Africa's New Safari Trend Is for the Birds

Leon Marshall
for National Geographic News
July 27, 2001
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 visitors—and their much-needed hard currency—to 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."

Diverse Habitats

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 habitats—the birds of greatest interest to bird-watchers.

Peter McKuchane, the marketing manager of Satour, South Africa's tourism development organization, said the country is exploring ways of making the region's rich bird life better known to prospective visitors. "As with our incredible wealth of flowers, we know the potential is there with our wealth of birds too," he said. A comprehensive study done by the University of Cape Town's Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology found that while developed countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom are still among the biggest destinations for birders, South Africa is gradually catching up.

When the research was done in 1998, it was estimated that the country had more than 21,000 active birders and up to 1,500 international visitors each year who came primarily to observe the rich bird life. The researchers concluded that bird-watchers spent between 104 million and 221 million South African rands (U.S. $13 million to $27 million) a year.

Found on the bookshelves of many South African families is a popular book by Austin Roberts, titled Birds of South Africa. It is said that only the Bible exceeds Roberts' in the number of copies sold nationally.

The first edition of Roberts' was published in 1940 and contained a foreword by General Jan Smuts. The former South African prime minister, who was a renowned world statesman, naturalist, and philosopher, wrote that the bird life of South Africa constituted one of the country's "outstanding glories."

Roberts' described bird species that were abundant in South African but which most people in the country knew little about. The author insisted that the book, which is now in its seventh update, be made as affordable as possible so it would be widely accessible.

Many Spin-Off Benefits

Many of the brochures about parks and regions in the country now include detailed information about the availability of various bird species—the kind of information once provided only about larger animals.

Bed-and-breakfast establishments and taverns along the main roads have sprung up to serve the growing tourist trade, bearing names such as Weaver's Nest, Crane Cottage, Falcon's View, and Woodpeckers Lodge.

Some rural areas that have suffered a decline in fortune from the effects of an economic depression and heavy migration of local residents to cities have found that birding can be a springboard for renewal.

One such town is Wakkerstroom, or "lively river," on the escarpment of South Africa's Drakensberg mountain range. It is surrounded by vast flood plains and montane grasslands that harbor a wide array of bird life. Almost a ghost town not long ago, it has become a popular weekend retreat for city residents and is rapidly becoming known internationally as an excellent destination for birding.

Don McAllister, a member of the town's tourism association and himself a tour guide, said: "Ten years ago this was a town of ruins. Now Wakkerstroom has 200 tourist beds. That in turn is more than double what we had a year ago."

"It is safe to say that tourism has more than quadrupled over the past two years. It is our lifeblood," said McAllister.

According to McAllister, the area has 360 bird species, including 21 species that are endemic. Two particular species that draw birders from around the world, he noted, are Rudd's lark, which is rare and endangered, and Botha's lark, unique to the region.

With financial support from some large companies, Birdlife South Africa has been training local people as bird guides. It set up a training complex at Wakkerstroom, where people from all across the country attend quarterly training sessions.

Many rural South Africans are benefiting from jobs in the growing hospitality industry and from the sale of locally made crafts targeted to tourists along major roads.

Conservation efforts are also getting a boost as South Africans become more aware of how important birds are to the country's economy and ecosystems.

All the major cities and many towns now have well-managed bird sanctuaries, and local communities are increasingly involved in habitat-preservation programs.

Berruti said the education and conservation efforts are helping to change attitudes among different groups. Many farmers, for example, now understand the importance of preserving raptors, instead of poisoning them, and participate in projects aimed at preventing the extinction of some species, such as a national count of cranes.

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