South Africa really does have some stunning birdlife.
Since arriving here, we’ve been lucky enough to spot everything from pretty, yellow weaver birds of elaborate, woven nest fame; a rarely-viewed African goshawk and eye-catching pin-tailed whydahs with their striking black-and-white plumage and red bills.
And then, of course, you also can‘t fail to notice the seemingly ubiquitous hadehas, a type of ibis with a penetrating squawk that would wake the dead.
But in fact, these avian gems are only really the tip of the iceberg. It turns out that South Africa, one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, has a huge 846 species of birds either on shore or out at sea, about 8% of the world’s total.
Sadly though, about 133 of them – the equivalent of about 15% – are threatened by extinction, with the main problem, as ever, being habitat loss.
Grasslands, which make up a mere 16.5% of the country’s landmass but act as home to 350 of its bird species, are particularly important but also particularly threatened due to widespread agricultural and mining activity. To make matters worse, only 2.8% of such habitats, mostly in the Drakensberg mountain region, are currently protected.
As a result of all of this, Daniel Marnewick, manager of Important Birds and Biodiversity Areas Programmes for conservation charity, BirdLife South Africa, believes that the country is approaching its “last stand” in conservation terms.
“Habitats are so fragmented or lost now and so few remain pristine that we can’t afford to lose any more,” he explained at the Sasol Bird Fair organised by the charity last weekend. “We can do species-specific work, but the issue is that if we’re not protecting habitats, it won’t do any good long-term.”
But so far only about six per cent of the country’s total land surface is actually receiving the protection required – although the government has promised to up this figure to 10% at some unspecified point in the future in line with the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s recommendations.
One of the problems is that the necessary resources to create formal national parks and nature reserves are scarce in developing countries such as South Africa.
Therefore, BirdLife SA focuses mainly on promoting “biodiversity stewardship” these days in collaboration with provincial governments and other non-governmental organisations such as WWF and the Endangered Wildlife Trust.
To this end, some 122 ‘Important Bird Areas (IBAs)’ – protected areas recognised as being globally important bird conservation habitats – have already been created across the country, with another in the shape of Greater Lakenvlei in Mpumalanga expected to come online within the next six months.
Three IBAs have also recently been assigned priority status in a bid to try and protect endangered specis: Memel in the Free State, and Chrissiesmeer and Steenkampsberg in Mpumalanga, a poor rural province to the east of Johannesburg where 70% of the land is deemed to have mining potential.
As for the actual Bird Fair itself, meanwhile, this was held against the lovely backdrop of the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens in Roodepoort, about 30km to the west of downtown Johannesburg.
The 300-hectare reserve is one of the youngest of South Africa’s eight national botanic gardens, having only formally been established in 1982, but it is a deservedly popular local walking and picnic spot for those keen to indulge in a bit of nature.
Rather appropriately, it also happens to be home to a pair of Verreaux’s or Black Eagles, which we spotted soaring above us while eating our lunch at the well-attended restaurant.
These beautiful raptors are simply immense with a vast wingspan of up to 2.8 metres and they nest on the cliffs of the Garden’s centrepiece Witpoortjie (‘White Gate’ in Afrikaans) Waterfall, which was remarkably full seeing as we’re in the dry winter season.
Speaking of water though, another interesting talk that my Beloved and I attended, this one by WWF volunteer and sustainability manager at Standard Bank, Emily Adair, related to ‘Sustainable Fish Choices’ – the rather obscure link being, I think, that the Fair’s theme this year was seabirds.
Anyway, it appears that South African waters are home to 16% of the globe’s marine fish species and 15% of its coastal plant and animal species, with about 12% being found nowhere else in the world.
As elsewhere though, overfishing is a huge problem, with almost half of the country’s marine resources now being fully exploited and a further 15% overexploited, including important commercial species such as rock lobster and yellowfin tuna.
To try to manage the problem, WWF set up the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) in 2004 with a range of partners including the Save our Seas charity.
SASSI’s aim was, and is, to promote awareness of, and support for, marine conservation among all members of the seafood supply chain from wholesalers and retailers to restaurants and consumers in a bid to make the fishing industry more sustainable.
And its sterling work to date has meant that 80% of the South African seafood industry, which includes supermarkets such as Woolworths and national restaurant chain John Dory’s, now offer at least some Marine Stewardship Council-certified products as options.
To its credit, supermarket giant Pick ‘n Pay has also just become Africa’s first retailer to guarantee that all of its seafood will be sourced sustainably by 2015.
Another important programme that will soon start making its presence felt both locally and globally, however, is the Acquaculture Stewardship Council’s certification and labelling scheme.
The not-for-profit organisation was set up by WWF and the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative in 2010 to try to encourage the industry to farm seafood in a more responsible manner and, while it may have had a low profile to date, this situation is scheduled to change over the year ahead.
Despite these worthy initiatives though, an inevitable lack of resources means that safeguarding South Africa’s marine life from illegal activity is likely to remain an uphill struggle.
While the country has more than 3,000 square miles of coastline to protect, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has a mere four patrol boats to help it do so, only two of which are out-and-about at any one time. And with odds like that, it certainly won’t be easy.