skins are of commercial value as well. (Photo: Peter Bacon)

Table 4: Estimated numbers of wetland birds killed by hunters in selected parts of Asia

Country/RegionBird GroupNumbers per annum
China (Lake Shengjn)Coots3,900
Japan (1981)Ducks694,646
USSR (E. Siberia)Ducks3,420,000
West Java (Cirebon)Crakes and rails170,000

(After Parish and Howes, 1990)

Not all wetlands produce all types of resources, of course, but most will produce a wide variety, particularly larger sites like the Pantanal of Brazil, the Florida Everglades, the Kafue Flats in Zambia and the 6,000km2 Sundarbans in Bangladesh and India which are the subject of a case study. The economic value of many wetlands is decreased by the presence of noxious animals, particularly mosquitoes, sandflies and midges, some of which act as vectors of disease. There can be a tremendous diversity and abundance of these insects: some 84 mosquito, 13 sandfly and 21 horsefly species are reported from the freshwater Nariva Swamp, Trinidad (Bacon et al., 1979), while 183,000 individual mosquitoes of a single species were caught in a light trap one night in a Cayman Islands mangrove swamp (Brunt and Davies, 1994). However, their nuisance potential must not be allowed to serve as an excuse to destroy their important role as links in aquatic, and to a lesser extent terrestrial food webs, particularly their larvae which are eaten by commercially important fish.

Links Between Wetlands and Other Habitats

In addition to direct economic values, through the provision of a range of goods and services, wetlands are of great indirect value through linkages with associated aquatic ecosystems. As indicated above, many species use wetlands for nursery purposes. In addition, the transfer of organic matter and biota by downstream flow or tidal export influences nutrient status and food webs outside the wetland itself. In Australia, Banana Prawns Penaeus merguiensis require mangrove-lined estuaries if they are to complete their life cycles (Robertson and Duke, 1987); in Colombia, the Cienaga Grande lagoon is thought to be responsible for rearing 70% of the fish harvested on the Caribbean coast (Bossi and Cintron, 1990); the organic matter and nursery environment of the Laguna de Terminos, Mexico, support a coastal fishery producing annually 15,000 tonnes of shrimp, 13,000 tonnes of shellfish and 122,000 tonnes of fish (Yañez-Arancibia et al., 1992). Mention has been made above of migratory waterfowl utilization of wetlands as staging posts, an example of a wetland in one country supporting the biodiversity and commercial harvest of resources in another, often in a different biome in a distant country. In Jamaica, the close association between mangroves and coral reefs, in terms of exchanges of nutrients and biota between the two wetland types, suggests that the presence of mangroves greatly influences the health and productivity of the reefs which are the mainstay of the artisanal fishing industry.

The Consequences of Loss of Wetland Biodiversity

It is obvious from the large number of resource organisms mentioned earlier, that loss of wetland species has economic implications. The livelihood and culture of large numbers of people, in almost every country of the world, will be endangered if wetland resources become further depleted. A major portion of fisheries production, most hunting, much forest production and a significant part of ecotourism will be lost worldwide, as well as elements of heritage and environmental quality. It is important to stress, however, that it is not sufficient just to protect the populations of plants and animals that are directly exploited: their health and survival, or sustainability, depend on maintaining the whole complex of biodiversity that characterizes wetland ecosystems.

Commercially exploitable wetland plant and animal species will be available only if the biological processes which produce them are maintained. These include primary production, nutrient cycling, pollination, flowering, fruiting, decomposition, food web interactions, grazing, predation, immigration and emigration, to name a few. Hundreds of inter-related organisms take part in this gamut of processes and it is this diversity of wetland species which keeps these ecosystems in ecological equilibrium and makes them so productive. Loss of any link in the web of biodiversity will reduce the goods, functions and attributes of a wetland site (see Box 2). Decline in a wetland will impact on associated systems: loss of nursery habitat could reduce coastal fishery yields or loss of a wetland on a flyway could disrupt waterfowl migrations, threatening the capacity of individual birds to reproduce and eventually the survival of populations or species.

Finally, the real biodiversity of nature lies at the level of the genotype (the hereditary or genetic make-up). The variability, geographic dispersion and biological richness of wetlands globally mean that they contain a tremendous pool of genetic resources. This genetic diversity is important for a variety of reasons: it determines the ability of individuals and populations to adapt to changing environmental conditions, such as global warming or new diseases; it is essential for the continuing evolution of various species; it provides the basis for the selection and production of new resource organisms. Finally, it is also important for maintaining the distinctiveness of plants and animals in different locations which has implications for our appreciation of nature. Loss of wetland habitats, which contain so much of the world's plant and animal biodiversity, thus endangers the genetic resources on which our future prosperity depends.

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  • Amarasinghe, M.D. and Balasubramanian, S. 1992. Net primary productivity of two mangrove forest stands on the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka. Hydrobiologia, 247; 37- 48.
  • Anderson, F.O. 1976. Primary production in a shallow water lake with special reference to a reed swamp. Oikos, 27; 243-250.
  • Bacon, P.R. 1987. Use of wetlands for tourism in the Insular Caribbean. Annals of Tourism Research, 14; 104-117.
  • Bacon, P. R. 1988. Freshwater foodchains of Caribbean island wetlands. Acta Cientifica, 2(2-3); 74-93.
  • Bacon, P.R., Kenny, J.S., and Alkins, M.E. 1979. Studies on the Biological Resources of Nariva Swamp, Trinidad. Occasional Papers No. 4, Zoology Department, University of the West Indies, Trinidad.
  • Bernacsek, G.M. 1992. Research priorities in fisheries management as a tool for wetlands conservation and rural development in Africa. In Conservation and Development: The Sustainable Use of Wetland Resources. IUCN, Switzerland; 131-144.
  • Bossi, R. and Cintron, G. 1990. Mangroves of the Wider Caribbean: Towards Sustainable Management. Caribbean Conservation Association, UNEP and the Panos Institute.
  • Brunt, M.A. and Davies, J.E. 1994. Cayman Islands: Natural History and Biogeography. Kluwer Press.
  • Conner, W.H. and Day, J.W. 1976. Productivity and composition of a bald cypress - water tupelo site and a bottomland hardwood site in a Louisiana swamp. American Journal of Botany, 63; 1354-1364.
  • Cowardin, L.M., Carter, V., Golet, F.C. and LaRoe, E.T. 1992. Classification of Wetlands and Deepwater Habitats of the United States. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • Hopkinson, C.S., Gosselink, J.G. and Parrondo, P.T. 1980. Production of coastal Louisiana marsh plants calculated from phenometric techniques. Ecology, 61; 1091-1098.
  • Jones, M. 1983. Papyrus: A new fuel for the Third World. New Scientist, 17 August; 418-421.
  • Klopatek, J.M. 1978. Nutrient dynamics of freshwater riverine marshes and the role of emergent macrophytes. In Freshwater Wetlands: Ecological Processes and Management Potential. Academic Press; 195-216.
  • Lacerda, L.D. 1993. Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Mangrove Forests in Latin America and Africa Regions. International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems.
  • Lugo, A.E., Brinson, M. and Brown, S. 1990. Forested Wetlands. Ecosystems of the World, 15.
  • Lugo, A.E. and Snedaker, S.C. 1974. The ecology of mangroves. Annual Review Ecology and Systematics, 5.
  • MAPA 1991. Delta de Ebro. Report to the Ramsar Bureau, from Instituto Nacional para la Conservacion de la Naturaleza, Min. de Agricultura, Pesca y Alimentation, Madrid.
  • Parish, D. and Howes, J.R. 1990. Waterbird hunting and management in S.E. Asia. In: Matthews, G.V.T. (ed), Managing Waterfowl Populations. IWRB Special Publication No. 12; 128-131.
  • Reed, P.B. 1988. National List of Plant species that occur in Wetlands. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Biological Report, 88.
  • Robertson, A.I. and Duke, N.C. 1987. Mangroves as nursery sites: comparisons of the abundance and species composition of fish and crustaceans in mangroves and other nearshore habitats in tropical Australia. Marine Biology, 96; 193-205.
  • Swennen, C. and Spaans, A.L. 1985. Habitat use of feeding migratory and local Ciconiiform, Anseriform and Charadriiform birds in coastal wetlands of Surinam. Le Gerfaut, 75; 225-251.
  • Thorbjarnarson, J.B. 1991. An analysis of the Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus) Harvest Program in Venezuela. Neotropical Wildlife Use and Conservation, University of Chicago Press; 217-235.
  • USFWS. 1994. A joint venture proposal for designation as Wetlands of International Importance: The Cache River and Cypress Creek wetlands area of Southern Illinois. Report of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Illinois Department of Conservation.
  • Vicente, V.P. 1992. A summary of ecological information on the seagrass beds of Puerto Rico. Coastal Plant Communities of Latin America, Academic Press; 123-133.
  • Walsh, G.E. 1977. Exploitation of mangal. In: Wet Coastal Ecosystems, Ecosystems of the World, vol. 1; 347-362.
  • Wiegers, J. 1990. Forested wetlands of Western Europe. Forested Wetlands. Ecosystems of the World, 15; 407-436.
  • Yañez-Arancibia, A., Aguirre-Leon, A. and Soberon-Chavez, G. 1992. Estuarine-related fisheries in Terminos Lagoon and adjacent continental shelf (Southern Gulf of Mexico). Conservation and Development: The Sustainable Use of Wetland Resources. IUCN, Switzerland; 145-153.


Thanks are due to staff and associates of the Ramsar Bureau for comments on the text, to Scott Frazier (Ramsar/ Wetland Sites Officer) for providing some of the information presented here and to the University of the West Indies who supported field and library studies which produced the primary data for this chapter.



Its role in conservation and wise use of wetland biodiversity

By Michael Smart, Senior Policy Advisor, Ramsar Bureau, Switzerland

Intergovernmental Conventions on the Environment

The last 25 years have seen a growing consciousness, among the general public and at the highest political level, of the importance of environmental issues. The initial motive was a concern, often articulated in the first instance by individuals in the richer countries, for nature conservation issues, a recognition that certain plants and animals, formerly common, were decreasing or disappearing. This has evolved in the last few years, with increasing input from developing countries - where many people depend for their livelihood on the productivity and the biodiversity of their environment - into the realization, most memorably expressed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, that a healthy environment is important not only for birds, bees and flowers, but also for human well-being, in short that a healthy environment is an essential part of socio-economic development.

As a result of the pioneering action of these individuals, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) took up the environmental cause, and pressed governments for action. Governments then drew up legally binding conventions or treaties on environmental matters by which member states (or Contracting Parties) agree to take action in a specific environmental field. Thus the 1970s saw the creation of a number of conventions, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands being the first in 1971. The input of NGOs has always been essential in the development and implementation of international conventions and, in Ramsar's case, the role of BirdLife International (formerly ICBP), IUCN - the World Conservation Union, Wetlands International (formerly the Asian Wetland Bureau; the International Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau; and Wetlands for the Americas) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has been crucial. In the last few years, the second generation of international legal instruments has come into being. These newer conventions, building on the pioneer work of their predecessors, take a more holistic view of environmental issues. In an era convinced of the importance of market forces, they have mechanisms for financial support.

The opening chapter of this volume has presented the diversity and productivity of wetlands. The present chapter demonstrates how the Ramsar Convention or Convention on Wetlands contributes to conservation and wise use of wetland biodiversity, the direction Ramsar plans to take in the future and Ramsar's links with other environmental conventions, in particular the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

Ramsar - the Convention on Wetlands

Introduction: The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat was adopted at Ramsar, a city on the Iranian shores of the Caspian in 1971. The Convention was astonishingly far-sighted for its time, recognizing several important principles which are now widely accepted: the interdependence of Man and his environment; the fundamental ecological functions of wetlands as regulators of water regimes; and the value of wetlands in economic, cultural, scientific, and recreational terms. This concern with the functioning of wetlands, and how it affects mankind and his cultural and economic well-being, has become more and more relevant over the first 25 years of Ramsar and will undoubtedly be a major issue for the 21st century, when water supply will become even more crucial.

Although the Convention's original focus was on wetlands as a habitat for waterfowl, Ramsar has developed into an international instrument dealing with wetlands from a broader point of view. Ramsar remains the only international convention that concentrates on a particular type of ecosystem - wetlands - rather than on species or other issues. Such an approach is natural, given the widely held view that wetlands and forests are two of the most threatened ecosystems in world terms.

Ramsar establishes, for the first time in an international convention, two basic concepts:

dotgrdark.gif (905 bytes)The List of Wetlands of International Importance: a list of important sites proposed by member governments, who formally accept an obligation to maintain the ecological character of these sites.

dotgrdark.gif (905 bytes)The principle of wise use of all the wetlands in the territory of a Contracting Party. Wise use of wetlands is considered as synonymous with sustainable use, a term which has recently gained general currency.

Like any other convention, Ramsar is a living, evolving instrument. The emphasis in the early years was on listed sites, the flagship concept which attracted immediate attention and publicity. In recent years, the broader concept of wise use has become increasingly important, with the growing realization that listed sites cannot be conserved in a vacuum but are affected by decisions taken outside their boundaries; the crucial need is to integrate conservation and wise use of wetlands into national land use and water management strategies. While the Ramsar text sets out basic concepts, guidance is needed on how to put them into practice and how to adapt them to changing world perceptions. In its first 25 years, Ramsar member states have, at their Conference of the Parties (normally held every three years), approved numerous interpretations of the text and mechanisms to make sure that the basic concepts of the Convention are effectively applied.

Definition of wetlands: An important feature of Ramsar is its approach to the once unfamiliar term 'wetlands'. The definition of wetlands in the first article of the Convention, one of the broadest possible, has been widely accepted:

'Wetlands are areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres.'

This definition encompasses coastal and shallow marine areas (including coral reefs), as well as river courses and temporary lakes or depressions in semi-arid zones.

Benefits and values of wetlands: The Ramsar 'Guidelines on wise use' provide a succinct account, for both decision-makers and the general public, of the benefits and values of wetlands which may be felt within the wetland itself or some way away from it (for example in the case of wetlands which absorb floods). The Guidelines summarize the benefits as follows:

  • sediment and erosion control;
  • flood control;
  • maintenance of water quality and abatement of pollution;
  • maintenance of surface and underground water supply;
  • support for fisheries, grazing and agriculture;
  • outdoor recreation and education for human society;
  • provision of habitat for wildlife, especially waterfowl;
  • contribution to climatic stability.

If the natural functions of wetlands are maintained, these benefits will accrue to human populations free of charge. Destruction of wetlands means either that these functions have to be provided artificially at considerable cost, or that the wetland has to be restored, which costs even more.

Listed sites: The best-known obligation of Ramsar member states is to include at least one wetland from their territory (which may be state or privately owned areas) in the List of Wetlands of International Importance. Wetlands on the List are often called 'Ramsar sites', an expression frequently used in this book. This is the traditional protected areas approach to conservation, elevated to an international level. Such sites are not merely a national park or reserve; governments accept an undertaking before the world community to maintain the ecological character of Ramsar sites thus making a direct contribution to the conservation of wetland biodiversity. As of 12 July 1996, the 93 Contracting Parties had designated 838 wetlands for the Ramsar List, covering an area of some 540,000km2, i.e. roughly the size of France or Kenya. [As of September 2004: 141 Parties and 1375 sites]

The Convention has established a number of measures to guide member states in carrying out this obligation to list and conserve wetlands of international importance. Among them are:

dotred.gif (924 bytes)The Criteria for Identifying Wetlands of International Importance, which identify sites that could be included in the List; actual designation for the Ramsar List remains the prerogative of each Contracting Party concerned. The various categories of criteria, which have been developed over the years and are still evolving, cover: representative or unique wetland ecosystems; wetlands of value because of the diversity of their plant or animal life or because they support threatened or endemic species; and wetlands which are of particular value for waterfowl (high numbers of a range of species or 1% of the total numbers of one species, sub-species or population), or for fish.

These criteria have been used by Ramsar's NGO partner organizations to compile regional directories of potential Ramsar sites for Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Oceania, South and Central America and the Caribbean, and a regional inventory is in preparation for the Commonwealth of Independent States. Meanwhile many Contracting Parties (e.g. Australia, France, Italy) have used the criteria to draw up their own national scientific wetland inventories.

dotred.gif (924 bytes)A simple, worldwide Classification System for Wetland Types which identifies 35 kinds of wetlands, together with a wetland datasheet, so that all the world's Ramsar sites can be classified and described in a standard fashion. These descriptions are stored in the Ramsar Database, which can be used to analyse widely differing wetlands across the world, and as a basis for advice to wetland managers, drawing on experience at comparable sites in other corners of the world.

dotred.gif (924 bytes)The Montreux Record, which identifies Ramsar sites whose biodiversity is under particular pressure in the face of technological developments, pollution or other human interference. Inclusion on the Record is effected by member states, in consultation with the Ramsar Bureau (or secretariat), and highlights sites where urgent action is needed, possibly with the help of other member states. As of 12 July 1996, the Montreux Record included 65 Ramsar sites, an indication of the difficulty of maintaining the ecological character of wetlands. One UK site, on the Scottish island of Islay, was included on the Montreux Record because proposed reclamation and road building could have led to destruction of a considerable portion of the site; after extensive discussion and study, the plans were cancelled, and the site was removed from the Record. The Djoudj National Bird Park, a Ramsar site in Senegal noted for its high numbers and diversity of waterbirds, was included in the Montreux Record because of fears that water inflow would be restricted; the site was removed from the Record after arrangements had been made to guarantee quantity of water supply, but has since been reinserted because the quality of the water changed and the very fresh water has led to clogging of the wetland with floating weeds.

dotred.gif (924 bytes)The Management Guidance Procedure (formerly known as the Monitoring Procedure) which enables the Ramsar Bureau to organize missions to visit Ramsar sites (particularly those on the Montreux Record) and to offer advice. The Procedure has been operated at more than 30 Ramsar sites and a number of notable successes in conservation of wetland biodiversity have been achieved: at the Nariva Swamp in Trinidad & Tobago, conflicts over use of parts of the area for agricultural production have been resolved, and a general management plan involving local communities is being carried out; in the March/Thaya valley in Austria, a plan for the wise use of the whole area has been approved and implemented; in South Africa, the Ramsar monitoring mission to St Lucia contributed to the national investigation into the effects of dune mining, which resulted in a government decision not to allow mining of rare metals in the Ramsar site, an activity which would have had a direct effect on the diversity of the flora and fauna.

Wise use of wetlands: In addition to its involvement in listed sites, Ramsar from the outset adopted the concept of wise use of wetlands. Ramsar defines this concept as follows:

'The wise use of wetlands is their sustainable utilization for the benefit of mankind in a way compatible with the maintenance of the natural properties of the ecosystem'.

Essentially, the wise use concept means that the natural productivity and biodiversity at a site can be utilized as long as the basic ecological functioning of the wetland is not disturbed. A fine example of the wise use of a wetland is the Sundarbans, a mangrove forest shared by India and Bangladesh, part of which has been designated as a Ramsar site. Many thousands of local people exploit the natural productivity of this wetland, harvesting mangrove trees, palm leaves, fish and other natural resources, yet the Sundarbans remains one of the richest wildlife areas in the world. Another example is the Wadden Sea, Europe's biggest estuary, which is located in a densely populated area and shared by Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. The entire estuary is a Ramsar site and the three states have developed a joint management concept, based on wise use; it aims at controlling hunting, oil exploration, fisheries (especially shellfish) and tourism, and reconciling them with nature conservation.

bio22.jpg (22252 bytes)The Angélique Creek in the coastal marshes of Les Marais de Kaw, a Ramsar site in French Guiana.  This wetland meets several of the Criteria for Identifying Wetlands of International Importance being noted for its population of globally threatened Black Caiman, for the several hundred thousand migratory waterbirds which nest in North America and occur here during migration and wintering periods, and also for its populations of nesting herons, spoonbills, and ibises. (Photo: Olivier Tostain)

The wise use concept does not, however, relate only to actions at site level. The Convention has approved Guidelines on Implementation of the Wise Use Concept and Additional Guidance on Wise Use which encourage Ramsar members to adopt National Wetland Policies, thus recognizing the need for broad policy work on wetlands at the highest decision-making level. The adoption of National Wetland Policies demands a thorough review of a state's legislation, institutions and practices relating to wetlands and, although rather few states have adopted such policies at the present time, positive steps towards this goal are in evidence: Canada has adopted a Federal Wetland Policy, Uganda has recently adopted its national policy, while other states, notably Australia, Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago and several states of Africa and the Mediterranean, reported on their progress towards a National Wetland Policy at the Brisbane Conference in March 1996.

Finance for wetland work: Over the years Ramsar has generated funds for wetland conservation and wise use projects in developing countries and states whose economy is in transition. Such funds have been raised in two ways: by channelling bilateral assistance through the Ramsar Bureau, for example, the preparation of management plans for the Ramsar sites of Paracas in Peru and Caño Negro in Costa Rica, funded by the USA, or the development of a national wetland plan in Bulgaria, funded by France; and via the Small Grants Fund (formerly the Convention's Wetland Conservation Fund) which has supported 10 to 12 projects every year since 1991, each costing a maximum of 40,000 Swiss francs. Projects financed by the fund have included an inventory of Tunisian wetlands, training activities in Kenya and India, and management of listed wetlands in Brazil, Honduras, Indonesia, and Niger.

bio24.jpg (12180 bytes)A stand of Nipah Palms lines a riverbank in the Sundarbans.  The leaves of this palm are used for thatching and are sustainably harvested here. (Photo: Zakir Hussain)

Ramsar - Future Directions

A mission statement for the Convention was adopted at Brisbane, thus providing a focus for the activities of the Convention from 1997-2002. It states that:

‘The Convention's mission is the conservation and wise use of wetlands by national action and international cooperation as a means to achieving sustainable development throughout the world'.

A number of objectives and actions have been identified to help Ramsar achieve its mission in this period and some of the most important are highlighted below:

dotbluedark.gif (919 bytes)The Convention can only be fully effective if as many states as possible become Contracting Parties, so there will be a strong drive to recruit new Ramsar members, particularly in under-represented regions such as the Caribbean, the Near East, Southern Africa and the Pacific, with a goal of 120 members by 2002.

dotbluedark.gif (919 bytes)Since National Wetland Policies are fundamental to the aim of achieving wise use, emphasis will be placed on establishment of a larger number of National Wetland Policies.

dotbluedark.gif (919 bytes)Implementation of the Convention will focus on the role of wetlands in the context of land-use planning (especially in coastal zone planning and river basin management). Special attention will be given to the relationship between wetlands and water resource management. For many developing countries, water will be one of the scarcest and most valuable resources in the 21st century, yet wetland conservation and water supply, which are very closely related subjects, are often treated as totally unrelated sectors.

dotbluedark.gif (919 bytes)More precise ways of calculating the real economic values of wetland functions will be provided, greater attention will be paid to wetland restoration and rehabilitation, to empowerment of local communities in wetland management and to involvement of the private sector in wetland issues.

dotbluedark.gif (919 bytes)Another major task will be to build on the work of regional wetland inventories and individual wetland scientists, to provide a better overall definition of global wetland resources and hence the scope of the Convention's work: how much wetland is there in the world? how many Ramsar sites could and should there be? how much work is needed for management and restoration of wetlands?

dotbluedark.gif (919 bytes)As for Ramsar sites, attention will be paid both to quantity and quality. The aim is to reach 1,000 Ramsar sites by the year 2002, and to ensure that they are properly managed (50% should have management plans by then), and that their ecological character is maintained and monitored. In future greater emphasis will be placed on designating sites from certain wetland types hitherto given insufficient attention, notably peatlands, mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs.

dotbluedark.gif (919 bytes)Greater public support for wetland conservation and wise use will be sought by more intensive efforts to raise awareness of wetland values and functions. A natural corollary of this approach will be to reinforce the capacity of institutions, especially in developing countries, through training programmes, and to ensure that development agencies, both multilateral and bilateral, take account of wetland values, a part of the task of raising awareness.

dotbluedark.gif (919 bytes)Ramsar receives many demands for funding of projects on conservation and wise use and an attempt will be made to increase the resources available to the Small Grants Fund to a million dollars a year. In addition, the Bureau will act as a catalyst, identifying funding sources for projects on conservation and wise use of wetlands, whether with bilateral or multilateral funding agencies, private sector sources, foundations or NGO bodies.

Ramsar and Other Environmental Conventions

In its first 25 years, Ramsar has made a considerable contribution to the conservation and wise use of biological diversity in wetlands. The role played so far has been largely in terms of promoting awareness of wetlands and providing technical support for governments. The fact that the word wetland has gained such currency is an indication of success in awareness campaigns. The designation of over 800 wetlands, covering 540,000km2 worldwide, for the Ramsar List, and the increasing efforts to conserve their ecological character, are other positive signs. The growing recognition of the importance of wetlands, in terms both of productivity and biological diversity, is shown by the interest in wetlands of organizations such as the Organization for Economic Development (OECD), and by the growing number of states which integrate wetlands into national policy-making through National Wetland Policies.

With the increasing number of environmental conventions now in existence, the watchwords must be partnership and coordination. Links of course already exist between Ramsar and other international environmental conventions. Some famed wetlands - Everglades in USA, Doñana in Spain, Keoladeo (Bharatpur) in India, Banc d'Arguin in Mauritania, Ichkeul in Tunisia - figure on the lists of both Ramsar and the 1972 World Heritage Convention. The 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), deals with trade in a number of wetland species, and so has strong links with Ramsar. There is obvious potential for cooperation between Ramsar (which is concerned with the habitats of species linked to wetlands and particularly waterfowl) and the 1979 Bonn Convention on Migratory Species (which is concerned with the migratory species themselves). The recent adoption, under Bonn, of the 'Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds' opens the door for even broader cooperation, and there are prospects of similar agreements in other regions; thus the Ramsar Conference in Brisbane in March 1996, adopted the 'Brisbane Initiative' on the establishment of a network of listed sites along the East Asian-Australian flyway.

bio26.jpg (11950 bytes)Labrador Tea Ledum palustre, a shrub found within the Sphagnum dominated peat bog ecosystem at Kushiro Marsh. Ramsar will be placing more emphasis on the designation of peatlands as Ramsar sites in the future. (Photo: Hisashi Shinsho)

Nor are the opportunities to work with regional conventions overlooked: Ramsar cooperates with the Berne Convention on European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, with the European Commission's many initiatives for conservation of wetlands, and with the UNEP Regional Seas Conventions, notably in the Mediterranean and Caribbean. Thus in the Mediterranean, the European Commission provided much of the funding for the first phase of the 'MedWet' initiative, an innovative partnership between five European Union member governments, the Ramsar Bureau and a group of international and national NGOs, which drew up Mediterranean methodologies for conservation and wise use of Mediterranean wetlands; the second phase of MedWet is applying these methodologies in non-EU states of the Mediterranean, whilst a third phase will seek larger funding from Global Environment Facility (GEF) sources; meanwhile, at the Mediterranean Wetlands Conference in Venice in June 1996, a Mediterranean Wetland Strategy was endorsed, and Ramsar and the MedWet partners are collaborating with the Barcelona Convention in its implementation.

As previously noted, the newer conventions such as the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer, or the Conventions on Biological Diversity, Climate Change and Combating Desertification adopt a holistic approach to conservation of biological diversity. Furthermore, the Montreal Protocol has its own funding mechanism, while the GEF acts as a funding mechanism for CBD and Climate Change.

GEF has recently adopted an Operational Strategy covering its four focal issues (biodiversity, climate change, ozone layer depletion, and international waters), all of which have relevance to wetlands. Changes in the world's climate, the province of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, also have major implications for wetlands: changes in weather patterns could mean that existing wetlands decline, to be replaced by new ones in other sites. Sea level rise is another general phenomenon with a potential to bring severe changes to wetlands in coastal areas, and one which marine states (and particularly small island developing states) take very seriously. Similarly, international waters - wetlands such as the courses of major rivers or coastal zones which in ecological terms are part of the same unit - may belong in political terms to different states; hence the need for coordination and consultation between the states concerned, as provided by GEF's focal issue on international waters, and in Ramsar's article on shared water systems. The work of the Convention to Combat Desertification could be seen as Ramsar in reverse: one convention concentrates on conserving wetlands, especially in arid zones, while the other seeks to prevent the encroachment of the desert.

Of particular relevance to the Ramsar Convention is the CBD which acts very much as an overarching structure, to which other conventions, with their own more precise focus, can and must relate and contribute. The CBD defines biological diversity as:

‘The variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems'.

The CBD's broad formulations include articles on conserving biodiversity and on using biodiversity in a way that guarantees its survival (i.e. sustainable use of biodiversity). Many specific points of common concern between Ramsar and the CBD can be highlighted (see Box 3). Collaboration between the two conventions could promote overviews of the world's biodiversity; hitherto Ramsar's work has tended to reflect national concerns (hence the tendency for examples in the present volume to illustrate wetland values at national level as a contribution to the conservation of global wetland species and habitat diversity). There is still a need for prioritization at world level of wetland conservation tasks, and work of this type by Ramsar could act as a prototype for identifying world wetland priorities as a guide for other biomes.


National Policy Issues

- Ramsar's Article 3.1 states that Contracting Parties shall formulate and implement their planning so as to promote the wise use of wetlands in their territory. This has been interpreted by the Conference to mean development of National Wetland Policies which, with their cross-sectoral nature, contribute to National Biodiversity Strategies.

- CBD Article 6 on 'General measures for conservation and sustainable use' speaks of national strategies, plans or programmes for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. National Biodiversity Strategies clearly include wetlands.

Identification and Monitoring

- Ramsar has promoted regional and national inventories of wetland biodiversity; it has developed guidelines on monitoring change of ecological character in wetlands; it has developed standard recording techniques for wetlands and established a database of Ramsar sites.

- CBD's Article 7 on 'Identification and Monitoring' calls for identification and monitoring of components of biological diversity, for identifying of processes or categories of activities which have adverse impacts on biological diversity, and for maintaining data derived from the preceding activities.

In-Situ Conservation

- Ramsar's Article 2.1 says that Contracting Parties shall designate suitable wetlands for the Ramsar List. Wetlands sites designated for the Ramsar List, together with other wetlands meeting the Ramsar criteria, provide the basis for conservation of biological diversity in wetlands.

- CBD's Article 8 speaks of establishment of a system of protected areas or areas where special measures need to be taken to conserve biological diversity. It gives details of measures to be taken for the conservation of such areas.

Sustainable Use of Components of Biological Diversity

- The wise use concept established in Article 3.1 of Ramsar extends to all wetlands in the territory of a Contracting Party. Empowerment of local communities and increased involvement of the private sector are priorities in the Strategic Plan 1997-2002.

- CBD's Article 10 on this topic speaks of integrating consideration of the conservation and sustainable use of biological resources into national decision-making, of support for local populations, and of encouraging cooperation between governmental authorities and the private sector.

Research and Training

- Ramsar 's Article 4.5 calls for the training of personnel competent in the fields of wetland research, management and wardening. The MedWet initiative on Mediterranean wetlands, in which Ramsar has been closely involved, has acquired considerable experience in training applied to Mediterranean wetlands, and these results could be used in other regions. Likewise, the 'Wetlands for the Future' programme, promotes wetland training initiatives in the Neotropics, with US funding. The Ramsar Strategic Plan identifies capacity building through training as an activity of the highest priority for 1997-2002. Ramsar's Scientific and Technical Review Panel acts in an advisory capacity on wetland issues to the Convention.

- CBD's Article 12, which refers to the special needs of developing countries, calls for research and training courses. It also refers to the work of the Subsidiary Body on Technical, Technological and Scientific Advice.

Public Education and Awareness

- The Ramsar Strategic Plan for 1997-2002 gives the highest priority to education and public awareness. Again, the MedWet initiative on Mediterranean wetlands has acquired considerable experience in this field in Mediterranean wetlands, and these results could be used in other regions.

- CBD's Article 13 calls on Contracting Parties to promote understanding of the measures required for conservation of biological diversity and for cooperation between states on this topic.

The same governments are Contracting Parties to both conventions, and best use of ever scarcer resources demand that the two conventions strengthen their cooperation. In recognition of this the secretariats of the two conventions signed a Memorandum of Cooperation in early 1996. This Memorandum provides for:

  • institutional cooperation (participation in one another'smeetings);
  • exchange of information and experience (especially between databases);
  • coordination of work programmes (work plans, and reporting requirements to the Conference of the Parties);
  • joint conservation action (integration of national biodiversity plans and national wetland strategies; effective conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in wetlands; consistent methods of monitoring sites; coordination of research, training and public awareness).

The two conventions must now march forward to meet the challenge, building on the instructions of their respective Conferences of the Contracting Parties and on the Memorandum of Cooperation signed by the two secretariats.

Further Reading

  • Davis T.J. (ed). 1993. Towards the Wise Use of Wetlands. Wise Use Project, Ramsar Convention Bureau, Gland, Switzerland.
  • Davis T.J. (ed). 1994. The Ramsar Convention Manual: A guide to the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat. Ramsar Convention Bureau, Gland, Switzerland.
  • Watson R.T, Heywood, V.H., Baste, I., Dias, B., G‡mez, R., Janetos, T., Reid, W., and Ruark, G. 1995. Global Biodiversity Assessment: Summary for Policy-Makers. Cambridge University Press.
  • World Conservation Monitoring Centre. 1992. Global Diversity. Status of the Earth's Living Resources. Chapman & Hall, London.



An Overview of African Wetlands

By Tom Kabii, Technical Officer for Africa, Ramsar Bureau, Switzerland


The African region as described in this overview includes the mainland continent and the island states of Cape Verde, Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Sao Tome & Principe, and Seychelles, making up a total of 53 States, 23 of which are Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention. Africa's size and diversity of landscape are striking: bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, the Indian and Atlantic oceans to the east and west respectively, and the Antarctic in the south, it covers 70º of latitude, several climatic zones, and a considerable altitudinal range.

Various wetland types characterize the diverse and panoramic African environment, from mountains reaching an altitude of 6,000m through deserts to coastal zones at sea level. Although wetlands constitute only around 1% of Africa's total surface area, (excluding coral reefs and some of the smaller seasonal wetlands), and relatively little scientific investigation has been undertaken in them in comparison to other ecosystems such as forest or to wetlands in other parts of the world, their important role in support of the region's biodiversity and the livelihood of large human populations is becoming increasingly clear from ongoing studies.

General Distribution and Diversity of Wetland Types

The greatest concentration of wetlands occurs roughly between 15°N and 20°S and includes some rather spectacular areas: wetlands of the four major riverine systems (Nile, Niger, Zaire and Zambezi); Lake Chad, and wetlands of the Inner Niger Delta in Mali; the Rift valley lakes (notably Victoria, Tanganyika, Nyasa, Turkana, Mweru and Albert); the Sudd in southern Sudan and Ethiopia; and the Okavango Delta in Botswana, all of which display a richness and uniqueness in biodiversity.

Other important wetland types are found on the saline and brackish coastal and marine areas along the African coastline. They include the mangrove forests of eastern Africa stretching from the coastal cities of Kisimayu in Somalia to Maputo in Mozambique, and in broken but rich stands along the west African coastline from northern Angola to their northern limit north of Tidra Island in Mauritania, covering a total area of approximately 1.7 million hectares. Coral reefs and associated seagrass beds are found along the same limits as mangroves, although principally located along the warm Indian Ocean coastline and rarely in the Atlantic Ocean. Added to the list are coastal pans/lagoons and marshes such as the Ebrié and Tadio lagoon complexes of C'te d'Ivoire.

A few significant wetlands are located outside the 15°N to 20°S area. These include the inland oases, wadis and chotts of northwest Africa, the Oualidia and Sidi Moussa lagoons in Morocco, the Limpopo River floodplain in southern Africa, the Banc d'Arguin of Mauritania, and the St. Lucia wetlands in South Africa which is one of the largest estuarine systems in the African continent.

From the freshwater forests to the saline lakes and massive floodplains, Africa's many wetland types support a great diversity of plants and animals, and their productivity provides the natural resources essential to the survival of a significant part of the African rural population.

Biodiversity in African Wetlands

The biological diversity of wetlands in the continent is unevenly distributed, with some habitats being characterized by a richer range of species than others. In particular, wetlands in areas of high rainfall and warm climates, such as the Congo Basin, display a richer species diversity than those of drier regions north and south of the 15ºN to 20ºS zone. Of course, the importance of any given wetland from a biodiversity perspective is assessed not only by the overall richness in number of species present, but on the uniqueness of the area in terms of the number of localized species, particularly the endemic species. In this regard, most African wetlands display both characteristics, richness in number of species and endemism. There are, for example, over 2,000 known species of indigenous freshwater fishes in Africa. The Zaire River Basin, probably the most diverse area in Africa for its fishes, has over 700 identified species of which 560 are endemic to the basin. There are at least 18 families of endemic freshwater fish fauna many of which are found in the great lakes of east and central Africa.

It is believed by some authorities that wetland areas of highest endemism and of international significance in Africa are the Inner Niger Delta in Mali, the seasonally inundated floodplain of northern Central African Republic and southern Chad, the Sudd region of southern Sudan, Lake Victoria and Kyoga in Uganda, the swamps of western Tanzania and various parts of Zambia, and the Okavango region of northern Botswana.

In southern Africa, the role of wetlands in supporting a wide range of biodiversity is similarly recognized. In the Bangweulu Basin, Zambia, are important populations of the threatened Black Lechwe Kobus leche smithemani (IUCN Red List, 1994) and Shoebill Stork Balaeniceps rex (the latter also found in Lake George, Uganda, Case Study 5). The St. Lucia System of wetlands of South Africa, described in Case Study 3, exemplifies biodiversity rich estuarine wetlands in Africa and boasts great diversity of plant life in its freshwater reed and papyrus swamps, freshwater swamp forest, tidal swamp forest, grasslands, mangroves and riverine woodlands. This plant diversity helps to support over 350 bird species, more than 180 species of estuarine fish and 38 freshwater fish as well as significant populations of hippopotamus and crocodile.

The Sahel wetlands of western Africa are concentrated mainly in the Senegal River Basin in Senegal and Mauritania, the Niger River Basin in Mali, and Lake Chad and the Logone and Chari rivers in Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad. Because of their abundant food source and attractive habitats, they host numerous endemic and migratory waterfowl. The floodplains of the Senegal, Niger and Chad basins for example, support over a million waterfowl while the Djoudj National Bird Park, Senegal, (Case Study 2), and Diawling National Park, Mauritania, are havens for migratory birds in west Africa, providing habitat for over three million birds belonging to nearly 400 species.

The Sebkhet el Kelbia of Tunisia (Case Study 4) represents the unique shallow depressions in the arid and semi-arid parts of North Africa. These are characterized in wet years by a high primary productivity and a diversity of habitats and natural resources which enables them to support a large number and diversity of migratory, wintering and nesting birds. These wetlands exhibit dramatic seasonal cycles, changing from wet to dry seasons which enables them to support a succession of aquatic flora and fauna.

The Values of African Wetlands

It has been argued that African wetlands include some of the most productive ecosystems in the world and indeed they are an important, and in many cases the exclusive, source of natural resources upon which rural economies depend, providing food and energy, medicine, building material, dry season grazing and transportation for large human populations. In the Inner Delta of the Niger River over 550,000 people with about a million sheep and a million goats use the floodplains for post-flood dry season grazing. There are many more examples of how local communities make use of the diversity and high productivity of wetlands (for example, see Box 4). 

Box 4: Examples of the Many Uses of the Biodiversity and Productivity of African Wetlands by Local Communities

  • In Uganda people harvest Cyperus papyrus to make mats and baskets.
  • In Rwanda Cyperus papyrus is compressed into fuel briquettes with a high calorific content.
  • In the Okavango Delta roots, palm Hyphae, Phragmites, and palm hearts are harvested for subsistence foods, wine and in southern Africa, the vegetation is rich and diverse, and water lily tubers, bulrush building material.
  • In the Inner Niger Delta rice, millet, maize and wheat are cultivated in the highly productive soils of wetland areas.
  • Over 600 local people are employed in tourist camps in the Okavango Delta.

It is not only people who benefit from the high plant productivity in wetlands. In the Kafue Flats of Zambia, the local herdsmen graze their cattle on 40% of the highly productive Vossia/Echinochloa vegetation, while the endemic Kafue Lechwe Kobusleche kafuensis grazes more than 80% of the Paspalidium water meadow. Indirectly, the heavy dependence of large mammals on wetlands in Africa is of immense economic value to African countries since they are the mainstay of the tourist industry. These animals include elephants, buffaloes, antelopes, crocodiles, hippos, and zebras and the major predators, lions, wild dogs and hyenas. The lives of Africa's large mammals are often inextricably linked to wetlands. For example, the Amboseli swamps in Kenya are the only water source for animals in the surrounding area. Equally, the rich, riverine vegetation of the Masai Mara Game Reserve supports antelope and other mammals during the dry season.

Threats to Wetland Biodiversity and Future Prospects

Africa still has a significant number of pristine wetlands when compared to Europe or parts of North America. However, some wetland areas are experiencing immense pressure from human activities, the most important being drainage for agriculture and settlement, excessive exploitation by local communities and improperly planned development activities. In spite of the noted importance of wetlands to local communities, the human pressure on wetlands is expected to increase as populations grow, unless strategic actions are put in place for the conservation of wetlands.

The case study on Djoudj National Bird Park, for example, records the construction of dikes and dams on the upper parts of the Senegal River for the development of rice cultivation. This has altered the freshwater regime, threatening the survival of some plant species and encouraging the spread of others - essentially altering the characteristics of the ecosystem. Equally, the damming of the Tana and Athi rivers in Kenya has blocked upstream movement of migratory fish species, while poor water management schemes in the north of Cameroon have reduced natural flooding in Waza National Park, thus contributing to the decrease in the populations of two species of antelope, the Korrigum Damaliscus lunatus korrigum and Buffon's Kob Kobus kob kob.

Other threats to African wetlands include changes in wetland water quality due to the effects of industrial effluent and agricultural pesticides, siltation from highland catchment areas, and introduction of alien species of flora and fauna leading to colonization by single species and loss of endemic species diversity. Perhaps one of the biggest single catastrophes has been the introduction of the Nile Perch Lates niloticus and a species of tilapia Oreochromis niloticus to Lake Victoria which has led to the extinction of a large number of the 200 or so endemic cichlids of the lake; a tragic loss of biodiversity. Similarly, the introduction to the same lake of alien plant species, the Water Hyacinth, Eichhornia crassipes and Water Lettuce Pistia stratiotes, threatens the existence of endemic flora.

The threat to African wetlands has global effects on the world's biodiversity. The future of African wetlands lies in a stronger political will to protect them, based on sound wetland policies and encouragement for community participation in their management. Although the goal for protected wetlands should continue to be conservation of endangered and fragile sites, greater efforts should be focused on wetlands outside protected areas, and new management strategies formulated which incorporate the stakeholders. The Government of Uganda has recently launched such a policy for the conservation of its wetland resources. This is the first of its kind in Africa to have been formulated in accordance with the recommendation from the Ramsar Convention. It encompasses wetlands in protected and non-protected areas and offers the best example in Africa of a strong political will to conserve wetlands and their biodiversity. It is important that African countries put such policies in place, and other management strategies such as Integrated Coastal Zone Planning, an important measure for safeguarding coastal wetlands. Such a plan is being carried out in Guinea Bissau at the present time with the assistance of the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

Following the framework provided by the Ramsar Convention for supporting conservation and wise use of wetlands, more African states are joining the Convention and designating additional sites for inclusion in the List of Wetlands of International Importance. Other non-members are adopting the Convention's approaches to wetland conservation (especially as regards development of wetland policy instruments) and taking the necessary steps leading to membership. The growth of the Convention in Africa is an indication of commitment to the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their biodiversity.

 Further Reading

  • Bwathindi, P.O.J. and Mwamsojo, G.U.J. 1993. The Status of the Fishery Resources in the Wetlands of Tanzania. In: Kamukala, G.L. and Crafter, S.A.(eds), 1993, Wetlands of Tanzania. Proceedings of a Seminar on Wetlands of Tanzania, Morogoro, Tanzania, 27-29 Nov, 1991.
  • Dugan, P.J. (ed). 1990. Wetland Conservation: a Review of Current Issues and Required Action. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.
  • Finlayson, C.M and Moser, M.E. (eds). 1991. Wetlands. International Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau, Slimbridge, UK.
  • Lévêque, C, Bruton M.N, and Ssentongo, G.W (eds). 1988. Biology and Ecology of African Freshwater Fishes. L'ORSTOM, Travaux et Documents No.216, Paris.
  • McClanahan, T.R. 1994. Kenya Coral Reef Lagoon Fish: Effects of Fishing, Substrate Complexity, and Sea Urchins. In: Coral Reefs Journal of the International Society for Reef Studies. Vol 13 No. 4, 1994.
  • Stuart, N.S., Adams, R.J. and Jenkins, M.D. 1990. Biodiversity in Sub Saharan Africa and its Islands: Conservation, Management and Sustainable Strategy Programme. Occasional Paper of the IUCN Species Survival Commission No.6.

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 Case Study 1: Namibia

The Ephemeral Wetlands of Central Northern Namibia

By Holger Kolberg, Mike Griffin and Rob Simmons,
Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Namibia

Major Features of the Wetlands

The ephemeral wetland system of central northern Namibia consists of the Etosha Pan, Lake Oponono and the Cuvelai inland delta/drainage. This is by far the largest wetland system in Namibia, covering some 30,000km2.

The area can be subdivided into several distinct habitats, each with its distinguishing biodiversity. The Cuvelai drainage system is characterized by open, grassy drainage channels known as 'oshanas'. These are lined by the palm Hyphaene ventricosa and Colophospermum mopane trees dominate between the water courses. Adjoining to the south of this are the seasonally flooded grasslands on saline soils. Here the 'oshanas' converge into Lake Oponono via the Omuramba Etaka. Dominant grasses are Odyssea paucinervis, Sporobolus spicata and S. salsus, Panicum lanipes, Monelytrum luederitzianum and Eragrostris spp. To the south of this is the Etosha Pans complex which can be classified as saline desert. In years of above average rainfall, Lake Oponono drains into the Ekuma River which in turn flows into the Etosha Pan. Floodwaters can also reach Etosha via Fischer's Pan to the east, which gets its water from the Omathiya and Owambo Omiramba. The fringes of the pan are lined by sweet grassveld and Combretum/Terminalia/Acacia woodland.

Fauna of the Wetlands

The Cuvelai drainage is one of the most important ephemeral wetlands in Namibia, supporting 250-270 species of birds of which over 90 are wetland species. Of these, 42% are included in the Namibian Red Data Book . These threatened species include, for example, White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus, Black Stork Ciconia nigra, Saddlebill Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis, Greater and Lesser Flamingos Phoenicopterus ruber and P. minor and the globally threatened Slaty Egret Egretta vinaceigula (IUCN Red List, 1994). Etosha Pan is the only known mass breeding ground for flamingos (mainly Lesser Flamingos) in southern Africa. At least 25 other wetland bird species use the area as breeding grounds.

Large numbers of fish colonize the ephemeral wetlands during floods. The number of species increases from Etosha (5) to Oponono (7) and the Cuvelai (17). These fish are heavily utilized by the local people with estimates of up to 4,000kg of fish caught in a 30km section in one day. The total harvest is unknown.

Most of the large mammals in the area occur in the Etosha National Park. This includes mammal species which are considered rare in Namibia such as the Roan Hippotragus equinus and the diminutive Damara Dik-dik Madoqua kirkii and the globally threatened Black Rhino Diceros bicornis and African Elephant Loxodonta africana (IUCN Red List, 1994). Large herds of plains ungulates such as Blue Wildebeest Connochetes taurinus and Springbok Antidorcas marsupialis inhabit the plains around the pan.

Sixteen out of the 52 amphibian species known or expected to occur in Namibia, are found in the Cuvelai-Etosha system. They include such species as the Large Bullfrog Pyxicephalus adspersus and the colourful Banded Rubber Frog Phrynomantis bifasciatus. Out of 222 known reptile species a significant number are found in the area including snakes such as the African Python Python sebae, the Black Mamba Dendroaspis polylepis and Horned Adder Bitis caudalis. Lizards include the endemic Etosha Agama Agama etoshae and the Flap-neck Chameleon Chamaeleo dilepis.

Not much is known about the invertebrates. The largest species diversity is among the Crustacea, particularly the Ostracoda and the Crustacea form, by far, the greatest biomass. Numerous molluscs are also found.

Threats to the Area

This northern wetland system supports about 45% of the population of Namibia and population density may exceed 100 people per km2. The economy of the region is principally based on subsistence farming of millet, on livestock, fishing of the oshanas and migrant labour. Wood is the main construction material and this has led to deforestation problems, especially in the central Cuvelai area. Population growth, as in many other African countries, is the single most important threat to the wetland. Namibia has one of the highest population growth rates in the world and this rapidly expanding population is putting increasing pressure on the northern wetland resources. Rapid urbanization around the two main towns of Oshakati and Ondangwa is also having a negative effect.

Current Status and Future Prospects

The southernmost part of this wetland system is protected in the Etosha National Park, one of the oldest parks in Africa. The park has an area of 2.2 million hectares, about 600,000ha of which comprises the Etosha Pans complex. This area has been listed as one of the first Ramsar sites of Namibia with the option of extending the Ramsar site in future to cover the entire Cuvelai-Etosha system, making it one of the biggest Ramsar sites in the world (3 million hectares).

The Etosha Pan, Lake Oponono and Cuvelai drainage wetland system is biologically one of the richest and most diverse areas in Namibia, eclipsed perhaps only by the Caprivi region. This, coupled to the fact that the area supports almost half the population of Namibia, makes it one of the most important areas in this country. Namibians are fortunate that a considerable proportion of this is included in the Etosha National Park but serious consideration needs to be given to the implementation of conservation measures for the remainder. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism has formulated several policies, under the umbrella of land-use planning, in this regard. Also, Namibia's environmental legislation is currently under review and will include specific sections pertaining to the conservation of wetlands.

With the possible listing in future of the entire system as a Ramsar site, the area has great potential to become one of the showcase Ramsar sites in the world incorporating all the Ramsar principles such as wise use, conservation and training.

Case Study 2: Senegal

Djoudj National Bird Park

By Seydina Issa Sylla, National Parks, and Demba Baldé, IUCN, Senegal

Wetlands in West Africa

Djoudj National Bird Park is an area of 16,000ha adjacent to the Diawling National Park in Mauritania along the Senegal River. Created in 1971, the park was declared a Ramsar site in 1980 and a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981.

Djoudj is part of a network of wetlands in West Africa south of the Sahara. The different sites (Banc d'Arguin National Park and Diawling National Park in Mauritania; and Djoudj National Park, Trois Marigots, Ndiael, Marigot of Rosso, the Gueumbeul Reserve, the Langue de Barbarie in Senegal) are interconnected by the erratic movements of their migratory birds. This western network of wetlands is ecologically connected to the Inner Niger Delta. For example, the Lesser Flamingo, Phoenicopterus minor, is typically seen in the Senegal Delta at the beginning of the migratory period (November-January) and in the Inner Niger Delta when the climatic and related food conditions change at the end of their migratory period (February-March). This is the reason why the conservation and management of this network should be undertaken from a global perspective rather than in isolation.

The Djoudj National Bird Park plays a significant role in this network with regard to its biological and socio-economic importance. Djoudj is at the heart of the Senegal River Delta and as such is influenced by the Diama dam and the promotion of rice agriculture in the Senegal River Delta. Therefore, its environmental monitoring will be useful for this network of wetlands in West Africa.

Biological Importance of Djoudj

The park is one of the main habitats for migratory birds in West Africa. It hosts about three million birds per year composed of 366 different species including such species as Garganey Anas querquedula, Shoveler Anas clypeata, Pintail Anas acuta, Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa, Greater and Lesser Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber and P. minor, Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus, and Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta. It is an important breeding site for Great White Pelican, Purple Heron Ardea purpurea; Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiacus; and White-faced Tree Duck Dendrocygna viduata as well as many other species.

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Great White Pelicans at Djoudj National Bird Park  (Photo: Seydina Issa Sylla)

Djoudj is a scientific laboratory for numerous researchers around the world, particularly for the study of migration and ringing. There have been about 56,000 to 70,000 birds ringed in two years.

There are 30 plant species of which Acacia nilotica represents an important nesting site for some species such as Great White Egret Egretta alba, Yellow-billed Egret Mesophoyx intermedia, Little Egret Egretta garzetta, Green-backed Heron Butorides striatus, Wood Ibis Mycteria ibis, Pink-backed Pelican Pelecanus rufescens, White-breasted Cormorant Phalacrocorax lucidus, and African Darter Anhinga rufa. The presence of these birds indicates a great biodiversity in fish species in the Djoudj; about 60 species have been recorded in the park. The most delicate issue is the availability of food for Great White Pelicans (13,000 pairs), cormorants, and darters. For example, we know a pelican eats about 700 - 800g of fish per day.

Socio-economic Values

About 3,000 people live around the park and many of them make use of the park's natural resources. Thus, during the long dry season herds of cows are often seen in the park where their owners have taken them to graze on the park's resources. Fishing is an important source of food and an additional source of income for villagers, and fishermen are frequently found in the Djoudj sluices. Women of the area collect different plant species such as Nymphea sp. for food, Salvadora persica for traditional medicine, the sedge Cyperus articulatus and the bulrush Typha australis for commercial mat production, and firewood. Many activities such as fishing, grazing, gathering of forest products such as firewood, have been made illegal by the park administration in order to eliminate competition between wildlife and people. In spite of this ban, these activities, which are of socio-economic importance to the local people, do persist and have a significant impact on the park's natural resources.

The impact of tourism is not significant in the Djoudj. The park hosts an average of 3,000 tourists per year during the bird season from November through April. Hunting by both tourists and villagers is tightly regulated and warthogs and ducks are the most common game species around the Djoudj.

Major Threats to Ecosystem Integrity

The major threats facing the park are related to changes in habitat due to the construction of the dikes and dams for the promotion of rice agriculture on the Senegal River valley. These human activities have brought about changes in the quality of the water (fresh water) and therefore the biological diversity of the ecosystem. For example, the tree Acacia nilotica is endangered year-round by the presence of freshwater. Moreover, the development of two aquatic plants, the bulrush and Water Lettuce Pistia stratiotes, is due to changes in water quality as the brackish water becomes fresher and stays longer in the park.

The construction of dikes for agricultural production has ecological consequences compounded by the fact that fertilizers and pesticides are frequently used to improve yields and control pests damaging rice fields. It is believed that the use of these chemical products is also negatively affecting the Djoudj ecosystem. Because of the country's official policy of rice production for national food security and the building of the Diama dam, there is considerable land tenure pressure in the Senegal River Basin including regular encroachments of agricultural rice fields into the buffer zone of the park.

Djoudj is like an oasis in the Senegal River Delta. Because the area is experiencing desertification, there has been an immediate effect on the ecosystem as sand dunes advance from the northeast and south along the river. The Grand Lac of Djoudj has slowly filled with sand over the years causing it to dry up quickly in any given year. This has a negative impact on the length of stay of ducks, flamingos, and spoonbills.

With the construction of the Diama dam to protect the delta, the closing of the Manantali dam for regulating river flow and creation of the reservoir, and other dike constructions or improvements, Djoudj is undergoing profound environmental changes affecting its biodiversity. The area is also facing unprecedented socio-economic changes accelerated by the geopolitical situation of the region and the implementation of structural adjustment programmes. The newly designed Djoudj management plan is aimed at addressing these complex issues as Djoudj is an important wetland in the West African network.

Case Study 3: South Africa

The St. Lucia System

By Geoffrey I.Cowan, Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, South Africa

Location and Description

The St. Lucia System is found at the southern end of the Mozambique Floodplain and has a subtropical climate, warmed by the Agulhas current. Biogeographically, it lies at the interface between tropical and temperate biota, providing the northern distribution limits to a number of temperate species and the southern distribution limits to a number of tropical species. It has a high species diversity partly as a result of this position but also because of variability in both physical characteristics and soil conditions.

Extending over 155,000ha the St. Lucia System is the largest estuarine system on the African continent, and the wetlands form critical habitats for a large number of species and several communities. It contains, for example, the largest populations in South Africa of the Common Hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius, Nile Crocodile Crocodylus niloticus, Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus and Pinkbacked Pelican Pelicanus rufescens, as well as extensive Cyperus papyrus swamps, and Barringtonia racemosa swamp forest. The wetlands have an extremely high productivity, and are regarded as an outstanding area for wildlife.

The Fauna and Flora of the St Lucia System

Consistent with its environmental diversity, the St. Lucia System encompasses a huge diversity of wetland habitat types. No other place in southern Africa within an equivalent area has such a diversity (Box 5).

Box 5: The Major Wetland Communities and their Characteristic Species in the St. Lucia Wetlands

Freshwater reed and papyrus swamps (Phragmites australis and Cyperus papyrus);

Saline reed swamps (Phragmites mauritianus);

Sedge Swamp (Eleocharis limosa);

Saltmarshes (Sporobolus virginicus, Paspalum vaginatum, Juncus krausii, Salicornia spp. and Ruppia maritima);

Submerged macrophyte beds (Potamogeton pectinatus, Ruppia cirrhosa and Zostera capensis);

Echinochloa floodplain grassland (Echinochloa pyramidalis, Eriochloa spp., Sorghum spp. and Cyperus spp.);

Low-lying grasslands on clay substrates (Themeda triandra, Sehima alpinii and Cynodon dactylon);

Hygrophilous grasslands on sandy substrates (Acroceras macrum and Ishmaemum arcuatum);

Riverine woodlands (Ficus sycomorus, Acacia xanthophloea, Rauvolfia caffra, A. schweinfurthii, and Azima tetracantha);

Mangroves (Bruguiera gymnorrhiza and Avicennia marina);

Swamp forest (Ficus trichopoda, Voacanga thouarsii, Syzigium cordatum, Barringtonia acemosa, Phoenix reclinata, Macaranga capensis, Bridelia micrantha, Psychotoria capensis, Tarenna pavettoides, Psilotum nudum, Stenoclaena tenuifolia, and Nephrolepis biserrata).

The range of wetland types (13 according to the Ramsar classification of 1990) is remarkable, both in terms of the diversity within each type of wetland, as well as the considerable variability in diversity between types; the result is a highly variable community structure and composition. This is even more remarkable if one considers that the complex of interlinked wetlands extends across the complete salinity gradient from freshwater to marine to hypersalinity conditions.

In terms of its animal life, St Lucia is not only known for its large populations of crocodile, hippopotamus and pelicans but also its particularly rich diversity of other animal groups. Within the wetlands some 52 dragonfly species have been recorded, 38 freshwater fish species, 182 estuarine fish species and 50 amphibians. Over 350 species of bird have been recorded within the site, 90 of which are wetland birds, including at least 20 species of ducks and geese, 2 species of flamingo, and some 15 species of herons and egrets.

Utilization and Main Threats

Man's primary usage of the wetland system is through a substantive recreational fishing industry, supported by a commercial prawn fishery and mullet fishery (for bait) in the estuary itself. In the estuary strictly controlled harvesting of Ncema Juncus krausii and reeds for traditional weaving also takes place. The St. Lucia System is recognized as one of the most popular bird-watching sites in South Africa.

The controversial dune mining proposal is considered as the main threat to the site. A Ramsar Monitoring Mission visited the site in 1991. The fact that the St. Lucia System is a Ramsar site (designated in 1986) has contributed to ensuring a proper planning procedure is being followed and a decision regarding this proposal is pending. Degradation of the catchment areas of the Mfolozi and Mkuze rivers, although outside the site, is also some cause for concern.

Further Reading

  • Berruti, A. 1980. Status and Review of Waterbirds at Lake St. Lucia. Lammergeyer 28: 1-9.
  • Bruton, M.N. and Cooper, K.H. (eds). 1980. Studies of the Ecology of Maputaland. Rhodes University and Natal Branch of the Wildlife Society of Southern Africa.
  • Cowan, G.I. (ed). 1995. Wetlands of South Africa. Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Pretoria.
  • Taylor, R.H. 1993. Proceedings of the Workshop on Water Requirements for St. Lucia, Held at Fanies Island, 12 & 13 May 1992. Department of Environmental Affairs, Pretoria.

Case Study 4: Tunisia

Sebkhet el Kelbia

By Fethi Ayache, Ministry of Environment and Land Use Planning, Tunisia

The Sebkha of North Africa

Sebkha is a North African vernacular name for a shallow, salty depression. It is a common wetland type especially in semi-arid and arid climates but less so in sub-humid climates. In Tunisia, about 80 wetlands of this type stretch from north to south, most of them located within a short distance of the coast although not usually connected to the sea. They play a major hydrological role in stocking flood waters, recharging and/or discharging groundwater and are prime habitats for a diverse and typical fauna and flora thus generating many benefits to local communities and society as a whole.

Sebkhet el Kelbia

Sebkhet el Kelbia is 20km inland at the limit of two geographical regions: the Sahel (coastal area) of Sousse and the lower steppe of central Tunisia. The marshes and the lake occupy a maximum area of 14,000ha and drain a catchment area of 15,000km2. The Sebkha is state-owned and 8,000ha of it were declared a Nature Reserve in 1993. The climate is semi-arid with an average annual rainfall of 200mm, a mean temperature of 20ûC and a high evaporation rate. The water is slightly saline and it is one of the rare wetlands of this type which does not develop a salt crust when it is dry. During exceptionally heavy rains, the Sebkha discharges into the sea via the Oued Sed which develops some densely vegetated pools along its course. These are rich in birds such as Purple Gallinule Porphyrio porphyrio, several species of warbler, including Great Reed Warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus, Sedge Warbler A. scirpaceus, and Moustached Warbler A. melanopogon, and the threatened Marbled Teal Marmaronetta angustirostris (IUCN Red List, 1994). It regularly dries out for several years at a time. Six overflows were recorded this century, the latest was in 1989/1990.

The Values of the Wetland

Floral values. Vegetation grows around much of the water body in concentric rings which may possibly be related to salinity, wetness, or both. At the delta of Oued el Ataf the pattern is more of a mosaic. A representative profile would show the following succession: typical aquatic genera Althenia and Zanichellia, succeeded by annuals such as Salicornia and Salsola near the immediate water fringes through perennials such as Arthrocnemum, Halimione and Suaeda to Typha, Tamarix and Juncus, on the drier parts between the muddy areas and the surrounding cultivated land.

Faunal values. The high production of the biomass, due in part to the alternating wet and dry periods of the Sebkha, attracts large populations of wintering, migrating and nesting birds. The maximum number counted is 271,000 including several species of duck, many waders and a variety of other waterbirds. It is a major roosting site for the Crane Grus grus with up to 5,000 having been counted. Breeding birds include Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis, Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus, Shelduck Tadorna tadorna, Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus, Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta, Pratincole Glareola pratincola, Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida, and Marbled Teal with occasional breeding of Gull-billed Tern Sterna nilotica and the threatened White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala (IUCN Red List, 1994). During the latest floods which lasted more than two years, more than 100,000 birds including about 10,000 Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber were wintering and a few thousand were found nesting.

bio51.jpg (17867 bytes)Receding floodwaters in the Kelbia marshes with flocks of birds overhead (Photo: Imed Essetti)

Hydrological values. The Sebkha plays a significant role as a natural buffer zone preventing the disruptive impact of floodwaters on human activities. In addition, evidence of a drop in the level of wells since the last flood of 1990 indicate some role of the wetland in recharging the groundwater table.

Socio-economic values. Grazing is very common on the fringes and marshes of the Sebkha. It forms an integral part of the grazing cycle in the region especially in summer time when other pastures are exhausted. In addition, since the Sebkha holds floodwaters for a year or more, extensive grazing areas appear as the flood retreats and the area can become of great significance during drought years. As the flood recedes, local farmers benefit by cropping the outer parts of the wetlands as the silt deposition makes the area very productive. Fishing used to be quite a thriving activity with an average landing of 80 tonnes per year. Lastly, there is evidence of wood collection from the stands of Tamarix fringing the lake .

Threats to the Integrity of the Sebkhet el Kelbia

Damming of the three main rivers upstream (at Nebhana in 1965, Sidi Saad in 1981, El Haoureb in 1988) was carried out to control floodwaters and this has cut off all river inputs except for overflows from these dams and the lower part of the catchment. Despite some overflow from the Sidi Saad dam and the exceptional flooding of 1989/1990, the net result has been that the desiccation of the Sebkha has become 2.5 times more frequent than in the past and, before the last flood of the Sebkha in 1989/1990, the wetland had been dry for more than 10 years.

As a result of the continuation of engineering work within the plain of Kairouan, a proposal has been made to reclaim the upper part of the wetland for agricultural and/or pastoral use and to cut a channel through the lower part of the wetland towards Oued Sed which would be dredged.

Siltation is also a problem since much of the vegetation of the hillsides in central Tunisia is heavily degraded. However, subsidence is partly offsetting the rising level of the lake bottom.

A large concentration of birds attracts hunters and despite the designation of part of the area as a nature reserve, hunting still carries on unabated. Equally, the collection of eggs is so acute that some species have been significantly affected: for example hundreds of pairs of Marbled Teal were nesting in 1990 but very few were successful in raising their chicks.

Another current problem is rubbish tipping from the nearby small town of Kondar, and the discharge of olive oil residue from factories. This is actually quite limited in extent at the present time but could become significant in the future since waste disposal is continuing.

At the fringes of the Sebkha extensive grazing takes place and this causes some disturbance of the surrounding vegetation which is a prime habitat for nesting waterfowl.

Future Prospects

Kelbia is a potential tourist attraction in terms of the wintering and nesting populations of birds, panoramic views, and recreational opportunities. The large tourist industry at the Gulf of Hammamet (Nabeul, Hammamet, Sousse and Monastir) is within 30 to 80km of the site. Adequate management of the wetland, an appropriate administrative structure as well as an educational programme could be of great value in the development of Kelbia, boosting tourism during the low season in autumn and winter and providing an outdoor leisure and educational site for the population of the region.

However for this kind of development a larger area of the Sebkha needs to be given the status of nature reserve or national park. In addition, since Kelbia largely fulfils the criteria for a Wetland of International Importance in terms of the size of wintering population or number of species, its status could be reinforced by listing Sebkhet el Kelbia as a Ramsar site. The current and potential threats to the site should be addressed urgently especially the drainage project, the control of water flow from the catchment into Kelbia and appropriate on-site protection.

Case Study 5: Uganda

Lake George

 By Paul Mafabi, National Wetlands Conservation and Management Programme, Uganda


Uganda ratified the Ramsar Convention in 1988, and designated Lake George a Ramsar site. Located astride the equator, the lake and associated wetlands support a wide variety of biological resources. The reasons for this are varied, ranging from the good climate to shallow stratified waters (average 2.4m) which allow for a thorough mixing of the different layers, and a high alkalinity and photosynthetic activity.

The status of Lake George is varied with most of the wetlands fringing the Lake being part of the Queen Elizabeth National Park. The open water of the lake is not part of the National Park and is managed by the Fisheries and Water Departments. This has had implications for management because of inter-sectoral inconsistencies.

Lake George is renowned both for its high productivity and its flagship species such as the Shoebill Balaeniceps rex. Over the years the lake has attracted a lot of attention: it was part of the International Biological Programme in the late 1960s; it is located within the Queen Elizabeth National Park which is a Man and the Biosphere Reserve of UNESCO; and finally the listing of Lake George as Uganda's first Ramsar site was further recognition of the importance of the lake as a centre for biological diversity. Decades ago the initial management interest was in commercial fisheries on the lake. Today, the commercial fisheries are on a much smaller scale supplying mainly local needs, the management focus has changed considerably, and the lake has become an important tourist destination.

Diversity of the Wetland

Seen from the air, the waters of Lake George appear green as a result of thick concentrations of blue-green algae. The entire lake can be considered as a wetland since its average depth is about 2.4m and it hosts a mosaic of wetland types dominated by Papyrus swamps Cyperus papyrus. Around the edge of these swamps is a dense fringe of the wetland grass Vossia cuspidata. Vossia forms mats which are anchored to the lake bed whereas Papyrus is either emergent in shallow water or forms thick, floating mats which extend into deeper waters. These support Black Crakes Amaurornis flavirostra and Malachite Kingfishers Alcedo cristata.

A rare plant found in the area is the cycad Encephalartos hildebrandtii. This primitive fern-like plant is known only from the gorge of the Mpanga River to the east of Lake George and from an area on the East African coast. The other plant not commonly found in Uganda is the sedge Cladium mariscus which forms swamps around Lake George; its only other known location is in some pockets in the Kigezi region of southwestern Uganda.

Lake George wetlands provide habitat for over 150 species of birds including some rare species. These include the Saddle-billed Stork Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis, seven 'papyrus endemics' including Papyrus Gonolek Laniarius mufumbiri, Papyrus Canary Serinus koliensis, and the threatened Papyrus Yellow Warbler Chloropeta gracilirostris (IUCN Red List, 1994). The Madagascar Squacco Heron Ardeola idae has also been recorded within the Lake George Basin. The associated crater lakes provide the only habitat for Greater and Lesser Flamingos Phoenicopterus ruber and P. minor in Uganda.

The most spectacular of all is the Shoebill, a very large, grey water bird with a gigantic shoe-shaped bill. It is often confused with members of the stork family because of its resemblance to storks but it is in fact the only species within the family Balaenicipitidae. It is found in an enclave of the Lake commonly referred to as Shoebill Swamp.

Utilization of Lake George's Resources

The potential of Lake George is not yet fully exploited largely because of its inaccessibility. Nevertheless, Lake George wetlands are utilized in several ways. The Lake supports a thriving fishery with more than 50 species recorded in catches. Most of these are cichlids of which the most abundant is the phytoplankton-eating Haplochromis nigripennis. Up to 3,500 tonnes of fish were recorded annually between 1952 and 1972, and the catches are equally high in recent years. There is low endemicity compared to other lakes in the region. The most common fish include; tilapias, the catfish Clarius lazera and Bagrus docmac, a species of lungfish Protopterus sp., the electric fish Mormyrus kannume and the cichlid Haplochromis squamipinis. The presence of large quantities of fish led to the establishment of a fish factory in the 1960s to process tilapia. Although the factory is now disused and the scale of commercial fisheries has diminished, the lake still supports important fishery activities. Fishing villages are established in several of its bays, supplying fish locally to Kasese town and the surrounding area and to far destinations such as Kampala (450km away) and Zaire to the west.

The other important human activity is the harvesting of Papyrus and the woody plant Ambatch, Aeschynomene elaphroxylon which grows in marshy soil, in swamps and on the edge of the lake. Papyrus is used for roofing material and screens while Ambatch stems, with their cork-like texture, are used as floats and buoys for fishing nets.

Tourism is another activity that occurs in the area, but to a lesser extent because most of the wetlands are inaccessible due to the impenetrable swamp forest.

Threats to the Diversity of the Area

There are some problems which threaten the high diversity of the area and could jeopardize its existence if appropriate measures are not taken in time to address them:

dotbluedark.gif (919 bytes)The lake is affected by pollution from copper and cobalt pyrites as the site is close to a copper mine and many of the rivers and streams that feed into the lake go past the mine. However the establishment of Kilembe Cobalt Company to carry out cobalt production using bioleaching and solvent extraction and electro-winning is expected to address some of the problems of cobalt pollution through rehabilitation of the degraded environment.

dotbluedark.gif (919 bytes)There is uncontrolled charcoal burning to the east of the Lake George wetlands which could become disastrous if not checked: this is bound to deplete the tree resources of Lake George leading to loss of the natural organisms which they support.

dotbluedark.gif (919 bytes)Horticultural activities such as vegetable growing to supply the fast growing Kasese town, also pose a threat to the lake and its associated wetlands. Many of these activities involve modification and in some cases drainage of wetlands and could reduce the buffering capacity of the wetlands. In addition the use of pesticides and agrochemicals in horticulture pose a danger to Lake George's biodiversity.

dotbluedark.gif (919 bytes)There is a potential problem of silting from poor management practices in the water catchment area of the wetland as a result of intensive agricultural activities in the surrounding slopes of Mt Ruwenzori to the north, and the Bunyaruguru escarpment to the south.

Although Lake George supports a high diversity of biological resources and a high human population which is dependent on the fishing, the future of the lake, in the face of these threats, is uncertain. However recent government policy on wetlands in particular and the environment in general provide hope for the future.

Further Reading

  • Arinaitwe, J. Avifauna of Lake George. Unpublished report.
  • Department of Environment Protection. 1995. A Handbook for Lake George and Ramsar site. Ministry of Natural Resources, Uganda.
  • Denny P., Bailey R., Tukahirwa E., and Mafabi, P. 1995. Heavy Metal Contamination of Lake George (Uganda) and its Wetlands. Hydrobiologia 297:229-239.
  • Lock, J.M. 1973. The Aquatic Vegetation of Lake George, Uganda. Phytocoenologia 1: 250- 262.
  • Hughes, R.H. and Hughes, J.S. 1991. A Directory of African Wetlands. IUCN, World Conservation Union, Gland, Switzerland.



An Overview of Asian Wetlands

By Faizal Parish, Wetlands International - Asia Pacific, Malaysia

The Asian Region

Asia is a vast continent stretching almost half-way around the world. Fringed by more than 20,000 islands mainly in the Southeast Asia archipelago, it is home to about 60% of the world's population even though it only comprises about 30% of the world's land surface. (Geographically, the western border of the Asian Ramsar Region runs along the Ural Mountains, the Ural River and the northwest shoreline of the Caspian Sea). The climatic and ecological variation in the region is extremely high ranging from the frozen Siberian tundra to the tropical coasts of Southeast Asia, and from the scorching deserts of West Asia to some of the world's wettest and most flood prone regions in the lower Ganges-Brahmaputra Valley.

The high population density has led to a long historical dependence on wetland resources: the major human civilizations of the world evolved in river valleys and wetlands in the region, such as the Tigris-Euphrates Valley in Iraq, which 6,000 years ago was the legendary site of the Garden of Eden; the lower Mekong floodplain, site of the Khmer Kingdom 2,500 years ago; and the fertile floodplains of India and China upon which their respective empires were founded. This dependence on wetlands continues till the present time - in India and China, for example, hundreds of millions of people still depend on wetland crops and fish as their main sources of food - but brings with it heavy pressures and a range of threats to the integrity of the wetland ecosystems. Thus, wetlands in the region are characterized by their close interaction with local human communities: only in the remote parts of China, Mongolia, or Russia are there wetlands which are relatively unused or undisturbed by man.

Thirteen states within the region are Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention (this does not include Russia which is considered a Contracting Party of the Eastern European Region). The Contracting Parties of the region have designated 57 wetlands as Ramsar sites covering approximately 3.2 million hectares; this includes Mai Po Marshes in Hong Kong, designated by the U.K. Government. Not yet included are a number of large sites in Russia (which are geographically considered to be part of Asia) which have still to be clearly defined in terms of area. The Ramsar sites in the region vary in area from the 10ha Katano-kamoike wetland in Japan to the 1.89 million hectare Parapol Valley in the Russian Federation, and cover a wide range of wetland types from desert oases to Siberian tundra and tropical swamp forest.

Wetland Types and their Distribution in the Region

In the tropics, two of the most important types of wetlands are mangroves/mudflats and peat/freshwater swamp forests. The mangrove/mudflat ecosystem used to cover much of the tropical Asian shoreline. Mangroves comprise a group of about 60 species of salt-tolerant plants which are able to thrive along sheltered, muddy coastlines. Along with their adjacent mudflats, these wetlands are extremely productive and are important for large numbers of wildlife species and as breeding, nursery or feeding ground for up to 70% of coastal fish and prawns. This ecosystem is vitally important for resident birds, such as storks and herons, and migrants, such as waders and egrets, as well as supporting a diverse mammal fauna.

Swamp forest occurs inland of the mangroves in freshwater conditions. Freshwater swamp forest occurs on permanently or seasonally flooded mineral soils often in zones up to 5km wide along rivers or around freshwater lakes. Peat swamp forests cover large areas in between river basins in Borneo, Sumatra, Peninsular Malaysia and Irian Jaya. The litter in these forests has accumulated to form a layer of peat up to 20m thick. Peat and freshwater swamps support a wide variety of plant species, many restricted to this specialized habitat, and they support a great diversity of freshwater fish, birds and mammals.

In temperate regions the most common wetlands are lakes and marshes. North Asia in general, and Siberia in particular, include some of the most extensive wetlands in the world. The tundra region consists almost entirely of fens and bogs interspersed with lakes, river valleys and coastal estuaries. In Western Siberia the Ob floodplain covers 5 million hectares and is one of the largest breeding and moulting grounds of waterbirds in Eurasia.

It is estimated that there are at least 120 million hectares of wetlands of international importance in South and East Asia. An inventory of wetlands in 24 countries in South and East Asia, conducted from 1985-1988, describes 947 wetlands of international importance and a similar inventory in the Middle East, conducted in 1995, details 221 such wetlands in West Asia. Information on the wetlands of Russia and the Central Asian Republics is still in preparation.

Wetland Protection and Current Threats

An assessment of the degree of protection of wetlands of importance from the above inventories indicates considerable variation between sub-regions with 21% (by area) protected in South Asia, 14 % in Southeast Asia, and 12% in East Asia but there are wide variations between countries within each of these sub-regions. The country with the largest area of 'totally protected' wetlands is Indonesia (2.9 million hectares) while a number of countries have less than 1% of their important wetlands totally protected including Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Despite the amount of protection afforded sites in certain countries in Asia, the great majority of the natural wetland ecosystems in South, Southeast and East Asia are under threat. Some information has been obtained on the level and nature of threat at 734 of the 947 wetlands of international importance. About 85% of the sites are threatened in some way and nearly 50% are moderately or severely threatened. Wetlands in South Asia (93%) and Southeast Asia (94%) are considerably more threatened than those in East Asia (66%). Wetlands are under particularly severe pressure in Malaysia (85%), and the Philippines (69%). Sites in West Asia are also under severe pressure; for example, 50% of wetlands in Pakistan are under moderate or severe threat.

Threats to the wetlands are quite variable between sub-regions and between sites, but taking the region as a whole, the threat most frequently reported from sites is hunting and associated disturbance, closely followed by general disturbance from human settlement/encroachment and drainage for agriculture.

Wetland Biodiversity

The biological diversity of Asia's wetlands is extremely high and the region is the global centre of diversity for a number of ecosystems or species groups. It is, for example, the global centre of mangrove diversity with over 60 species of mangrove tree compared with between 7 and 12 in Africa and the Americas. Mangroves are also extremely extensive with some of the world's largest contiguous mangrove areas such as the Indian and Bangladesh Sundarbans with approximately 650,000ha of mangrove forest. In Indonesia and Malaysia the most diverse mangrove forests in the world are found, with over 200 plant species occurring in, or associated with, this ecosystem.

Coastal wetland systems here are extremely diverse and the world's most diverse coral reefs (in terms of reef-building coral species and reef fish species) occur in the region. More species of sea grasses are also found in this region than in others. These rich and varied habitats in turn support an abundance of vertebrate and invertebrate animals.

The freshwater and peat swamp forests of Southeast Asia, which are the largest and best developed in the world, are botanically also very diverse with many species restricted to these habitats. Vegetation studies in the Berbak National Park, a Ramsar site in Sumatra, Indonesia, found more than 150 tree species in a plot of one-tenth of a hectare. This park is also thought to be one of the world's most highly diverse areas in terms of palm species. Peat swamp forests cover nearly 30 million hectares in the sub-region compared with 1 million hectares in Amazonia.

Danau Sentarum in Indonesia - a Ramsar site - is an 80,000ha freshwater lake and swamp forest ecosystem. So far more than 230 species of freshwater fish have been recorded, including over 10 species new to science discovered in the past two years. Other vertebrate groups also occur in wetlands in large numbers - 220 bird species or 60% of the avifauna of Sumatra have been recorded in wetlands of which a large proportion is confined to these habitats. A number of mammals are restricted to wetlands, including for example, otters, dolphins, dugong, and several cats and civets. While northern Asian wetlands support rather few wetland mammals, wetlands in southern Asia are home to a great diversity of mammals which are dependent on the wetlands for their survival, including quite a number of threatened species such as the Dugong Dugong dugon, Hairy-nosed Otter Lutra sumatrana, and Chinese River Dolphin Lipotes vexillifer (IUCN Red List, 1994). The majority of amphibians and many reptile species (including crocodiles, freshwater turtles and tortoises) are found in wetlands and some are considered threatened: for example, of the 12 crocodilian species listed as threatened by the IUCN Red List, 7 are Asian species.

Invertebrate diversity is extremely high as the majority of invertebrate phyla are aquatic or predominantly aquatic. Any one wetland in tropical Asia may support thousands of invertebrate species, many of which have yet to be discovered. Recent invertebrate sampling in Hong Kong's Ramsar site, Mai Po Marshes (Case Study 3), has revealed that over 10% of invertebrates were undescribed in this relatively intensively studied part of Asia.

All of this biological diversity is of great value to one of the most ubiquitous wetland species, Homo sapiens. In Peninsular Malaysia alone, over 500 (or 50%) of the plant species in freshwater wetlands are of known socio-economic value. Apart from the immense importance of wetland species for food, fodder, clothing, and shelter, new uses for medicinal and industrial purposes are being found every month for naturally occurring chemicals in wetland plants. The economic value of these systems is very large: in Malaysia the total annual contribution of wetlands to the economy through direct and indirect means is valued at US$2 billion while the wetlands of the lower Mekong contributed US$90 million to the economy, and supplied 50-70% of the protein needs of the region's 20 million people in 1981.

The Asian Case Studies

The case studies in this chapter illustrate the variety and importance of wetlands in the region. The first case study examines the Sundarbans mangrove; the world's largest mangrove system and of importance to the livelihood of over 300,000 people. The second case study, Dongdongtinghu in China, illustrates the complexities of wetland management with over 500,000 people living in and around the wetland and many competing demands for resources. In Mai Po Marshes in Hong Kong, the third case study, a wide range of natural and man-modified coastal wetland habitats is of critical importance for migratory species. Considered next is Keoladeo National Park, where a conservation education project is helping local people understand the conservation issues within the park and where efforts are being made to involve them in finding solutions to the park's management problems. Following this is Kushiro Marsh in northern Japan where the unique species of the site, especially the Red-crested Crane Grus japonensis, attracts thousand of tourists to the region every year. The sixth case study from Azraq Oasis, Jordan, illustrates the importance of wetlands in arid regions and their vulnerability to external impacts such as over-pumping of water from the basin. Finally, the Tasek Bera Ramsar site in Malaysia describes the high species diversity of a tropical lake/swamp forest ecosystem and the need for good catchment management to preserve it.

Taken together, the overview and case studies illustrate the richness of wetland sites in Asia in terms of biological diversity, and the importance of preserving them for the livelihood and enjoyment of this and future generations.

Ramsar in Asia

Two successive Meetings of the Conference of the Parties to the Ramsar Convention in two influential countries in the region, namely Japan in 1993 and Australia in 1996, have been effective in raising the awareness in many Asian countries of wetland conservation in general and the Ramsar Convention in particular. To add to this increasing awareness, there have been various environmental education campaigns relating to wetland conservation in many countries in the region. A positive result of this is that the number of Contracting Parties to the Convention is increasing: the Governments of Cambodia, Republic of Korea, and Thailand have officially announced their intention to become members of the Convention and Bhutan has informed the Ramsar Bureau that it is preparing to do so.

A number of Contracting Parties, including China and Malaysia, as well as non-member states are in the process of developing National Wetland Policies, Strategies or Action Plans. However, the growth in the number of Ramsar sites in the region is rather slow and governments, NGOs and the private sector will have to make great efforts to maintain the ecological character of precious wetlands in the region.

Further Reading

  • Scott, D.A. (ed). 1989. A Directory of Asian Wetlands. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, U.K.
  • Scott, D.A. (ed). 1995. A Directory of Wetlands in the Middle East. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and IWRB, Slimbridge, U.K.
  • Scott, D.A. and Poole, C.M. 1989. A Status Overview of Asian Wetlands. AWB, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

biomap2.jpg (33773 bytes)

Case Study 1: Bangladesh/India

The Sundarbans

By Zakir Hussain, IUCN - The World Conservation Union, Thailand


The Sundarbans constitutes the single largest piece of mangrove forest in the world. The entire area extends to around one million hectares and includes approximately 650,000ha of mangrove forest. Located in the Gangetic Delta in southwestern Bangladesh and the adjoining areas of the State of West Bengal in India, the Sundarbans is very rich in floral and faunal diversity and has profound economic importance for the people of the neighbouring districts. It has additional importance in that it acts as a physical barrier to the frequent storms arising in the Bay of Bengal, protecting communities in the hinterland. The forest is acknowledged as one of the oldest examples of 'wise use' of wetland resources, having been managed sustainably for over 100 years. The Bangladesh portion of the Sundarbans includes 407,000ha of mangroves and is the only Ramsar site in the country while the Indian portion is a World Heritage site.

Biotic Diversity

123 species of higher plants including a number of economically important species have been recorded from the Sundarbans. The most abundant mangrove tree species are Heritiera fomes, Excoecaria agallocha, Ceriops decandra and Sonneratia apetala. A wide range of palms, grasses, ferns and epiphytes are also found here. The most extensively occurring palms are Nypa fruticans and Phoenix paludosa while Eriochloa procera and Phragmites karka are the most common grasses. Thirteen species of orchid and seven species of fern occur in the forest. There is also a large number of climbers, creepers and shrubs in addition to the numerous algal and fungal species that occur on the wet forest floor and tree trunks.

A total of 425 vertebrate species (excluding fish) have been recorded in the Sundarbans, including 49 species of mammals, 53 species of reptiles, 315 species of birds and 8 species of amphibians. Although less well documented, the area also supports a whole array of moths, butterflies, wasps, beetles and other invertebrates.

The Sundarbans is the single largest continuous area in the world for the threatened Bengal Tiger Panthera tigris tigris (IUCN Red List, 1994) and available information estimates that 350 individuals occur in the Bangladesh portion of the forest with a slightly lower number in the Indian portion. The Sundarbans is also home to three other felid species, the Jungle Cat Felis chaus, Leopard Cat Felis bengalensis, and Fishing Cat Prionailurusviverrinus.

Other important mammals of the Sundarbans include the Spotted Deer Axis axis, Barking Deer Muntiacus muntiac, Wild Pig Sus scrofa and Rhesus Macaque Macaca mulatta. There are also dolphin and porpoise in the Sundarbans. Reptiles of particular importance include three threatened species, the Indian Python Python molorus, Estuarine Crocodile Crocodylus porosus and River Terrapin Batagur baska (IUCN Red List, 1994), but the area also supports others of interest such as the King Cobra Ophiophagus hannah as well as a further six species of turtle and four species of monitor lizard.

The avifauna includes 117 species of waterbirds, 31 birds of prey and 2 pheasants. Eighty four migratory species also stop over at the Sundarbans. Recorded species include four which are considered threatened: Masked Finfoot Heliopais personata; Greater and Lesser Adjutant Stork Leptoptilos dubius and L. javanicus; and Pallas's Fish Eagle Haliaeetus leucoryphus (IUCN Red List, 1994)

More than 400 fish species have been recorded from the Sundarbans and its adjoining coastal waters and 120 of these are regularly caught by commercial fishermen from the Sundarbans waters. There is also a rich population of molluscs and crustaceans.

Sustainable Use and Management

The scientific management of the Sundarbans for timber and other wood resources was initiated about 125 years ago. In the last few decades, non-timber forest products including thatching palm and grasses, honey and bees-wax, crustacean shells and fish have gained importance and these play an important role in the economy of the region. As a result, sustainable management regimes for both the timber and non-timber resources have been developed.

The simple management regime which is followed in the Bangladesh portion of the forest involves a 20-year exploitation cycle of the tree resources: the forest is divided into twenty compartments with each compartment harvested in turn and the cycle repeated at year 21. During the harvest, all trees above a certain diameter are removed as long as such removals do not create any permanent gaps in the forest canopy. In a subsequent operation, just after timber harvesting, all dead and deformed trees are removed in addition to a thinning of congested stands. The harvest of other tree products including fuelwood, poles and industrial wood also follow a similar pattern.

The harvest of Nypa leaves, which are extensively used in thatching houses in rural areas, is carried out on a 3-year cycle. Fishing and collection of honey, bees-wax and shells are also closely regulated to ensure sustainable exploitation of these resources.

bio67.jpg (24513 bytes)Drying of fish in the forest. (Photo: Zakir Hussain)

The management of resources in the Sundarbans represents the implementation of the principles of 'wise use' which originated at a time in the past when sustainability was never considered as a major factor. The forest provides the main source of income for a large number of people and according to a Forest Department estimate, about 45,000 people work in the forest each day during the peak harvest season in the Bangladesh portion of the forest, while in the winter more than 10,000 fishermen establish camps in the forest to fish for three to four months. The number of fishermen involved in year round fishing is even larger. In addition to producing up to 45% of all the timber produced from state-owned forests in Bangladesh, the Sundarbans is the only source of raw materials for the only newsprint paper mill in the country, as well as a number of match and board mills and other industries. The employment generated by wood processing, retailing and transportation is also substantial.

The sustainable management of this unique ecosystem over a long period has caused very little change to the composition, quality and extent of the Sundarbans forest, particularly in Bangladesh, and it is a testimony to the success of the management techniques employed that the great diversity of flora and fauna has been maintained.

Case Study 2: P. R. China

Dongdongtinghu (East Dongting Lake)

By CHEN Kelin and YAN Chenggao , Ministry of Forestry, People's Republic of China

Location and Description

Dongdongtinghu is situated in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River in northern Hunan Province of the People's Republic of China. It is a typical freshwater lake wetland in a transitional area between the middle and northern sub-tropical climatic zones. In summer the area is a vast expanse of lake surface, but in winter this wetland is transformed into five different types of terrain: fresh water; reed marsh; sedge swamp; peat bog; and sandy beach. With a water surface covering 1,328km2, Dongdongtinghu is used mainly for water storage and channelling. Four of the major rivers in Hunan Province converge here (the Xiangjiang, Zishui, Yuanjiang and Lishui rivers), and with a drainage area of 1.3 million square kilometres it plays a vital role in controlling the water flow in the Yangtze River.

Part of the lake is protected as Dongdongtinghu Nature Reserve which covers an area of 190km2 and is managed by 58 staff members. It is one of China's six wetlands which have been designated as Ramsar sites.

Major Species

Favourable geographic and climatic conditions endow this region with an extremely rich wetland biodiversity. According to the available information, the numbers of various plant and animal groups found in this region are as follows:


The vegetation in this region is made up of a range of wetland types such as submerged plants, floating plants, emergent plants, sedge meadows, willow and wormwood shrubs, reeds, deciduous broad-leaved forests, and evergreen broad-leaved forests.

The wetland is dominated by waterfowl and fishes. The majority of the waterfowl are migratory and the reserve is considered an extremely important wintering area for these birds. There are several species found here which are considered rare in China and a number which are globally threatened* (IUCN Red List, 1994) including: Chinese Paddlefish Acipenser sinensis; White Stork Ciconia ciconia; Crane Grus grus; Hooded Crane* Grus monacha, White-naped Crane* Grus vipio; White Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia; Great Bustard* Otis tarda; Whistling Swan Cygnus columbianus; Chinese Merganser* Mergus squamatus; White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons; Bean Goose Anser fabalis; Chinese River Dolphin* Lipotes vexillifer; Finless Porpoise Neophocaena phocaenoides; and Clouded Leopard* Neofelis nebulosa.

Development and Utilization

Surrounding the wetland are the political, economic and cultural centres of Hunan Province and several major ports on the Yangtze River. The total population in the wetland area exceeds 550,000 people of which over 290,000 are rural residents. To the east of the lake is largely an urban area dominated by textile, chemical, food processing and light industries, supplemented by agricultural production, while the area to the west is mainly agricultural. The wetland resources in this region are heavily utilized and have a high potential for development:

  • this wetland region is a main course for all-year-round water transport and merges, in the north, into the Yangtze River;
  • the fishery resources provide the major source of income for local residents;
  • the existing area of reed in this region amounts to 20,300ha. Reed cutting has become the leading industry supporting the local agricultural economy, with an annual turnover of US$ 1.25 million generated by the sale of various kinds of reed products;
  • every winter, about 4,000 head of cattle and 200,000 domestic ducks are fed on the meadows and marshes of the nature reserve;
  • the Yueyang Tower and Junshan Mountain in the nature reserve are well-known scenic spots frequented by almost two million people every year.

Major Existing Problems

  • Being a major supporting industry for the local economy, reed cutting is being carried out unsustainably resulting in the rapid shrinkage of the winter habitat for migratory birds, some of which may even disappear if such trends continue.
  • About 142 million cubic metres of sand and mud are brought into the lake every year by running water and about 75% of this is deposited in the lake.
  • Some 240 million cubic metres of industrial and domestic waste water are discharged into this wetland reserve. Of particular importance is the direct discharge of waste water from paper mills and sugar plants into the lake which has seriously polluted the ecosystem.
  • Environmental deterioration in the drainage area has resulted in water and soil erosion, silting-up of the lake, the lowering of the water level, a continuous decline in the storage volume of the lake, and a generally degraded habitat.
  • Construction and maintenance of water conservation facilities, such as dam construction, damages the winter habitat of the waterfowl.
  • Due to financial difficulties, the input of funds for infrastructural development and protection-related research projects for the reserve has been seriously inadequate.

China's Wetlands - The Future

China hosts some of the world's largest and most diverse wetland resources. It has nearly all the types of wetland as defined by the Ramsar Convention (of which China has been a Member State since 31 July 1992). In collaboration with the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Asian Wetland Bureau (now part of Wetlands International), the Chinese Government has accelerated efforts to formulate the China Wetland Protection Action Plan. The Ministry of Forestry has organized training courses for over 50 wetland experts so that a national inventory on wetland resources can be carried out which will document the distribution of China's wetland resources and their major types of wild fauna and flora, hydrology, current uses, and principal threats. This inventory will be of major significance in the formulation and implementation of the China Wetland Protection Action Plan.

Case Study 3: Hong Kong

Mai Po Marshes:

Conserving Wetland Biodiversity through Shrimp Farming

By Lew Young, World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF), Hong Kong

Mai Po Marshes - An Introduction

Tucked away in the northwestern corner of Hong Kong, free from urban congestion, is a 2,000ha mosaic of wetlands comprising mudflats, mangroves, reed-beds, traditional intertidal shrimp ponds (gei wai) and fish ponds. The 380ha Mai Po Marshes Nature Reserve is at the core of this wetland, being separated from mainland China by the intertidal mudflats of Deep Bay. The Reserve is managed by WWF Hong Kong and administered by the Agriculture and Fisheries Department of the Hong Kong Government. [Editor's note: The Mai Po Marshes and Inner Deep Bay (a total area of 1,512ha) were designated by the United Kingdom as a Ramsar site on 4 September 1995 and are now one of P.R. China's seven Ramsar sites. 12/97]

The diversity of wetland around Mai Po has been created by nearly 100 years of land-use changes which have always managed to maintain the 'wet' nature of the landscape. It is probably because of this habitat diversity that the area is so rich in wildlife. Over 320 species of birds have been recorded, including 12 threatened species such as the Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor, Saunder's Gull Larus saundersi and Oriental White Stork Ciconia boyciana (IUCN Red List, 1994) as well as regionally important numbers of other species, particularly herons, egrets and certain migratory shorebirds. This area is probably the last stronghold for a number of mammals in Hong Kong, such as the Leopard Cat Felis bengalensis and the Otter Lutra lutra. Other points of importance include the fact that nearly 20 species of invertebrates new to science have been identified from the wetland system, the mangrove forest is the sixth largest in China and the reed-beds are one of the largest in southern China.

Management of Mai Po - Role of the Gei Wai

The gei wai form the heart of Mai Po which, apart from being a source of income for the farmers, are also of high conservation value and are an example of the 'wise use' of a wetland. This is because stocking and feeding of the shrimps is done naturally, and there was minimal destruction of the coastal mangroves when the ponds were constructed in the mid-1940s.

Each of the 10ha rectangular gei wai has channels running around its perimeter and across its centre which act as sheltering areas for the shrimps. Between the channels, are stands of mangrove which were originally maintained for fuelwood.

bio72.jpg (11274 bytes)Sunset over the Mai Po Marshes Nature Reserve with Deep Bay mudflats in the background. (Photo: Lew Young)

Stocking of the gei wai takes place in autumn by flushing shrimp larvae into the pond from Deep Bay through a sluice gate. Once inside, the larvae feed on the detritus and plankton in the pond. By April of the following year, the shrimps are large enough to be harvested, and this is done by opening the sluice gate at night when there is a low tide in Deep Bay. As the water flows out of the pond, a funnel net is placed across the gate to trap any shrimps that are flushed out. On a single night, over 20kg of shrimps can be harvested from a gei wai and as only a fraction of the shrimps are caught, it means that each pond can be harvested many times from April to October when the season ends.

Fish are also cultivated in the gei wai since fish fry also enter the pond during stocking. Fish harvesting takes place in late autumn/early winter by draining the pond and then netting the fish trapped in the large pool of water that remains.

The Mai Po gei wai represent a type of extensive shrimp farming once common in Asia, but due to intensification of the industry as a result of the increase in demand for shrimps, this method has largely disappeared. Apart from the value of the gei wai in conserving wetland biodiversity in Deep Bay, the income generated from the sale of the shrimps and fish provides over 10% of the annual upkeep of the Reserve. The gei wai are also an important educational tool, used to demonstrate the value of wetlands to visiting students and members of the public. Regionally, the Mai Po gei wai have also been used as an example to promote the conservation of the remaining traditionally operated shrimp ponds elsewhere in Asia, such as in the Red River Delta, Vietnam.

The Biodiversity of Mai Po Marshes

At the time of the draining of the gei wai these areas become an important feeding ground for over 500 heron, egrets and spoonbills which are attracted to the small non-commercial fish and shrimps in the shallow pools of water. As each of the Mai Po gei wai are drained sequentially, it means that there is a steady supply of food for these waterbirds.

The mangrove and reed-beds inside the gei wai are also important wildlife habitats. The mangroves support a diversity of invertebrates under their canopy, such as crabs, gastropods and polychaete worms whilst the canopy itself is a roosting site for many birds, particularly herons and egrets. In the summer, breeding colonies of up to 500 pairs of herons and egrets have formed in the mangroves of a single gei wai. The reed-beds support nearly 400 species of invertebrates, and act as a feeding site for migratory birds, such as the Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus, as well as a breeding site for resident birds, such as the Purple Heron Ardea purpurea.

Threats to Mai Po Marshes

The productivity of some of the Mai Po gei wai has been seriously affected by organic pollution in Deep Bay, and the affected ponds are now managed solely as wildlife habitats. The Hong Kong Government is cleaning up Deep Bay but this wetland system is now also being threatened by in-filling of the fish ponds outside of Mai Po for development. Whilst there is hope that the adverse effects of these developments can be minimized, there is uncertainty over the area's long-term future in view of its location by an economically expanding part of China. As a result, the full commitment of the Hong Kong Government and the international community will be essential in conserving this important wetland.

Case Study 4: India

Keoladeo National Park

By Arvinder S. Brar, Department of Environment and Forests, India

General Description

Originally known as 'Ghana', which means 'thicket', and then later as Bharatpur, Keoladeo National Park is a shallow wetland of 2,873ha enclosed by a 2m high stone wall. It lies in a natural depression 172-175m above sea level at the western end of the chain of freshwater wetlands lying along the Indogangetic plains. It is situated 2km southeast of Bharatpur City and 180km south of Delhi.

Keoladeo is flooded during the southwest monsoon (end of June-September) receiving, on average, 660mm rainfall over 32 rainy days. Originally developed as a duck shooting reserve by the Maharajah of Bharatpur in the 1850s, the area was partly man-made with earthen dykes dividing the area into blocks and sluice gates controlling the flow of water to and from the blocks. This system is still in use today. After independence the area was declared a Bird Sanctuary in 1956, although the Maharajah retained the shooting rights for birds and other animals until 1972.

Current Status

The park, a protected forest since its declaration in 1967, was declared a Ramsar site in 1981 in recognition of its value as a unique man-made freshwater wetland which serves as a staging ground for migratory waterfowl and forms an important wintering ground for the threatened Siberian Crane Grus leucogeranus (IUCN Red List, 1994). It was included in the list of National Parks in 1982 and declared a World Heritage site in 1985.

The park is surrounded by nine villages with a total population of around 15,000 people who originally depended on the park for fuel, fodder, timber, etc. They ceased to have any rights after the declaration of the National Park.

Biological Diversity

The aquatic vegetation is rich and includes 96 species of submerged and emergent plants as well as a diversity of scrub forests including woodlands, scrub woodlands, woodland savannahs, shrub savannahs, and grass savannahs consisting of various floristic combinations of the following trees and grasses, Mitragyna parvifolia, Syzygium cumini, Ziziphus mauritiana, Prosopis cineraria, Acacia leucophloea, Acacia nilotica, Capparis sepiaria, Vetiveria zizanioides, Desmostachya bipinnata and Cynodon dactylon. A total of 350 species of plants have been recorded in this small area.

This diversity of plant life supports a high vertebrate diversity including fish (50 species), amphibians (5 species), reptiles (28 species), birds (369 species), and mammals (29 species). Of the bird species present a significant number are considered globally threatened (IUCN Red List, 1994) including Dalmation Pelican Pelecanus crispus, Grey Pelican Pelicanus philippenses, Adjutant Stork Leptoptilos dubius, Lesser Adjutant Stork Leptoptilos javanicus , Baikal Teal Anas formosa, Baer's Pochard Aythya baeri, Marbled Teal Marmaronetta angustirostris, Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus, Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca, Pallas's Fishing Eagle Haliaeetus leucoryphus, Siberian Crane Grus leucogeranus, and Sociable Lapwing Vanellus gregarius. Threatened mammals recorded within the park include Bengal Fox Vulpes bengalensis, Fishing Cat Prionailurusviverrinus, and Smooth Indian Otter Lutra perspicillata (IUCN Red List, 1994).

Threats and Conservation Efforts

Water is of critical importance for the health of this wetland. Although once a flood prone area, water became scarce after the construction of the Panchna dam in the catchment area and Keoladeo now faces drought, barring years of exceptionally good rainfall. The Rajasthan Government has taken a decision to give the park priority over the irrigation needs of the farmers. Of the two sources of water available to the park, the Yamuna River is not desirable because of the high level of pollutants, and drawing water from the Chambal River involves considerable expenditure since the river is at a lower level than the park and water has to be pumped. Overall, a permanent solution to the water supply problem at Keoladeo is yet to be found.

As the park has become a popular rendezvous for tourists the world over, it attracts more than 100,000 visitors annually. This has encouraged hotel construction around the park which threatens to surround the park from all sides and increase pollution. This can be controlled by enforcing the Environmental Protection Act of 1986 in this area.

The park was originally a major wintering ground of the Siberian Crane Grus leucogeranus but their numbers have dwindled over the years. Efforts to conserve the declining population were made jointly by the Governments of India and the Russian Federation, the International Crane Foundation and the Wildbird Society of Japan. Siberian Crane chicks from two sources, parent reared and costume reared (the latter involved humans disguised as cranes who mimicked the postures used by adult cranes towards their chicks) were flown to India and released in the wild to allow them to integrate with the wild population. Although the non-arrival of wild birds caused an initial setback, the young birds were kept in the park during the summer and the final outcome was encouraging as the birds survived and became free ranging, flying within a radius of 20-30km. Last winter (1995/1996) these birds flew off from the park. There are plans to release more birds and monitor their movements using radiotelemetry.

Paspalum distichum, an amphibious grass which formed a mat in the water areas after grazing was terminated, has been effectively checked by controlling water levels and allowing the villagers to collect grass from the park. However, a study may also be undertaken to investigate the effects of grazing by water buffaloes as a further means of control. Prosopis juliflora, an exotic tree species which grows in the park, is controlled by girdling the trees at collar level, extracting the poles manually, and flooding the sapling area with water to check their growth. The Water Hyacinth Eichhornia crassipes is extracted manually, and cut-back operations are undertaken to check the sedge Cyperus alopecuroides. Khus grass Vetiveria zizanioides, which invades water areas during drought periods, is expanding in some areas and various management techniques are used to control this species.

Since the park is surrounded by human populations who once depended on the park, it was felt that their involvement in conservation efforts was important. A detailed Participatory Rural Appraisal was conducted by the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) with the cooperation of the Forest Department, Rajasthan. The problems were discussed in villages where at least 50% of the villagers' participation was ensured and solutions were sought from them. A report submitted by WWF is currently being considered by the department. The Park authorities have also employed the local villagers as guides and rickshaw pullers for visitors and as labourers for the management activities within the park.

It is recognized that the education of the villagers with respect to conservation issues and the role of the park is important and a Conservation Education Project is being undertaken around the park by the Bombay Natural History Society, Bombay.

Case Study 5: Japan

Kushiro Marsh

By Hisashi Shinsho, Kushiro City Museum, Japan

Location and Climate

Kushiro Marsh is located in eastern Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan's four main islands, and separated from the Pacific Ocean by Kushiro city.

In eastern Hokkaido, especially the Kushiro region, fog often covers the area in summer with the number of foggy days amounting to more than 110 days per year. This area has the smallest number of daylight hours per year in Japan. Climatically, eastern Hokkaido is in the cool temperate zone with an average annual temperature of less than 15.50C (600F). The marsh is of a typical boreal nature in the lowland region of the east coast of Hokkaido.

Covering an area of 18,290ha, the marsh accounts for approximately 60% of the total area of peatlands in Japan. The peat is currently 3-6m in thickness. The marsh is 2-10m above sea level, surrounded by hills which are about 100m above the sea level to the west, north and east. More than 10 tributaries of the Kushiro River meander through the marsh.

The Flora and Fauna of Kushiro Marsh

The marsh is composed of three types of vegetation: peat bog located in the central area; fen, reed and sedge marsh which surrounds the peat bog; and alder swamp forest, distributed on the marsh margins near hills, and the levee areas of rivers and floodplains within the marsh. Fen, reed and sedge marsh forms approximately 70% of the marsh area, where it is a very important habitat of the threatened Red-crested Crane Grus japonensis (IUCN Red List, 1994).

The peat bog area, which covers less than 2% of the marsh, is surrounded by several natural river levees so rivers do not overflow into the peat bog and the vegetation is typically boreal. Composed of sterile soil, the peat bog is dominated by Sphagnum moss which forms mounds 30-40cm high within which Hair Moss Polytrichum sp. and Reindeer Moss Cladonia sp. are found. Small shrubs are found within the Sphagnum bog such as Ledum palustre var. nipponicum, Chamaedaphne calyculata, Empetrum nigrum var. japonicum, Andromeda polifolia, Vaccinium oxycoccus,Myrica gale var. tomentosa along with a range of herbs such as Cottongrass Carex middendorffii, Scirpus hudsoniagus, Schenchzeria palustris, Eleochis japonica, Pogonia japonica, and insectivorous plants including Sundew Grass Utricularia intermedia and U. uliginaso.

bio78.jpg (18463 bytes)Bog Rosemary Andromeda polifolia, a small shrub found within the Sphagnum bogs at the Kushiro Marsh. (Photo: Hisashi Shinsho)

Reeds and Calamagrotis langdorffii are distributed in the natural levees of rivers, river-flooded plains and the marsh areas close to hills. Sedges are distributed in the remains of old rivers, ponds and peripheral areas of lakes with a high level of groundwater. The sedges Carex lyngbyei and C. rhynchophysa dominate the marshes near the location where reeds grow in groups, while C. lasiocarpa var. occultans, C. speudoeuraica plus C. limosa are dominant in the centre of the marsh. In the marsh area which curves into the hills, sedges consisting of C. caespitosa and C. thunbergii form a tussock grass, growing to a height of 40-50cm and providing a good wintering habitat for insects and amphibians in the marsh.

Alder swamp forest has developed in the basins of the rivers. The swamp forest is supplied with more fertile soil, much nitrogen and phosphorus by water overflowing from the rivers. It consists of only one species, Japanese Alder Alnus japonica, which grows in two forms, a tree type measuring 10-11m in height and a shrub type with a height of 2-3m. Both growth forms are regenerated through germination. The distribution and growth of alder is seriously influenced by the conditions within the marsh and this species has proved to be a useful indicator plant for monitoring ecological change.

Kushiro Marsh is one of the most important habitats for boreal wildlife in Japan. Blakiston's Fish-owl Ketupa blakistoni and the Red-crested Crane (Japanese populations less than 100 individuals and approximately 600 individuals respectively) both occur in Kushiro Marsh and are threatened species (IUCN Red List, 1994). Research projects on the habitat condition of these species have been carried out by the Environment Agency of Japan.

Kushiro Marsh is the only habitat in Japan of the Siberian Salamander Salamandrella keyserlingii. The distribution of this amphibian is restricted to Kushiro Marsh, Siberia, the Kamchatka Peninsula and Sakhalin.

Japanese Hutchen Hucho perryi is the largest Japanese freshwater fish and its present distribution is restricted to Hokkaido. Kushiro Marsh is the main habitat for this species which prefers to live in large meandering rivers and lakes where it may grow to more than 2m in length.

A distinguishing characteristic of the marsh is the exceptional abundance of boreal dragonflies. The marsh is one of the very few remaining habitats in Japan where such ancient species of dragonflies, often dating back to the Glacier Age, have been found.

Utilization of Kushiro Marsh

The marsh is of hydrological value in that it controls the water level of the lower course of the Kushiro River and purifies the water which flows through the marsh. It has social and cultural values also in supplying water for domestic and industrial use and providing a breeding habitat for salmon which is one of the most important natural resources in the country.

Located near urban areas, many residents use the marsh for various activities such as research and study, and recreation. Local residents and visitors enjoy various activities such as treks on horseback on the hills facing the marsh, canoeing tours in the rivers of the marsh, cross-country skiing through the marsh in winter, bird-watching and study tours examining the prehistory of the marsh area.

Conservation of Kushiro Marsh

The conservation of Kushiro Marsh is a most important theme because it is the best remaining example of a boreal marsh in Japan. It is also highly regarded because of its vast size, its diversity of flora and fauna including highly specialized, threatened and locally occurring species, and because this fragile ecosystem has remained intact and in a natural state for centuries. Finally, because of its diversity of birdlife it is of international ornithological importance.

In 1987, Kushiro Marsh was designated a National Park to ensure the protection and safety of habitats and the marsh ecosystem. The marsh is also a designated Ramsar site and a National Wildlife Protection Area. In 1995, the citizens of Kushiro city and local people of neighbouring municipalities established the Kushiro International Wetland Centre for several purposes: in order to study wise use management projects being carried out in the marsh; to carry out research into the marsh ecosystem and monitor ecological change in the marsh; and to promote public awareness of marsh conservation and examine the possibility of developing a programme of eco-tours to the marsh. The Centre also contributes to international programmes which promote the conservation and wise use of the marsh. It encourages international collaboration and exchange programmes utilizing the abundant nature and well-equipped facilities available in the Kushiro region.

Case Study 6: Jordan

The Biodiversity of the Azraq Oasis

By Ghaith Fariz and Yassin Al-Zou'bi, Azraq Oasis Conservation Project, Jordan

The Azraq Oasis

Located 85km southeast of Amman near the village of South Azraq, the Azraq Oasis consists of permanent pools surrounded by marsh land (16km2) which in turn is surrounded on all sides, except the west, by mudflat areas (58km2). The large seasonal playa lake in the mudflat, known as Qa Al-Azraq, is flooded during the winter by surface run-off waters flowing through seven wadis over the catchment area of the basin (12,710km2). In 1977, the wetlands of Azraq, which include the pools and marshlands, were listed as a Ramsar site called the Azraq Oasis and the urgent need for their environmental protection has been declared nationally and internationally.


The most recent vegetation survey of the area (February - June 1995), revealed the presence of a total of 133 species of vascular plants within the wetland reserve. Plant distribution varies according to prevailing habitats: the silt dunes are dominated by Nitraria retusa and Tamarix passerinoides while the rocky limestone areas are dominated by two main species, Limonium meryeri and Inula crithmoides. Approaching the Qa from the marshes, the leading species consist of Tamarix passerinoides and Halocnemum strobilaceum until the latter species begins to dominate. Excluding five months in the year (December - April), during which the Qa area is usually flooded, the Qa is barren and lacks any flora except for the clayey border area. These clayey parts are dominated by halophytic plants (those adapted to growing in salt-rich soils) such as Halopeplis amplexicaulis, Suaeda asphaltica, Tamarix passerinoides and Aeluropus littoralis. Aquatic species that fringe the permanent water bodies consist of lush vegetation stands which include such species as Typha dominguensis, Phragmites australis, Juncus maritimus, and Inula crithmoides.

Ephemeral water bodies with saline waters are associated with different vegetative associations. In the Azraq wetland these waters are a habitat for Chara sp., Ruppia cirrhosa, Ruppia maritima, Zannichellia palustris and Scripus maritimus and are fringed by Tamarix tetragyna, Phragmites australis, Juncus maritimus, Lythrum tribracteatum, Aleuropus littoralis, Halopeplis amplexicaulis.

The Fauna of the Azraq Oasis

Birds: Being a major station for migrating birds, the Azraq Oasis gains additional national and international importance. Over 250 bird species have been recorded in Azraq with over 200 of these species being migratory. Together with Qa Al-Azraq, the Wetland Reserve used to be an important wintering site for 350,000 - 500,000 waterfowl. These were predominantly three species of duck, Wigeon Anas penelope, Teal A. creca, and Pintail A. acuta and the Coot Fulica atra but included a range of other bird species breeding in the area (see Box 6) as well as the threatened Marbled Teal Marmaronetta angustirostris (IUCN Red List, 1994), one pair of which was found to breed at the fish pools in 1990.

Water RailRallus aquaticus
Little Ringed PloverCharadrius dubius
Greater Sand PloverC. leschenaultii
Spur-winged PloverVanellus spinosus
White-tailed PloverV. leucurus
Gull-billed TernSterna nilotica
Little TernS. albifrons
Spotted SandgrousePterocles senegallus
Short-toed LarkCalandrella brachydactyla
Lesser Short-toed LarkC. rufescens
Temminck's Horned LarkEremophila bilopha
Desert WheatearOenanthe deserti
Desert FinchRhodopechys obsoleta

It is believed that the threatened Houbara Bustard Chlamydotis undulata (IUCN Red List, 1994), a former resident of the nearby undisturbed areas of the desert to the east of the Qa Al-Azraq area, may occur as a winter resident. The Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca may also be a winter visitor. Regionally threatened or declining species consist of the Bittern Botaurus stellaris and Great Snipe Gallinago media which is a rare passage migrant. In addition to these species the Azraq Oasis harbours bird species restricted largely to the Middle East. These include the Black-winged Pratincole Glareola nordmanni, a rare passage migrant, and Finsch's Wheatear Oenanthe finschii, an infrequent winter visitor.

Mammals: Mammals once found in the area include the threatened Grey Wolf Canis lupus and Mountain Gazelle Gazella gazella (IUCN Red List, 1994) and the Caracal Lynx Caracal caracal. None of these were spotted in the wilderness during the latest survey performed in the area during 1994-95 by the Azraq Oasis Conservation Project.

Fish and Invertebrates: The isolated species of fish and invertebrates in the marshlands are thought to exhibit a high degree of endemism. Since the marshlands have not been previously studied, it has not been possible to detect the effect of habitat degradation on these species. In 1973 one study reported the presence of eight species of molluscs in the reserve's pools and a recent limnological survey of the two permanent pools by the Azraq Oasis Conservation Project revealed the presence of four new species. Two fish surveys carried out in 1973 recorded five species namely: Aphanius dispar, Tilapia zillii, T. aurea, Clarias lazera and Barbus canius, while another in 1988 found Clarias gariepinus, Aphanius sirihani, Orechromis aurea and Tilapia zillii. Except for these two major studies, the fish of the Azraq wetlands were not well recorded and attracted little scientific attention until the Azraq Oasis Conservation Project conducted a survey of fish in the wetlands in 1994-1995. Thirteen species were recorded, some of which were new to the records of Azraq and Jordan. Aphanius sirihani, which had not been recorded since 1988 and was thought to be extinct, was found during this survey.

Major Threat to the Integrity of the Oasis

Over-pumping of water from the Azraq Basin constitutes the major threat to the natural habitats and biodiversity of the Azraq Wetlands. During the last decade and until the end of 1993, the number of waterfowl declined along with the drying out of the oasis due to the over-pumping of water from the Azraq Basin. By the winter of 1990-91 less than 100 were recorded. An overall collapse of the ecosystems in the area occurred. During 1994 and 1995, as a result of the interventions of the GEF funded Azraq Oasis Conservation Project, huge amounts of water were pumped back into the Oasis. Consequently, larger numbers of various species were sighted again (over 75,000 birds during 1994-95). A more accurate survey of these birds is being undertaken by the Project to determine the impact of intervention.

Further Reading

  • Azraq Oasis Conservation Project. 1995. Flora Survey Study (unpublished).
  • Azraq Oasis Conservation Project. 1995. Limnology of Azraq. Azraq Oasis Conservation Project Publication. Amman, Jordan.
  • Evans, M.I. (ed). 1994. Important Bird Areas in the Middle East. BirdLife Conservation Series No.2. BirdLife International, Cambridge, U.K.
  • Mir, S. 1990. Taxonomical Studies and the Geographic Distribution of Freshwater Fishes of Jordan.
  • Nelson, J.B. 1972. Azraq: Desert Oasis. Allen Lane, London.

Case Study 7: Malaysia

Tasek Bera

By Rebecca D'Cruz, Wetlands International, Malaysia

Major Features of the Wetland

Tasek Bera, Malaysia's first Ramsar site, is one of only two major natural freshwater lake systems in Peninsular Malaysia. The lake, and associated marshes with extensive areas of reeds, freshwater and peat swamp forests, encompass an estimated 6,150ha. The 61,383ha catchment of this swamp lies on the watershed/divide between the west/east coast of Peninsular Malaysia.

There are three major habitat types in Tasek Bera, the first is found in the limnetic or open water region with the aquatic herb Utricularia in the surface waters (about 1% of the area), and the second and third within the littoral region, with areas dominated either by Lepironia rush and Pandanus (about 32% of the area) or by Eugenia swamp forest stands (about 67% of the area). The littoral region is thus the dominant feature of this swamp ecosystem, while the limnetic region is restricted to the northern half of the swamp, near the main water channel, the Sungai Bera.

The Many Values of Tasek Bera

Tasek Bera provides a host of important hydrological functions such as flood control, flow regulation, water purification, groundwater recharge and water supply. In addition, the area is important as a prime example of freshwater swamp habitat and blackwater lacustrine ecosystem, supporting a high biodiversity.

The freshwater ecosystem supports a unique biological community including a number of endemic and endangered species. Many endemic plant species have been identified and this includes an aquatic aroid, Cryptocoryne cordata. Threatened mammal species that have been recorded in the area include Dhole Cuon alpinus, Clouded Leopard Neofelis nebulosa, Tiger Panthera tigris, Asian Elephant Elephas maximus, Malayan Tapir Tapirus indicus and Gaur Bos gaurus (IUCN Red List, 1994).

The avian fauna is diverse and abundant with about 200 species of birds which include heron, wader and duck species. Two of the species so far recorded are listed as threatened; the Crested Fireback Lophura ignita and Masked Finfoot Heliopais personata (IUCN Red List, 1994). Four others, the Grey-headed Fish Eagle Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus, Black Hornbill Anthracoceros malayanus, Crestless Fireback Lophura erythropthalma and Ferruginous Babbler Trichastoma bicolor, are considered by some authorities to be near-threatened.

The biodiversity of fish fauna is high with a total of 95 species, representing 22 families. All but one, Trichogaster pectoralis, are indigenous to Malaysia and they include two threatened species: Asian Bonytongue Scleropages formosus and Ikan Temoleh Probarbus jullieni (IUCN Red List, 1994). About 50 species of fish are known as aquarium species, and at least 20 of these are of commercial importance. Sustainable utilization of the fish resources in Tasek Bera for the aquarium trade may be beneficial for both the local and state economies.

Traditional Activities

The indigenous people inhabiting the Tasek Bera area, known as the Semelai, rely on its natural resources. Examples of such resource use are the harvesting of Pandanus leaves from the forest to be woven into handicraft items, plants with medicinal values, and 'keruing' oil from the Dipterocarpus kerrii tree. The fish and wildlife in the lake and surrounding swamp forest provide a cheap source of protein for the Semelai. Until fairly recently, the Semelai practised shifting cultivation; today about 45% of them work in the adjacent oil palm and rubber plantations.

bio86.jpg (32488 bytes)Semelai woman fishing in the Sungei Bera, the main river flowing into the Tasek Bera system. The lake has a very high diversity of fish which provides a cheap source of protein for local communities. (Photo: Roger Jaensch/Wetlands International)

Major Threats

There are a number of major management problems facing Tasek Bera and its catchment. These include increased pesticide/fertilizer run-off from the cash crop plantations surrounding the lake, and pollution from the Bera River-Pahang River and the Palong River-Muar River systems through reverse flow during flood conditions in the northeast monsoon season. There are local reports of declining fish catches and an increase in fish disease as well as marked fluctuations in the water level of the lake during the year. Other environmental impacts may result from clearing of aquatic vegetation within the lake system for navigational purposes, and increasing levels of harvesting, by non-locals, of food and aquarium fish, plants (especially rattan and tree resins) and other wildlife. In addition, the planned development of nature tourism will give rise to a number of potential threats. There is insufficient cross-sectoral coordination between the agencies responsible for the management of the area and a lack of regular monitoring of the lake water quality.

Status and Management of Tasek Bera

The central core surrounding Tasek Bera, comprising approximately 31,955ha, is currently designated as a Wildlife Reserve, under the Protection of the Wild Life Act 1972, and is administered by the Bera District Office. A large part of the catchment has been converted to oil palm plantation and is under the control of the Federal Land Development Authority. The remaining forested areas exist as five non-contiguous blocks gazetted as Permanent Forest Estates under the jurisdiction of the Forestry Department. Since its acceptance as a Ramsar site, the Pahang State Government has gazetted 26,000ha of the reserve under the National Land Code which allows for the protection of an area for its conservation value. A further 27,500ha in the surrounding area have been gazetted as a buffer zone.

The Ramsar Convention came into force in Malaysia on 10 March 1995. One of the initiatives which has been set in motion since, is the proposed development of an integrated management plan for Tasek Bera, which should serve as a model of sustainable wetland management for other sites in Malaysia. This, coupled with the recently established National Steering Committee for the Ramsar Convention and the proposed development of a National Wetland Policy, clearly indicates a growing recognition of the importance of wetlands in Malaysia.

File 2: Chapters 5-9 and Conclusions

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