By Peter Bridgeford
In some circles we birders have a bad reputation. We twitch, we tick and we tirelessly pursue sightings of rare birds in odd places. The truth is birders are passionate about birds as well as about conservation. Nowhere is this truer than in Namibia, where the birding community is keen to embrace anyone with a passion for wildlife, beginning with myself and my passion for raptors.
Raptors or birds of prey, roofvöels in Afrikaans, Raubvögel in German, whatever the language, there’s no doubt we’re talking about the same group of birds. Raptors are birds that prey on other animals, mostly vertebrates, and these are generally caught live, the exception being vultures, which feed mainly on carrion.
Raptor, derived from the Latin word rapere, is an appropriate term for ‘ravisher’ or ‘plunderer’. The English language is particularly rich in terms for the various types of raptors, for example eagles, kites, buzzards, harriers, hawks, falcons, goshawks, kestrels and the nocturnal owls. Since time immemorial, raptors have played a part in the development of societies. Witness their place in mythology, as heraldic symbols and tokens of royalty and leadership. The African Fish-Eagle stands proudly on the Namibian coat of arms, and its evocative call is undoubtedly the voice of Africa.
At the instigation of Chris Brown, CEO of the Namibia Nature Foundation, a meeting for people interested in raptors and their conservation was arranged in the Waterberg Mountains, and in February 2005 Raptors Namibia was born. At the meeting, talks were presented on several issues concerning raptors, the most persecuted group of birds throughout the world. Being at the top end of the food chain, raptors are good indicators of the health of the environment in our country. The threats and problems facing these birds were discussed, and by the end of the day an action plan for their conservation was drawn up and a number of key issues and actions were agreed upon. One of these was communication – making the connection, as the slogan of a well-known company states.
Creating awareness of the work of the group and exchanging ideas, the monthly newsletter of Raptors Namibia has been successfully published for the past year and is distributed to over 150 people. A research project involving the public and visitors to Namibia, the Road Raptor Count, was launched and an increasing number of returns are coming in. The project, which entails counting raptors seen along our roads, is a good indication of the health of Namibia’s raptor populations and distribution, and is a fun project to be involved in.
Educating the public about raptors is another priority, and here the communal conservancies have been targeted. In conjunction with the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation Trust, three training sessions have been held in the Kunene Region and more are planned. Special identification guides have been produced for use in these areas. An effort is being made to collect binoculars and bird books to distribute to the conservancy staff.
The Namibia Bird Club, the oldest birding organisation in the country, is involved in training new birders. It arranges bird outings, talks and lectures and publishes Lanioturdus, a semi-scientific magazine. Rehabilitation is an important aspect of bird conservation and Namibia has a highly successful and well-managed facility that also serves as an environmental education centre. The Namibia Animal Rehabilitation, Research and Education Centre (NARREC), outside Windhoek, is in the forefront of the fight against the misuse of poison. This is the biggest killer of birds of prey in Namibia. NARREC organises workshops and produces brochures, posters and booklets to use for educating adults and children.
Another group of birders, all a bit strange even by birding standards, are the bird ringers. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) issues their permits, and in collaboration with the South African Bird Ringing Unit based at the University of Cape Town, controls and keeps the records of all birds ringed in Southern Africa. Ringing is a recognised research tool used by many conservation agencies. Birds are caught, either in nets, or in the case of raptors, with special traps. A numbered, metal ring is then fitted around the bird’s leg. However, ringing as a hobby accounts for most birds ringed in Namibia and South Africa. In 2004/2005, over 12 000 birds were ringed in Namibia. The contribution by these ‘citizen ringers’ is enormous and is encouraged by the conservation authorities. They communicate through their own website, Namringers, and via the Raptors Namibia newsletter.
Along the coast, conservation of the environment and its birds is the domain of the Coastal Environmental Trust of Namibia (CETN), based in Walvis Bay. The CETN has been conducting summer and winter bird counts in the Walvis Bay lagoon and wetlands (a Ramsar Site) with the aid of volunteers since 1997. A Ramsar Site is a wetland of international importance. CETN is also involved in environmental education through schools and the Polytechnic and College of Education in Windhoek. The battle against unsustainable development and degradation of the central coast continues.
The Rare and Endangered Species Trust (REST) and the Vulture Study Group (VSG) concentrate on vulture conservation. REST focuses on the endangered Cape Vulture in the Waterberg area and has done groundbreaking work with satellite transmitters fitted to vultures. Environmental education in schools and local communities and the responsible use of poisons by farmers are aspects it is tackling. The VSG, in collaboration with the MET, has been involved in Lappet-faced Vulture ringing and monitoring in the Namib Desert for many years. Extension work among farmers has kept vulture conservation high on the agenda. Both organisations use volunteers, including sponsors of projects, to assist with the fieldwork.
On the coast, birds are afforded safe breeding sites at salt-processing works and guano platforms. Bird Island near Walvis Bay is the best known of these artificial islands. North of Swakopmund and at Cape Cross there are two more artificial guano islands. Other keen bird conservationists are tour operators specialising in birding tours. It is to their benefit to have protected areas where birds feel safe, thus providing good birding and photographic opportunities to tourists. The Friends of the Swakop River are actively involved in obtaining protection for the environs of the river mouth and its birds.
Bird conservation and birding in Namibia is on a firm foundation, but the birding fraternity is small and many of the same people are involved in the various projects. There is a wealth of knowledge that can be passed on to young birders and this aspect requires urgent attention. It is imperative to increase the number of dedicated birders from all population groups as the human population increases and places more pressure on birds and their environment.
This article appeared in the 2006/7 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.