By Melissa Wray
With binoculars glued to their eyeballs, some 18 million Americans leave their homes every year in search of flapping wings, flashing feathers and trilling birdcalls. In eternal pursuit of a species that they have not yet seen, or a bird behaviour that they have not yet witnessed, bird watchers are believed to make up the single largest group of people in the ecotourism industry worldwide.
With close to 800 bird species to lure the 'twitchers' in, South Africa is prime birding country. The many species that are only found in this region exert a magnetic attraction to birdwatchers, and both local and international tourists travel from place to place looking for birds throughout the country.
This is good news for conservation, sometimes in unlikely places, because the wetland at the end of a sewage works can hold almost as much attraction for a birder as a piece of pristine big five bushveld. Aside from pursuing their hobby in some novel places, birders are also relatively unusual in the tourism industry in that they are willing to pay a guide to show them a single species of bird. The combination of these two factors has created some unique opportunities, and bird guiding is offering a chance for previously disadvantaged people to better themselves with knock-on benefits for the environment.
With few studies having previously been done on birding ecotourism, or 'avitourism', in South Africa, research carried out by Duan Biggs from the University of Cape Town for his masters degree is revealing insights in what is needed to create a successful community-based avitourism industry. To be considered a success, a community-based avitourism project must help conserve birds and biodiversity, empower people and create jobs, and increase awareness of birds and biodiversity issues in the community and the broader public.
Duan travelled to 11 project sites in South Africa, where a number of individuals have been trained as bird guides over the last six years and birding tourism is starting to take flight. The projects have sprung up in areas where rare bird species occur, making them desirable places for birders to visit.
Several of the sites fall into the wellmarketed Zululand Birding Route, which is seen in the international arena as a flagship project for communitybased avitourism. Others are much lower key enterprises that are more localised and have less backing from major corporations.
It is quite a challenge to take a person from a rural community who has never been exposed to business principles and never gone on a holiday and expect them to become a self-sufficient, professional tour guide. Duan found that five or more years of intensive support is needed to get an avitourism venture off the ground in a community environment.
Despite this, the research has shown that the average cost of creating a job in community-based avitourism is more than 13 times less than the cost of creating a job in other tourism sectors. On average, bird guides in avitourism projects increased their income from in the region of R600 per month to around R2,200 per month as a result of their training and development.
Although not all the bird guides that were trained were able to make a full time living at the job, those that left avitourism had been uplifted by their training and went on to betterpaying opportunities that had opened up to them. The bird guiding training also includes information about other factors in the environment, like water and soil conservation and the animal and plant kingdoms, and this knowledge helps create environmental awareness.
This is especially true when the knowledge is passed on to others in the community, and Duan estimates that at the 11 sites he studied bird guides passed on the conservation message to more than 36,500 people through talks and outings they arranged. Large amounts of money dedicated to a project were no guarantee of creating a conservation success. However, Duan says, "Where community-based avitourism projects have been specifically designed to counter certain threats to conservation, they have been effective at doing so."
Duan found that good relations between project staff and higher levels of community awareness and confidence were more likely to benefit the environment than mere monetary input. Personalities also play a role, and Duan recommends that a lot of effort be put into finding the right individuals to undergo training. The project with one of the smallest budgets and the least backing from major corporations produced the most successful bird guide, mostly through the man's own skills and passion for his new career.
Duan also found that the guides do well if, after receiving bird guiding training, they get jobs in an existing tourism establishment, which exposes them to the industry and allows them to cash in on the establishment's own marketing and guest booking strategies. Successful marketing is a headache for any tourism venture, and community-based avitourism faces competition from companies with better resources and infrastructure.
In the Zululand Birding Route, Duan found that most of the local guides thought they would not be able to carry on if the coordinating office that conducts most of the marketing efforts closed down. Most of the guides interviewed were extremely positive about the whole process, but difficulties do occur where western and rural versions of what classifies as a success collide.
Looking at the same project, one bird guide commented, "I think the project has been a tremendous success and we should all be very proud of what has been achieved." Meanwhile, one of the people that supported the project had a different view, "The local guides have not put the required effort in and used the opportunities that we created for them and now the project is largely a failure."
However, the people who have been trained have been positively influenced for life by the experience, as the following quotes illustrate: July Dingani, "Now I can go out and do something valuable with my life that can make a difference." Gilbert Mathlokho, "I have become a much more responsible person and it has made me famous. I am now famous and I must use this fame in a positive way." David Nkosi, "Learning about bird identification, bird behaviour and bird ringing and measuring has opened a whole new world to me. By taking out schoolchildren this awareness can be widened."
Edward Themba, "Learning about the birds and the environment around me and how to guide has been a positive and life-changing experience that I want to share with my community." With such clear messages coming from those involved, it is no wonder that Duan says avitourism has "tremendous potential" for integrating biodiversity conservation and development.
He is keen to get more of these ventures off the ground, and anyone requiring further information or wanting to develop a similar venture of their own can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 084 444 9502.