African Bird of Prey Sanctuary
Nutmeg, one of the “Spice Owls” had died the day before I visited the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary. His friend Cinnamon made subdued screeching sounds and was no doubt wondering where he was. Shannon Hoffman tells me “I knew Nutmeg for twelve years and I feel really sad. When you work closely with animals, communicating every day you definitely develop a bond.” The adorable Barn Owls are just some of 103 birds which have found sanctuary amongst the thorn trees on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg. Next door, a Marsh Owl named Mellow is sitting on eggs in the hope of becoming a mom. “She scares her boy to death, so I think it is unlikely that they are fertilized!” laughs Shannon. Squiffy the wood owl and her friend have an agreement, Co is blind but lays great eggs, so Squiffy helps incubate and raise the chicks. It’s a great arrangement.
In Eagle Alley colourful Bateleurs, majestic Crowned and Martial Eagles all live. The birds here have been poisoned, hit by cars or electrocuted and are not able to return to the wild to fend for themselves. “They are doing PR for the rest of their species. We aim to change perceptions about birds of prey in the hope that people will make better decisions in the places where they live.” The birds weigh hardly anything – 50 grams for the little owls, 750grams for a Yellow Billed Kite and only 4.5kgs for a Crowned Eagle, disputing the myth that they are killers of large prey (and you should lock up your kids and dogs when there is an eagle about!).
Exploring the cages where the birds are kept is fascinating – self guided with very informative signage that means you can linger as long as you like with your favourites. The highlight of each day is The Show at 10h30 – a demonstration lead by Shannon to illustrate the speed, agility, sensory abilities of the birds. An African Goshawk weaves smoothly through tall grass, an Owl sits perfectly camouflaged on a branch in the open, a Pale Chanting Goshawk named Maverick, with long legs and sharp eyes, finds snacks tucked behind the audience’s legs with ease. Last up is a Lanner Falcon who flies off down the valley and swirls high on a thermal. When Shannon swings a lure on the end of a rope, he swoops into the arena and grabs it, at a speed that has the audience gasping in awe.
Shannon’s passion and commitment is very appealing and while she sits with the vultures enjoying their lunch, she talks about her intention to develop an environmental education centre on site to inspire others to value the special place raptors have in our eco-systems. This is truly a grand day out for a good cause. The Sanctuary will be closed from 18 October until 1 December for renovations, so make a date to visit during the Summer holidays. www.africanraptor.co.za