Bird sanc­tu­ary has 400 species, lacks tourists

Enterprise-Record (Chico) - - WEATHER - By Farai Mut­saka

HARARE, ZIM­BABWE » A fish ea­gle swoops over the wa­ter to grab a fish in its talons and then flies to its nest.

Nearby are a mar­tial ea­gle, a black ea­gle, an Egyp­tian vul­ture and hun­dreds of other birds. With an es­ti­mated 400 species of birds on an idyllic spot on Zim­babwe’s Lake Chivero, about 40 25 miles south of Harare, the Kuimba Shiri bird sanc­tu­ary has been draw­ing tourists for more than 15 years.

The south­ern African coun­try’s only bird park has sur­vived tu­mul­tuous times, in­clud­ing vi­o­lent land in­va­sions and a dev­as­tat­ing eco­nomic col­lapse but the out­break of coro­n­avirus is prov­ing a stern test.

“I thought I had sur­vived the worst, but this coro­n­avirus is some­thing else,” said owner Gary Straf­ford. “Onethird of our vis­i­tors are from China. They stopped com­ing in Fe­bru­ary ... and when we were shut down in March, that was just un­be­liev­able.”

A life-long bird en­thu­si­ast, Straf­ford, 62, es­tab­lished the cen­ter for in­jured, or­phaned and aban­doned birds in 1992 and tourism has kept the park go­ing.

With Zim­babwe’s in­fla­tion ris­ing to over 750%, tourism es­tab­lish­ments are bat­tling a vi­cious eco­nomic down­turn wors­ened by the new coro­n­avirus travel restric­tions.

Zim­babwe’s tourism was al­ready fac­ing prob­lems. The coun­try recorded just over 2 mil­lion vis­i­tors in 2019, an 11% de­cline from the pre­vi­ous year, ac­cord­ing to official fig­ures. How­ever, tourism re­mained one of the coun­try’s big­gest for­eign cur­rency earn­ers, along with min­er­als and to­bacco.

Now tourism “is dead be­cause of coro­n­avirus,” said Ti­nashe Farawo, the spokesman for the coun­try’s na­tional parks agency. Na­tional parks and other an­i­mal sanc­tu­ar­ies such as Kuimba Shiri are bat­tling to stay afloat, he said.

“We are in trou­ble. All along we have been re­ly­ing on tourism to fund our con­ser­va­tion ... now what do we do?” he asked.

Kuimba Shiri, which means singing bird in Zim­babwe’s Shona lan­guage, was closed for more than three months. It’s the long­est time the bird sanc­tu­ary, lo­cated in one of the global sites pro­tected un­der the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on Wet­lands, has been shut.

On a re­cent week­day, the only sound of life at the place usu­ally teem­ing with chil­dren on school trips was that of singing birds perched on the edges of large en­clo­sures. Horses, ze­bras and sheep fed on grass and weeds on the lakeshore.

A par­rot stand­ing on a flower pot at the en­trance re­peat­edly shouted “Hello!”

“He misses peo­ple, es­pe­cially the chil­dren,” said Straf­ford, who es­tab­lished Kuimba Shiri on the 30acre spot on Chivero, the main reser­voir for Harare. Now it is home to many rare species in­clud­ing fal­cons, flamin­gos and vul­tures.

“This place is a dream place for me,” he said.

Things turned night­mar­ish how­ever when then pres­i­dent, the late Robert Mu­gabe, launched an of­ten-vi­o­lent land re­dis­tri­bu­tion pro­gram in which farms owned by whites were seized for re­dis­tri­bu­tion to land­less Blacks in 2000.

An­i­mal sanc­tu­ar­ies were not spared and Kuimba Shiri was tar­geted “30 to 40 times,” said Straf­ford. Even­tu­ally, the sanc­tu­ary was en­dorsed by Mu­gabe and re­turned to a mea­sure of sta­bil­ity.

In 2009, Zim­babwe’s economy col­lapsed as hy­per­in­fla­tion reached 500 bil­lion per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Fund. The sanc­tu­ary strug­gled to make ends meet. Many birds starved to death while those that could fend for them­selves were re­leased into the wild.

“We sold our ve­hi­cles and a trac­tor to feed the birds. When it re­ally got des­per­ate we had to kill our horses,” he said.

Now, a decade later, Straf­ford is again be­ing forced to sell some items as coro­n­avirus and a new eco­nomic cri­sis take their toll. A land ex­ca­va­tor, a boat, a truck, a trac­tor and sheep are among the items he hopes to ur­gently sell.

PHO­TOS BY TSVANGIRAY­I MUKWAZHI — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Gary Straf­ford, a fal­coner, holds an owl in­side one of the cages at his bird sanc­tu­ary, Kuimba Shiri, near Harare, Zim­babwe, on Wed­nes­day. A bird han­dler pre­pares a bird for flight at the bird sanc­tu­ary Kuimba Shiri, near Harare, Zim­babwe.

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