My interest in birds of prey began at the age of 11 when a school outing to CROW (Centre for Rehabilitation of Wildlife) in Durban left me marvelling at the beauty and strength of these magnificent predators of the air. Soon I was reading up on every type of bird of prey you could imagine and the more I read the more my interest grew.
Within the space of a few months, I was able to identify the various raptors that I came across in the area surrounding our family home and school and my findings often became the topic of many a school oral. However, as time passed and the pressures and distractions of life took their toll my newfound interest waned although it was by no means extinguished …
A recent visit to the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary (ABOPS) in Ashburton just outside Pietermaritzburg proved to be an excellent opportunity to carry on learning about these awesome and fascinating creatures. Established in June 2006 by husband and wife team Ben and Shannon Hoffman, the sanctuary is home to more than 180 birds of prey of about 50 different species.
ABOPS is committed to the conservation of indigenous raptors and is the epicentre of ongoing research, breeding and rehabilitation projects for these magnificent aerial predators. The sanctuary is also home to the African Raptor Trust (ART) of which the specialist facility ‘Raptor Rescue’ is currently the primary working group.
ART is a non-governmental, non-profit organisation dedicated to the conservation and appreciation of indigenous birds of prey and the environment that sustains them.
The organisation currently supports three critical aspects of raptor conservation; namely the rescue and rehabilitation of injured or sick birds of prey, raptor education and public awareness outreach and raptor research and conservation breeding project work.
‘Raptor Rescue’ handles all call-outs for sick or injured birds of prey throughout KwaZulu-Natal and its rehabilitation work is an attempt to redress some of the negative impacts that humans have on raptor populations. Birds of prey are often the victims of poisoning, direct persecution such as shootings, collisions with fences or motor vehicles and powerline electrocutions.
The rescue work is also an important method of determining which threats are impacting most on raptor populations. Any negative human environmental influence impacts significantly on birds of prey populations because they already experience up to 70 percent mortality in their first year of life because of natural causes.
Captive breeding programs are vital to supplement these dwindling wild raptor populations and ABOPS’ large collection of raptors enables ART, through the implementation of various research projects, to learn more about their wild counterparts.
However, no amount of research or conservation effort can be successful in the end, unless the information gained is passed on to the public. That’s where the sanctuary comes into the picture by undertaking much of this information-dissemination for ART.
People need to observe and understand the beauty and aerial prowess of raptors first hand in order to appreciate them and it is only when they appreciate them that they will be willing to protect them. ABOPS has a number of suitably trained raptors that they are able to use for this critically important awareness work; they are either captive bred specimens or non-releasable birds from rehabilitation centres.
These birds of prey are introduced to the public in the form of an aerial display or ‘show’, which proved to be an unforgettable event for both me, my friends and everyone else privileged enough to witness it. The manner in which Shannon and her assistant Tammy Caine interacted with these aerial actors was truly remarkable.
For anyone who loves and appreciates nature and especially for those who have a keen interest in birds of prey, the show is an absolute must. To describe it in mere words would be an injustice – it simply is that good.
ABOPS is also home to a variety of raptors on display in ‘micro-habitat’ enclosures. Vultures, kites, eagles, buzzards, hawks, harriers, falcons, kestrels and owls – you name it they are all there.
The enclosures are divided into four main sections, Eagle Alley, Hoot Hollow, Honeycomb Habitats and the Vulture Hide – a total of 33 birds of prey species – with another as yet unnamed section containing four. While I certainly enjoyed having a look at all of them the highlight for me was Pisces, the gigantic Pel’s fishing owl.
She was found in a small cage in an animal facility in central Africa, brought to Lori Park Zoo in Johannesburg and then transferred to the sanctuary. Pisces is a truly awesome specimen. I stand to be corrected but from head to talon, I estimated her to be around 60cm in length – if not longer.
Sticking my camera lens through the bars of her enclosure, I jumped when she lowered her head to give me a closer look, but steadied myself to take the shot – and the result was one particularly menacing looking owl. Other raptors that really caught my attention were a regal looking Bateleur eagle, which I snapped taking a dip in a specially made pond and a pair of Brown snake eagles named Mfezi and Ringkhals.
The Bateleur is a striking eagle with a bright red face and legs and in addition to eating birds and small mammals, will also consume carrion. Snake eagles are easily recognisable by their large heads and prominent yellow eyes and their chief prey items are snakes, which they frequently kill on the ground.
After a long afternoon in the sun, we called in at the delightful Kestrel café to quench our thirst and enjoy a bite before ending off our visit by browsing around in the interesting gallery and curio shop. We thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon at ABOPS and a visit is a must for anyone with even a remote interest in wildlife.
Entrance fees are R40 for adults, R25 for children under 12 years (yes there’s an onsite playground to keep them entertained), R35 for pensioners and R95 for families (mom, dad and up to three children) – an absolute bargain considering it includes access to the spectacular and unmissable aerial show.
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Telephone: +27 (0)31 785 4382
Cell: +27 (0)82 925 3023 (Shannon)