Recently Birdlife International announced that three of Africa’s beloved raptors have now been included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. The Secretary Bird, the Martial Eagle, and the Bateleur, have now been placed onto the list.
But where does the problem lie?
Well part of the problem might lie in how so many people perceive birds.
Last year I had the opportunity to go to the Kruger National Park for a week. I can vividly remember a certain day where we encountered an impatient driver who was not in the park for birds. We decided on one of the days to take a drive from Satara, where we were staying, and explore some of the more northerly areas of the park. On the way back we came around a corner on one of the small dusty side roads, and right in the middle of the road was a majestic Bateleur. It was feeding on something on the road and we simply parked the car to enjoy the close up sighting of this bird, that is both beautiful and powerful all at the same time. A car came round the corner and impatiently stopped behind us, I can imagine that they probably started to look around to see what we were looking at – wondering which of the Big 5 we had managed to spot. When the saw that we were looking at a bird on the road – not a furry animal, but just a boring bird – they started to demand that they drive through. As the drove through speedily, our Bateleur that we had been enjoying, took off and flew away.
I wonder what their response would have been if we had been looking at a leopard or a lion on the road? Would they have been more patient? Would they simply have come alongside us and enjoyed the special sighting? Although I don’t have that answer, I would dare to suggest that their response would have been different. Most people that you speak to know about the conservation status of animals such as Rhino and Elephants, but how many people know about the conservation status of the birds of our country?
In Birdlife South Africa’s 2018 State of South Africa’s Bird Report, they noted that 856 bird species had been recorded in South Africa, but of that a staggering 132 of the species are threatened or near threatened. Even more worrying was that the number of species in the critically endangered category had increased from 5 to 13 since the year 2000! That means that there are 13 species that are one step away from going extinct! (http://bit.ly/BLSAStateoftheBirds)
We need to save the Rhino, but just as importantly we also need to be saving our birds.
The statistics may look depressing, but what can we do to make a difference?
1) We need to connect people back to nature
We live in a day and age where people are more connected to a cell phone screen or some sort of technology fix more than they are to the natural world around them. If there is this disconnect between people and nature, conserving threatened species will always be a challenge. When people feel no real connection to animals and birds that are threatened, it will be a lot more difficult to get them to commit their energy and resources towards their conservation.
Another sad reality of our country is that a lot of our population due to their social economic status are not able to afford to visit our game and private reserves. They often live within a few kilometres of these places where many of these protected species are found, but are not able to get to see these species. Many of these Red List species have a distribution that is largely limited to our National Parks. It would be an interesting study to see how much interest people from lower economic brackets have in conservation related issues.
We need to look for ways to connect people back to the natural world around them. Things need to be put in place to make our game reserves more accessible to a greater percentage of the population, no matter what their economic status.
We need to look at school programs that connect children to nature. Simply showing children the natural world in textbooks will not create a connection with the natural world around them. We need to create programs that provide hands on education, where children get out into nature and experience the wonder of the natural world first-hand.
What is exciting about things such as Instagram and Facebook, is that through some of the stunning photography that is posted, does allow people to connect with birds that they may not have seen before. I have also been excited when I have posted photos of LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs), and had people commenting on how they never actually realised just how beautiful these birds really were. What I have always hoped is that these photos will stir up an interest in people to put down their phone and go and experience that bird first-hand.
Birds are all around people – this is one of the things that really excites me about them. People don’t have Rhinos running around in their gardens, you need to go to a reserve to see that. But they do have birds – a connection to the natural world around them. We need to look for ways to create the connection between people and the birds that already fill their lives.
2) Talk about birds
I have two friends that are both nature lovers – they are not birders, but they do enjoy the birds that they see in their gardens. When I saw the article about the three raptors being placed on the IUCN list, they didn’t have any idea that this had happened. I knew it had happened because of the people that I follow on social media platforms, but unless I had told them, they would have never known. Through the conversation I was able to highlight the seriousness of what these birds are facing and create level of awareness.
In the previous point I spoke about connecting people with nature, one of the ways that we do this is by talking about birds. I don’t mean that you need to become the weird family member that talks about nothing else but birds, but there are ways to talk about birds and to help create a connection with them. I have found that once you start these conversations people start to get interested and in some small way, they start to get a little more excited about the birds around them. These don’t have to be conversations about taxonomical splits and that kind of thing, but simply sharing how we have experienced birds in our own lives.
I still remember a group of French tourists that I met in Kruger, they were on the lookout point at Olifants Camp looking for what animals would come to the river. We were there with our binoculars aimed at the trees around the lookout point looking for a White-throated Robin-Chat. We finally managed to find this stunning bird, and the tourists asked us what we were looking for. I allowed them to use my binoculars and they looked at the bird. Suddenly, they got to experience this beautiful bird and in some small way they shared the excitement with us.
When we talk about birds and start to show the people around us the birds that we see – in some small way a connection is built. Even if they don’t become birders themselves, they will have a greater appreciation for the birds that make up their world.
3) Take care of our space
I recently had a chat with Duncan Butchart, the author of the book ‘Garden Birds in Southern Africa’. The book is all about how to create gardens where one plants to create spaces that are welcoming for birds and other natural visitors. He spoke of the term ‘rewilding’, where our gardens almost become little nature reserves. We just plant what looks the most attractive, instead we plant that which creates and adds to a healthy eco-system.
On a practical level, we can’t all go out and rescue species that are threatened, but we can all make a small difference to the species that are around us on a daily basis. When we look to plant indigenous in our gardens, we create pockets where once again nature can thrive. We allow nature to in some small way take back some ground against the decimation of natural world around us.
We can all make decisions daily that will have an impact such as recycling, using reusable shopping bags, cutting back on single use plastic, and looking for ways to reduce our carbon footprint. This might be a controversial – but it would be interesting to look at the impact that the vehicles of birders chasing rarities has on the environment. Could our desire to always add another bird to the list possibly have a negative affect on the bird that we are adding to our list? I am not saying that we don’t chase rarities, but in doing so we should look for ways to do it in a way where our environmental impact is lessened (such as sharing a car with others)
We can also look for ways to be the solution instead of simply pointing out the problem. We can all complain about the amount of litter on the beaches, or instead we can look for ways to help clean up the beaches. There are many practical ways that each one of us can become part of the solution.
It’s easy to get saddened by the state of much of the environment and the struggles around the conservation issue – but we can all look for ways that we can make a small difference.
4) Support Birdlife South Africa
Birdlife South Africa are one of the countries leading conservation organisations and are doing an amazing work in the area of bird conservation. They have great conservation projects connected to many of the threatened species in South Africa, run by a world class team of conservationists. I have had the privilege of interviewing many of them on the podcast over the last year, including the CEO Mark Anderson. What has always impressed me is the passion that they have for what they do – for each of them, this is so much more than just a job – they are committed to conserving our countries birds. They also look for ways to do it in a such a way that the communities are engaged and benefit from these projects – which is important for the long-term success of the projects. They have a Community Bird Guide project that has allowed many people to find jobs in the avi-tourism sector – which shows that their conservation projects positively impact the communities around them.