for National Geographic News
Hear a lion's roar in a still African night or watch antelope mill about a water hole as a leopard skulks in the thicket, and it's clear why southern African tourism is famous for its safari adventures. Now, the region's remarkable wealth of bird life is becoming part of the picture.
Birds may not have the same power to attract as Africa's famed large wildlife, such as lions, leopards, elephants, and rhinos. But, as one of the fastest-growing hobbies around the world, bird-watching is emerging as a way to lure foreign visitorsand their much-needed hard currencyto the region.
Now that the sub-continent's once-debilitating wars are subsiding, South Africa's government and business leaders have singled out tourism as the industry that offers the best hope of reducing widespread poverty and high levels of unemployment.
Tourism is one of the key economic growth sectors identified by President Thabo Mbeki in his State of the Nation address this year. It is a major source of investment, job creation, and local economic development.
"Many towns, townships, and rural areas around our country have already taken advantage of the benefits of tourism, and are using their local heritage to create jobs and make development happen," the minister of environmental affairs and tourism, Vali Moosa, recently told South Africa's Council of Provinces.
South Africa, a country about twice the size of Texas, has about 760 of the 950 bird species found throughout the sub-continent. In comparison, there are about a thousand bird species overall in the entire United States and Mexico.
The wealth of feathered species classifies South Africa as rich birding country, said Aldo Berruti, the director of Birdlife South Africa, the country's main association of bird-watchers. The organization has begun expanding its conservation mission to play a leading role in promoting tourism based on birding.
Berruti said Birdlife South Africa, as a partner organization of Birdlife International, is working "to establish important links between the international birding community and the Third World."
South Africa's diverse geography has a variety of ecosystems conducive to rich bird life.
The northern and eastern parts of the country are tropical and subtropical, with large numbers of bird species. But the drier, desert-like western and southwestern regions are rich in "endemic species" found only in particular habitatsthe birds of greatest interest to bird-watchers.
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