West Coast National Park and Saldanha Bay islands

Year of compilation: 2001

Site description
The West Coast National Park adjoins the town of Langebaan, c.100 km north of Cape Town. The park includes Langebaan Lagoon, a wetland of international importance, Postberg Nature Reserve, much of 16 Mile Beach, and the islands of Jutten (43 ha), Malgas (18 ha), Marcus (17 ha) and Schaapen (29 ha). Meeuw Island (7 ha), which still belongs to the South African National Defence Force (ZANDF), is also included in the IBA. The lagoon is a sheltered arm of Saldanha Bay; it is c.15 km long, 3 km wide, and up to 6 m deep.

Extensive areas of mudflat, sandflat and succulent saltmarsh (concentrated in the south) are exposed at low tide. The rich mud of the saltmarshes supports dense populations of molluscs and crustaceans. The localized freshwater input in the southern portion of the lagoon permits the growth of a diversity of palustrine wetland vegetation. There are large, tall Phragmites and Typha beds and extensive areas of mixed sedges and rushes dominated by species such as Juncus, Schoenoplectus, Scirpus and Cladium. Well-developed strandveld, comprising low bushes and succulents, dominates the terrestrial vegetation surrounding the lagoon. Many flowering annuals occur in spring and there are also elements of coastal sclerophyllous fynbos, especially in the east.

The large, triangular island of Jutten lies c.800 m from Jut Point at the southern entrance to Saldanha Bay, and rises to c.60 m. Sparse vegetation grows over numerous boulders strewn across the flat perimeter and sides of two small hills. Buildings and walls subdivide the island intricately. Large boulders are scattered across the largely unvegetated island of Malgas, which is circular and flat, lying across from Jutten at the northern entrance to Saldanha Bay. Marcus Island, which rises to just over 7 m, lies deep in Saldanha Bay about 1.2 km south of Hoedjies Point, and has been connected to the mainland since 1976 via a 2 km long causeway, which was built as part of the harbour development for the export of iron ore and the import of crude oil. Meeuw and Schaapen islands, which lie about 800 m from one another, are near the shore of Donkergat Bay and Langebaan town respectively.

Key biodiversity
See Box for key species. Over 250 bird species have been recorded in the park. Langebaan Lagoon regularly supports more than 37,500 non-passerine waterbirds in summer, of which 34,500 are waders (93% of which are Palearctic migrants). In some years, wader numbers can increase from 4,000 in winter to 50,000 in summer. Pluvialis squatarola, Calidris ferruginea, C. alba, C. canutus and Arenaria interpres are the major components of the summer wader assemblage. The coastal strandveld supports several restricted-range and/or biome-restricted species, including the recently described Certhilauda curvirostris (see account for IBA ZA023).

In winter, the lagoon regularly supports more than 10,500 birds, of which 4,500 are Phoenicopterus ruber and 4,000 are waders. Langebaan Lagoon is the most important wetland for waders in South Africa, regularly accounting for c.10% of South Africa’s coastal wader numbers. The marginal habitat is important for Circus ranivorus, C. maurus, Sarothrura rufa and Rallus caerulescens.

The five islands in Saldanha Bay are home to nearly 250,000 coastal seabirds. Malgas Island is one of only six breeding colonies of Morus capensis in the world, supporting 25% of the global population; it is known to have been in use since at least 1648. Together, the islands hold notable numbers of Spheniscus demersus. Nearly 10% of the global population of Larus hartlaubii, 7.3% of the global population of Phalacrocorax coronatus, and populations of P. neglectus, P. capensis and Sterna bergii, also breed at the various islands. Twelve percent of the world population of Haematopus moquini is found scattered throughout the park, mostly on the islands. The largest known colony of Larus dominicanus in southern Africa is found on Schaapen Island.

Non-bird biodiversity: A host of endangered and endemic plant species are found in the reserve. Among reptiles, the highly localized Bitis armata occurs around the town of Langebaan, while three endemic, highly localized and threatened lizards, the west coast endemic Scelotes gronovii (LR/nt), S. kasneri (VU) and Cordylus macropholis, occur on the xeric saltmarsh.

Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
Langebaan Lagoon and the Saldanha Bay Islands were proclaimed a National Park in 1985, and in 1987 Postberg Nature Reserve was added. The farm Wildevarkevallei was incorporated in 1988 and an additional 0.6 ha was purchased at Langebaan Lodge.

Although Donkergat military area (including Meeuw Island), at the northern extreme of the park’s western arm, is not part of the park, the ZANDF manage it as a conservation area. The lagoon was designated a Ramsar Site in 1988.Since the completion of the Sishen–Saldanha railroad in the early 1970s and the completion of a deep-water harbour in Saldanha Bay, the area has been committed as a major iron ore port. The town has experienced growth from gradual industrial development. Metal pollution from the iron-ore berth and pollution and oiling incidents from urbanization and shipping pose a threat to the future of the lagoon.

The South African Iron and Steel Corporation (ISCOR) recently announced through Saldanha Steel that it is soon to embark on the construction of a Corex steel smelter near Saldanha Bay. Controversy surrounding this project has resulted in various requests that the likelihood of change in ecological character of the system be investigated. The smelter, which is to go ahead, could cause potential damage to at least two highly valuable systems: through water abstraction on the Lower Berg river (IBA ZA083), and indirectly at Langebaan Lagoon and the Saldanha Bay Islands.

An unpredictable threat, which is difficult to control, is chronic pollution by crude oil or other pollutants that spill into the ocean when tankers break open, wash their tanks, dump cargo or pump bilge. Spheniscus demersus is particularly susceptible to these impacts, and a single oil disaster could severely affect populations.Morus capensis, Spheniscus demersus and Phalacrocorax capensis are also thought to have been affected by competition with commercial fisheries, especially purse-seining for surface-shoaling fish, such as anchovy Engraulis capensis and pilchard Sardinops sagax. A recommendation has been made that marine reserves with a radius of 25 km be created around important breeding islands. Commercial fishing should be banned or restricted within these zones.Owing to the causeway to Marcus Island, several mammalian predators, which are a threat to breeding seabirds, have periodically occurred on the island. Since the construction of the causeway, populations of all breeding seabirds on Marcus Island have declined.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2023) Important Bird Areas factsheet: West Coast National Park and Saldanha Bay islands. Downloaded from on 29/03/2023.