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Location Namibia, Erongo
Central coordinates 14o 30.00' East  23o 20.00' South
IBA criteria A1, A4i, A4iii
Area 8,500 ha
Year of IBA assessment 2001

Site description Sandwich Harbour is a natural lagoon which lies on the Namib desert coast, c.55 km south of Walvis Bay. One of Namibia’s four Ramsar Sites, and the country’s only marine reserve, Sandwich was once a natural harbour for whalers and fish processors who could gain access to fresh water here. Owing to dynamic geomorphological change, its sandbars and lagoons shift constantly with winter storms and longshore currents.

Two main sections of this wetland are recognized: the northern freshwater wetland, much reduced in size since the early 1970s when it covered c.2 km², and the southern mudflats, a 20 km² area of sand and mudflats inundated daily by the tides. The northern wetland is now a thin sliver, mainly of reedbed Phragmites, fed by a massive freshwater aquifer beneath the high dunes of the Namib sand-sea. This potable water slowly seeps through the wetland and there supports lush but dwindling stands of emergent and marginal vegetation. The wetland is protected from the Atlantic Ocean swells by a barrier beach which has moved from 1 km to within 100 m of the dunes. The southern lagoon, which leads into mudflats, is a relatively shallow water-body some 5 km long by 3 km wide. It is protected from the ocean by a western sand-spit that once reached the northern wetland but now joins the mainland some 3 km south of it.

Sandwich Harbour is one of the most geomorphologically active areas along the entire Namib coast. In the late 1800s there was no barrier beach and therefore no protected wetland and an otherwise open harbour. The system continues to evolve rapidly and contrary to popular belief it is far from dead.

Key Biodiversity See Box for key species. This is the most important wetland for waterbirds in southern Africa, with counts exceeding 300,000 birds in some years. Sandwich Harbour regularly supports over 50,000 birds in summer and over 20,000 in winter. Traditionally, the northern wetland holds the highest species diversity (up to 51 species of wetland bird), while the southern mudflats hold by far the largest number of birds, dominated by terns, sandpipers, flamingos and cormorants. Shorebirds occur here at densities exceeding 7,000 birds/km², amongst the highest recorded in the world. The largest total counts at Sandwich Harbour have been 238,000 birds in January 1998 and 316,000 in January 2001.

The area is vitally important for Palearctic waders and flamingos, which comprise the majority of the numbers. The area supports massive numbers of several species, including Phalacrocorax capensis, Phoenicopterus ruber and P. minor, Sterna hirundo, up to 40% of the world population of Charadrius pallidus, and tens of thousands of Calidris ferruginea and C. minuta. At times, the combined total of birds in Sandwich Harbour and Walvis Bay is so large that it constitutes half of all birds counted in southern Africa during African waterfowl counts.

Non-bird biodiversity: The dolphin Tursiops truncatus (DD) is seen in the lagoons, with pods of 10–20 animals not uncommon, while a non-breeding colony of c.10,000 Arctocephalus pusillus occupies the beach west of the mudflats. Hyaena brunnea (LR/nt) is a frequent visitor to the wetland.

Populations of IBA trigger species

Species Season Period Population estimate Quality of estimate IBA Criteria IUCN Category
Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus winter  2,480-11,900 individuals  A4i  Least Concern 
Lesser Flamingo Phoeniconaias minor winter  common  A1  Near Threatened 
Cape Cormorant Phalacrocorax capensis winter  4,230-25,300 individuals  A1, A4i  Endangered 
African Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini winter  20-90 individuals  A1, A4i  Near Threatened 
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta non-breeding  120-940 individuals  A4i  Least Concern 
Chestnut-banded Plover Charadrius pallidus non-breeding  170-5,590 individuals  A4i  Near Threatened 
White-fronted Plover Charadrius marginatus winter  440-2,540 individuals  A4i  Least Concern 
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres winter  402-2,260 individuals  A4i  Least Concern 
Sanderling Calidris alba winter  1,630-14,160 individuals  A4i  Least Concern 
Little Stint Calidris minuta winter  3,590-30,480 individuals  A4i  Least Concern 
Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea winter  3,580-43,680 individuals  A4i  Near Threatened 
Kelp Gull Larus dominicanus winter  280-3,200 individuals  A4i  Least Concern 
Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia non-breeding  30-168 individuals  A4i  Least Concern 
Greater Crested Tern Thalasseus bergii winter  80-820 individuals  A4i  Least Concern 
Sandwich Tern Thalasseus sandvicensis winter  200-3,660 individuals  A4i  Least Concern 
Common Tern Sterna hirundo winter  4,610-42,000 individuals  A4i  Least Concern 
Damara Tern Sternula balaenarum winter  50-300 individuals  A1, A4i  Near Threatened 
A4iii Species group - waterbirds winter  50,000-99,999 individuals  unknown  A4iii   

IBA Monitoring

2001 high not assessed not assessed
Good - based on reliable and complete / representative data

Human intrusions and disturbance recreational activities happening now majority/most of area/population (50-90%) slow but significant deterioration high

Protected areas

Protected area Designation Area (ha) Relationship with IBA Overlap with IBA (ha)  
Namib Naukluft National Park 4,976,800 protected area contains site 8,500  
Sandwich Harbour Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar) 16,500 protected area contains site 8,500  


IUCN habitat Habitat detail Extent (% of site)
Wetlands (inland)   8%
Rocky areas   31%
Grassland   60%

Land use

Land-use Extent (% of site)
nature conservation and research -
tourism/recreation -

References Berry and Berry (1975), Gebhardt (1973), Glassom and Branch (1997), Hellwig (1968), Kensley (1978), Kensley and Penrith (1977), Kinahan (1991), Lenssen et al. (1991), Noli-Peard and Williams (1991), Prozesky (1963), Simmons (1991, 1996b, 1999), Ward and Seely (1990), Whitelaw et al. (1978), Wilkinson et al. (1989).

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Recommended citation  BirdLife International (2016) Important Bird and Biodiversity Area factsheet: Sandwich Harbour. Downloaded from on 23/10/2016

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