Africa's New Safari Trend Is for the Birds

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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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