The Owl Project is a non-profit organisation founded by Jonathan Haw in 1998 in response to several concerned calls from the South African Department of Health. Sadly, like many NPOs, it was founded after tragedy struck and intervention was needed. The death of two children in Sebokeng prompted Haw to take action because a rampant rodent problem indirectly lead to these fatalities. Frustrated residents resorted to poison, which the children ingested, to rid their living environment of this unchecked pest.
This is a very common problem in South Africa. Over 100 children die from ingestion every year and a child admitted to hospital almost daily. Poor municipal service deliveries in these areas result in horrid sanitary conditions while creating an extremely favourable environment for rodents. Residents, unfortunately, have little other alternatives to curb the numbers. Poison is the cheap go-to for most and a great number are unaware of any substitute.
The high rodent numbers in townships attract rodent-feeding predators such as owls. This creates an increase in human-wildlife conflict. Owls are a perfect non-toxic, environmentally friendly and safe biological pest control and their presence in townships should be promoted. A feat that is often easier said than done. Owls carry with them a few misconceptions. They are regarded as ominous animals and people in townships express great mythological fears about these birds of prey. Often residents are more afraid of what the neighbours will think of them than of the owl in their roof.
Addressing these mythological fears and educating residents on the ecological importance of owls is the first step in getting communities to promote owls in townships. Owls offer a long-term, sustainable solution to rodent numbers by acting as a biological control and will eliminate the need to use poison. Owlproject.org focusses on a strong conservation and education component when dealing with local communities. After the success of the project in Sebokeng, the project was rolled out in other townships and continues to grow every day.
Delina Chipape is the coordinator of the project. The Owl Project’s primary vision is to create owl-friendly children, who grow to be owl-friendly adults, living within owl-friendly environments. Education is an important pillar of the project. It teaches children to conserve and care for owls within the urban environment to create a sustainable future for owls in South Africa. Delina goes out to participating schools to give presentations on owls and their role in an ecosystem. These presentations are also used to address any remnant myths surrounding owls.
The project’s focus is in involving school children in many of their educational programs. This is an effective method of raising awareness, as often the children are so excited about learning about owls that they constantly talk about owls and owl conservation to their relatives and friends long after the team leaves the school. Children are key in educating the entire household and community.
The educational programmes offered include the Owl Naming Programme, the Owl Art Project, the Owl Release Programme, the Owl Box Project and the newly launched Junior Scientist Programme. However, it’s not always strictly business at their offices. They frequently get calls from hysterical homeowners to immediately remove owls that have made their way into roofs and homes. In these cases they drop everything and rush out to mediate the situation.
Their first step upon arrival is to assess the owl’s health. If any injury is present they prioritise immediate medical attention. The project has a wonderful relationship with the Johannesburg Wildlife Vet who treats any injured owl until it is ready to for release back into the wild. If the owl is indeed healthy and unharmed the hard work starts.
Calming the homeowner is the next step. It’s quickly followed by an impromptu educational session conveying the ecological importance of these birds, especially regarding rodent control. Debunking residual mythology is an important facet of these talks as it removes any fear people might harbour. In some cases fanatic owl enthusiasts are born, functioning as owl ambassadors in the local community.
They then proceed to install a sponsored owl box on the property after which it is left to do what it does best – hunt rats. These owl boxes often become the main point of interest in the communities thus furthering the project’s conservation efforts. The project does not rescue owls because owls in these cases seldom need rescuing. The owls are in the townships for a reason and they are doing an important job for these communities; they should be promoted not removed.
The Owl Art Programme:
The owl art has become an integral part of the Annual Alex Owl Day. The school children get the opportunity to take part in the owl project each year. Owlproject.org raises funds for the specially designed owl art pieces which the children colour to express their love for these wonderful birds. The aim is to have all the participating schools to compete with each other. The prize money awarded to the winner is to be used to start or grow environmental clubs at their schools. The children have great fun in painting wooden owl art pieces repurposed from the off-cuts produced in the owl box manufacturing process sponsored by EcoSolutions. Some of the children proudly displayed their art pieces at prestigious events including the Bird Life SA Bird Fair at the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens, and the Knysna Timber festival. In 2017 The Owl Project was nominated for a special Achievement Award from the Owl Hall of Fame at the international Owl Centre in Houston, Minnesota.
The Owl Naming Programme:
The Township Owl Project is also currently leading an owl naming programme. Traditionally each owl species in South Africa only has a common name in Afrikaans or English. This project aims at extending the common names of each owl species to include names in all nine indigenous South African languages. The project will be undertaken nationally and will involve numerous secondary schools nationwide. Each school will provide suggested names based on appearance, biology and behaviour of the owl species. Once the proposed names are obtained The Owl Project will collaborate with WITS University Department of Linguistics to make sure the names are grammatically and linguistically correct before finalising them. The goal of this project is to include the new names for the owl species in the next Roberts Bird Book. The languages that will be covered are Sepedi, Southern Sotho, Tswana, Ndebele, Zulu, Xhosa, Tsonga and Swati.
Owl Release Programme:
The release program takes place over a three-week period. For the first 20 days, the juvenile barn owls or the spotted eagle owls are placed in an owl release box where they will be fed by the leaners. After the 20 days, the owls are released onto the school premises. The science behind this is that the owls will remain around the school, where they will hunt for rodents and as adults use the owl box as a breeding site. Often the interaction the learners have with the owls during the release programme helps to extinguish any fears the children might harbour towards owls resulting in environmentally-conscientious students that are owl-wise. All the owls that are released through the project are owls we receive through the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital and SPCA branches across Gauteng.
Junior Scientist Programme:
Owl pellets are collected from occupied owl boxes around Gauteng. An owl pellet is what the owls regurgitate after they have had their dinner. An owl pellet contains the undigested materials in a form of fur and bones. The learners dissect these pellets and with the help of the qualified conservation biologist (Delina Chipape) and Sara Orchardson (Zoologist) they identify the rodents to species level. We then submit this data to the national owl diet database. The pellets dissection kits are all labelled with the coordinates from where the pellets were collected and we give this information back to the farmers for them to help manage their rodent problems more effectively.
Owls Eat Rats: Bumper Stickers For Taxis Campaign:
We all know how annoying the taxis can be on the road with their continuous hooting and their impromptu stops. We have decided to place bumper stickers on their taxis and although we initially though it would be a hard sell convincing the drivers to put the stickers on their taxis, we were surprised to find that most of them were happy to be involved in the movement. With over 3.9 million school children alone using public transport on a daily basis in South Africa, we want to get as many taxis involved as possible.
Pay It Forward
Funding is an essential component for Owlproject.org to gather materials and cover travelling costs to reach out to more children within the townships of South Africa and to promote the use of owls as a perfect rodent control method. They aim to create a sustainable future for owls in South Africa and save the lives of children through education.
You can help further the reach of their educational campaigns by donating towards their cause. Your donation will make an immense difference and a wonderful contribution towards urban conservation and ecology.
Donate by visiting The Owl Project
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