Ashburton’s birds of prey haven

2008-04-23 00:00

Sharon Dell

ON a sunny April morning, a Lanner Falcon called “Chicken” energetically takes to the open skies, while a small but captivated audience watches from its arena seats. Against a panoramic backdrop of tawny bushveld and hazy blue hills, the bird soars, races like a bullet across the clear sky, and then drops in a stomach-churning swoop to catch a swinging lure.

It is a breathtaking display of speed and agility — the kind of performance that earns instant respect.

Which is very much the point of the exercise that takes place at the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary outside Pietermaritzburg at least once a day from Tuesdays through to Sundays. The sanctuary, which sits about four kilometres off the N3 highway between Ashburton and Camperdown, was opened in 2006 by husband-and-wife team Shannon and Ben Hoffman and is currently home to about 190 birds of prey of 55 different species — the widest range of indigenous birds of prey in southern Africa.

Chicken, the falcon, is the last of five raptors to perform the day I visit. The others include Rox, an agile African Goshawk who can fly through tight spaces, a Spotted Eagle Owl called Alpha who can fly without a sound and swallow her meal whole in a single motion, a Yellow-Billed Kite who never misses a catch and a Barn Owl orphan called Soms (short for Insomnia). All of the birds were either born in captivity or were brought into the sanctuary in need of medical attention. After going through treatment and a process of rehabilitation, they have been deemed unreleaseable.

Four-year-old Chicken was a victim of poisoning as a very young bird. Although he eventually recovered under the Hoffmans' care, the poison retarded his growth and delayed his capacity to fly.

Hoffman rewards Chicken with a piece of fresh meat. He sits quietly but alertly on her gloved arm as she stands within arms length of the audience, fielding questions and pointing out the ways in which the bird is built for speed.

Although highly entertaining, the display is primarily educational, giving members of the public a window into the fascinating lives, habits and capabilities of birds of prey. The intended result: a deeper appreciation of the birds and the challenges they face to survive.

After working with birds of prey in Wales and Arabia, Hoffman says she returned to South Africa to find that South Africans know painfully little about their own bird species.

Today, at the privately funded sanctuary situated on land owned by the local Mayibuye Community which receives a percentage of all gate takings, Hoffman assumes most of the responsibility for training and educational awareness and encourages school and group visits. Her husband Ben, who also founded Raptor Rescue, concentrates on rehabilitation and breeding.

Hoffman says although they have bred 13 species at the sanctuary, breeding is secondary to rehabilitation and release. “We don't collect birds,” she says. “When it comes to releasing birds, we work with a committee made up of experts to establish the readiness of the bird to be released and we work with students and academics from the local university to monitor the progress of the released bird.” Some unreleaseable birds are transferred to other wildlife facilities which may better suit their needs.

The sanctuary itself is an attractively designed affair which houses a number of impressive specimens in large cages, each carrying placards containing pithy information about the species. “Eagle Alley” houses the “big 5” of the eagle world: the Bateleur, Verreaux's eagle (black eagle), the Tawny eagle, the Crowned and Martial eagles. In other sections you can find the African Fish Eagle and the Brown Snake Eagle, among others.

There is a range of delicately marked owls, including the threatened African Grass Owl, the African Wood Owl, Pels Fishing Owl, Verreaux's Eagle Owl and the recently introduced Pearl-Spotted Owlets.

Hoffman's commitment to raising awareness finds passionate expression when we visit the vulture cage, which houses a large collection of White-Backed and Cape Vultures, both of which are threatened species. Hoffman says many of the birds at the sanctuary are victims of power lines. But their greatest threat is poisoning. Hoffman said in some communities, the bird is targeted because it is believed to have clairvoyant properties, as it is able to find a carcass so readily.

“The only way to combat this perception is by raising awareness,” she says. “We try to expose the birds' amazing abilities, such as the fact that the vulture's eyesight is eight times as powerful as that of a human and that they serve an important function in the wild.

“Vultures have a reputation as being dirty, destructive birds, but they are very clean and wash themselves thoroughly in water after every meal,” says Hoffman. “They are also no threat to people's livelihoods, which makes their precarious status all the more unacceptable.”

• To reach the the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary, take the Lion Park exit off the N3 (Exit 65) and travel four kilometres. For more information, contact Shannon Hoffman at 082 925 3023 or the sanctuary office at 031 785 2981.

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