Coastal dune conservation in South Africa kicked forward a gear in 2001, when driving on the beaches was banned. This helped safeguard sensitive coastal birds whose nests were often crushed or breeding season interrupted by vehicles. But archaeologists have also welcomed the additional protection measures for evidence of ancient humans.

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Middens among dunes often include remains of crabs, crayfish, birds, fish and even whales.

When South Africa banned vehicles from driving on beaches in 2001, there was a massive outcry, not least from the 4x4 fraternity.

But in 2004 when the policy was reviewed, it was considered such a success that it is now set in stone.

Coastal dune conservation has emerged as a crucial endeavour for environmentalists as well as archaeologists because these dunes carry far more than just beach sand.

In northern KwaZulu-Natal, the massive and ancient dune system there has been found to be an enormous freshwater filtration system. Rainwater that falls on top trickles out decades later.

In Alexandria, the dunefields that are now part of Addo Elephant National Park are almost pristine, and preserve a landscape of extraordinary windswept beauty that is nearly 6500 years old.

Near Cape St Francis, and at regular intervals along the southern Cape coast, dunes protect middens of shellfish and other objects that show how early modern humans eked out a living here up to 50 000 years ago and more. These dunes carry crucial clues about human development. Coastal dune conservation is important for preserving such vanishing middens and archaeological traces.

The edge of the sea is also a place full of life – much of it extremely sensitive. For example, while vehicles were allowed on beaches, various coastal birds like the Damara tern and African oystercatcher were badly affected.

But once the vehicles were stopped, the improvements in breeding were ‘staggeringly good’, says ornithologist Tony Williams from CapeNature.

Studies found the birds were breeding earlier in the season and more successfully than before the 4x4 ban.

Coastal dune conservation is a now seen as a highly important part of safeguarding South Africa’s enormous coastline and the immense biodiversity that it supports.

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