St Lucia is surrounded by iSimangaliso Wetland Park, one of the jewels of South Africa’s coastline. With a unique mosaic of ecosystems – swamps, lakes, beaches, coral reefs, wetlands, woodlands, coastal forests and grasslands – the area supports an astounding diversity of animal, bird and marine life.
St. Lucia was first named as “Rio de la Medaos do Oura” (“River of the Dows of Gold”) by the survivors of the Portuguese ship Saint Benedict.
On 13 December 1575, the day of the feast of Saint Lucy, Manuel Peresterello renamed the mouth area to Santa Lucia.
In 1822, St. Lucia was proclaimed by the British as a township.
In 1852 Robert Briggs Struthers, an ivory hunter and his party sailed into St Lucia Bay. During the next few years, the hunters shot over 1000 hippos in almost every river and lake in the Zulu Kingdom.
Hippos were killed for ivory export, which was used to make false teeth and mathematical instruments. Wild areas were regarded as places to gather fish, forest and game products and were also used for sport hunting.
It was realised that game numbers were becoming exhausted. As a result, in 1895 parts of St Lucia was proclaimed as a Game Reserve.
Sugar farming started on the Mfolozi flood plains and in 1932, the mouth closed which caused flooding in the area. In response to the flooding, farmers started to canalise the river.
During World War II, the Catalina Flying Boat base was established to combat the enemy U-boat attacks. The base was called “Eastern Shores”, the present day Catalina Bay.
During a severe drought in 2003, a Catalina wreck was discovered. Due to the wreck being used for target practice at the time as well as exposure to elements over the years, not much remains of it today.
Recommendations from scientists were ignored and by 1968, the state aggressively implemented plantation forestry on the Eastern Shores and Western Shores.
The South African Defense Force also established a small missile testing facility in the area during this time. During the 1970s and 1980s, missiles were dropped on the land and the lake. During this time, the lake was closed to tourism.
Government cutbacks on budgets to several state departments to increase the military budget, led to the transfer of several state forests to Natal Parks Board in 1986 and so the St Lucia System and Turtle Beaches and Coral Reefs of Tongaland were declared as Wetlands of International Importance.
The government assisted Natal Parks Board to establish a major protected area, namely the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park and in 1992, management of the Eastern Shores was transferred from the Department of Forestry to the Natal Administration.
Following the 1994 elections and scraping of Apartheid laws, a new conservation authority was amalgamated in 1997, namely Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.
In 1999, the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park became South Africa’s first World Heritage Site to be accepted and listed by UNESCO as iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
Phased removal of alien tree plantations were implemented on the Eastern and Western Shores. The recovery resulted in the reappearance of freshwater wetland systems. The rehabilitation process is still ongoing.