The annual Kruger National Park (KNP) Birding Weekends, which started as a leisure activity for outdoor enthusiasts, has turned into a nature conservation initiative worth R2.5 million per annum. Organised by the South African National Parks Honorary Rangers of the West Rand Region and sponsored by Sasol, the event now celebrates its 15th anniversary. These events attract over 700 birding enthusiasts and experts from across the country and internationally, over three consecutive weekends each year.
The conservation programme, mostly based on volunteerism, extends beyond the Kruger National Park and includes parks regionally. For the 2011 calendar year, the SANParks Honorary Rangers organisation contributed close to
R38 million towards the national parks. Further, the SANParks Honorary Rangers of the West Rand Region has also contributed to ornithology research and assisted Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and BirdLife South Africa with GPS co-ordinates of sightings of birds on the Red Data List.
Bird lists are collated yearly during the KNP Birding Weekends and birding experts chaperone each group to assist guests with the identification of cryptic species, such as the brown eagles and little brown birds. The birding experts add immense value by sharing interesting information about bird biology, ecology and migration patterns.
At the same time GPS co-ordinates of vulnerable species on the Red Data List, such as the Southern Ground Hornbill and Secretarybird are recorded. This information is important to research scientists from the Environmental Wildlife Trust and the Avian Demography Units of the University of Cape Town. Future plans include the counts of water birds on the various pans and dams visited by guests.
According to Peter Zietsman, Chairman of the West Rand Region, “The purpose of the weekends is to provide birders with the opportunity to identify as many birds as possible within a 50km radius of their chosen camp. Guests have a selection of 21 flagship venues where the area is home to over 200 bird species. Typically each camp has a few unique species, not found throughout the KNP. For example, the African Barred Owl is more likely to be seen at Talamati, the Collared Praticole at Letaba, and the Crested Guineafowl at Pafuri.”
For Sasol, its involvement in birding projects is about conservation and promoting birding as a past time. Richard Hughes, Sasol’s Sponsorship Manager said, “The birding weekends provide occupancy to the Kruger National Park during its low season and the funds raised are ploughed back into environmental projects. South Africa has one of the most diverse birding and wildlife populations in the world and should be enjoyed by all.”
The conservation projects that the SANParks Honorary Rangers have contributed towards SANParks are numerous, including:
Birding Conservation Projects:
A bird hide was built in Punda Maria, which enhanced bird watching for visitors. Another project is camera traps for vulture monitoring, which were deployed to nesting sites to monitor the success of breeding, and the purchasing of Cyber trackers, which record the GPS co-ordinates of birds, animals, trees and bush.
With various improvements in technology, there have been increased enhancements to the parks, which assist with the tracking of animals, research and the arrest of illegal poachers. Some of these include helicopter tracking systems for several parks, inflatable boats for the Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, and Bantam Aircrafts in both Kruger and Mokala National Parks.
National parks also now have access to thermal imaging equipment used by field rangers to track poaching incidents at night.
When cheetahs were introduced to the Mountain Zebra National Park their movements needed to be tracked and monitored, and this resulted in the West Rand Region of the SANParks Honorary Rangers introducing tracking collars. Due to the effective implementation of these collars, the cheetah population has grown to 32.
Conservation of the wildlife:
Conservation programmes extend to other areas in South Africa. An underground elephant hide was constructed at the Addo Elephant National Park in Eastern Cape, which has become a popular attraction for visitors and thereby a major asset to the park.
Pregnant bovine TB-infected buffalos have been captured in the Kruger National Park and transferred to holding bomas at a special facility at Skukuza. Six weeks after birth, the calves were removed from their mothers and trans-located to Vaalbos National Park (then later to Mokala National Park), resulting in the calves being born free of the disease. These animals have now formed the core of a successful bovine TB-free herd from which other facilities can be supplied.
Other projects that the SANParks Honorary Rangers of the West Rand Region funded are:
• Financing of the Stofdam Bird Hide at Mokala National Park
• Providing two-way radios for Richtersveld Fields
• Providing camera traps for Namaqua National Park
• The GoldenGate Highlands National Park / Sasol Vulture Hide
• Constructed a nursery and provided 600 trees for Mapungubwe National Park
• Supplied and planted 100 trees in Marakele National Park
• Building the Talamati Lapa
• Provided a modified container for game transfer and fitted it (and others) with CCTV monitoring systems
• Providing Veterinary Wildlife Services with -180 degree freezers
• Financed the building of a predator pursuit vehicle for the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
• Providing solar panels, pumps and reservoirs for the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
• Providing tracking collars for Brown Hyena relocated to Mokala National Park
• Supplying breeding ponds for the biological breeding project at Skukuza
• Provided heavy-duty trailers to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park