South African owl ac­tivists fly in face of su­per­sti­tion

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Robyn Dixon re­port­ing from johannesburg, south africa

Al­lyn Bagu lay in bed, lis­ten­ing to the crea­tures nest­ing un­der the roof of her new apart­ment in sub­ur­ban Johannesburg. She could hear them scrab­bling around and their omi­nous screeches. One day, her sis­ter-in-law saw one of them out­side their third-floor win­dow and screamed. It was an owl.

“I was think­ing of mov­ing,” Bagu said, shud­der­ing. “It’s bad luck.”

Owls are re­viled in many parts of Africa as har­bin­gers of death. In South Africa, many be­lieve that when an owl lands on the roof and hoots, it has been sent by a san­goma, or witch doc­tor, de­liv­er­ing a fa­tal curse.

Bagu’s hus­band called EcoSo­lu­tions, a com­pany with a “Ghost­busters”-style re­lo­ca­tion ser­vice.

It turned out there were 10 owls in Bagu’s dark, warm at­tic. Owl catcher Hus­sein Mduduzi, jump­ing from roof strut to roof strut, man­aged to catch two owlets, but the eight grown owls flew off.

Mduduzi de­scended, gen­tly car­ry­ing the owlets in a box. The young­sters, their baby fluff half re­placed by feath­ers, looked tatty and ner­vous. Their heart-shaped faces swiveled about, gaz­ing with large, dark eyes at the crea­ture who’d taken them from their home. Bagu’s tiny daugh­ter burst into tears, ran and snug­gled up to her mother.

Tendai Remwa, EcoSo­lu­tions’ man­ager, tried to calm down Bagu and her daugh­ter.

“These owls are just like any other birds,” she said. “It’s very bad to take the ba­bies away from their moth­ers.”

She ex­plained that the ma­ture owls would re­turn un­less the en­try holes were closed and owl nest­ing boxes were in­stalled nearby. Bagu looked skep­ti­cal, but any­thing was bet­ter than hav­ing them in the at­tic.

Remwa, an owl lover, hopes to erase old su­per­sti­tions about owls. The com­pany’s non­profit Town­ship Owls Pro­ject is us­ing the birds to help con­trol the ram­pant, and at times dan­ger­ous, rat pop­u­la­tion in crowded town­ships, and ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple about their value.

“If some­body is afraid, I ex­plain, ‘I’m African, like you. I deal with owls ev­ery sin­gle day. Noth­ing bad has hap­pened to me or my fam­ily.’

When res­i­dents refuse to ac­cept the in­stal­la­tion of nest­ing boxes for the owlets taken from their ceil­ings, EcoSo­lu­tions res­cues them to pre­vent them be­ing killed. They are handed to the Town­ship Owls Pro­ject, to be placed in nest­ing boxes in town­ship schools, which are de­serted and peace­ful at night.

School­child­ren are taught how to feed and care for the owls, in the hope they’ll grow to un­der­stand owls and even be­come their pro­tec­tors. Since the pro­ject be­gan in 1998, about 84,000 chil­dren have been in­volved, feed­ing and car­ing for owls.

Six years ago, Lerato Ra­math­opa, then 13, an­nounced to her fam­ily that she would be car­ing for barn owls at school.

“They said to me I was go­ing to die soon and I was go­ing to bring bad luck on the fam­ily,” she said.

The won­drous weeks that fol­lowed changed her life. She learned how to feed the owlets and clean their box. She would hold the owlets, touch­ing their down, and watch­ing as their necks twisted 270 de­grees.

“My un­cle and aunt were say­ing be­cause I have the courage to hold an owl, I’m in­volved in witch­craft,” she said. “But I started de­vel­op­ing a love for owls, so I didn’t care what they said. It had a big im­pact on my life.

“We would hold them by their claws, not too tight so as not to hurt them, but not too loose, or they would fly away. It felt great.”

Owl catcher Mduduzi, who grew up in a vil­lage in KwaZulu-Natal province, re­mem­bers hud­dling in bed in a cir­cu­lar hut at night, hear­ing the hoots of owls. It meant there was some­thing evil and dan­ger­ous lurk­ing out­side. He nes­tled down in fear.

“Peo­ple would think that maybe some­one sent that owl as a curse or maybe as a sign that some­one would die,” he said.

When Mduduzi be­gan res­cu­ing owls five years ago, he said, he was “ner­vous, be­cause I didn’t trust owls.” To be­gin with, he said, it was just a job that oth­ers were afraid to take, in an econ­omy where jobs are scarce.

But af­ter years of climb­ing up to roofs and reach­ing into small dark spa­ces to save owlets, he’s learned to love them. He’s even train­ing to be­come the coun­try’s first black owl ringer, learn­ing how to place a band on a bird’s leg so the owl can be traced and iden­ti­fied.

He teaches peo­ple that owls are like any other birds, ex­cept that they get rid of an ev­ery­day evil: the large rats that crawl into peo­ple’s shacks and eat their food, cloth­ing and shoes. There have been re­ports of rats gnaw­ing off a baby’s fin­gers, or el­derly and dis­abled peo­ple dy­ing af­ter be­ing set upon by rats.

“I tell you, the rats in the town­ships are a night­mare. No one would want to have that. They’re big, like small rab­bits. They just ter­ror­ize the town­ships,” EcoSo­lu­tions’ Remwa said. “Peo­ple ac­tu­ally sleep in their shoes, be­cause they’re afraid of rats.”

Ex­pla­na­tions from the shy and soft-spo­ken Mduduzi seem to quell fears. Af­ter he tells peo­ple about owls and their be­hav­ior, he said, most peo­ple agree to ac­cept breed­ing boxes nearby.

“Peo­ple in town­ships have got a prob­lem with owls, and they use rat poi­son. We go there and ex­plain how the owls work, how the owls eat rats,” he said. “So now they know that owls are not dan­ger­ous to peo­ple.”

Some an­i­mal rights groups op­pose the re­lease of barn owls into town­ships, say­ing some have been killed.

Jonathan Haw, di­rec­tor of EcoSo­lu­tions, says that in the long term, the owls’ best hope in South Africa is sur­vival in ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties that are ed­u­cated about their value as rat preda­tors. He said one the­ory that owls would be bet­ter off set free some­where like Kruger Na­tional Park made no sense sci­en­tif­i­cally.

Mov­ing res­cued young owls to na­tional parks with

fi­nite ro­dent prey would put more pres­sure on the lo­cal owl pop­u­la­tions; the in­tro­duced owls might sur­vive at the ex­pense of the na­tional park’s owls, he said. And ma­ture birds re­leased far from their home nest would try to fly back, at risk of be­ing killed by ter­ri­to­rial owls on the way, or dy­ing of star­va­tion, weak­ness or be­ing hit by a car.

He con­tends that town­ships, where huge num­bers of rats thrive on dumped trash, make the ideal ur­ban habi­tat for barn owls. Spot­ted ea­gle owls, which need some green­ery, do bet­ter in sub­ur­ban gar­dens, where the or­ga­ni­za­tion in­stalls boxes for them.

In Alexan­dra, a crowded town­ship with a se­ri­ous rat prob­lem a few miles from the up­scale Sand­ton shop­ping mall, school­boy Michael Ram­pho, 14, says his grand­mother handed on the old su­per­sti­tion that owls are evil.

At his school on the bor­der of Alexan­dra, known af­fec­tion­ately as Alex, he over­comes his fear that owls will at­tack him, care­fully fol­low­ing Mduduzi’s in- struc­tions on how to pick up a res­cued owlet by its feet and gen­tly place it in its nest­ing box.

“I felt good be­cause it felt soft. I was kind of re­lieved be­cause it didn’t do any­thing bad,” Michael said.

Each day for three weeks, he and his friends will feed it. The stu­dents name the bird Raz­zaq, or “provider,” in the lan­guage of one pupil, Hus­sein Ty­rone, 13, who said boys in his Midrand neigh­bor­hood some­times throw stones at owls.

“I just say it’s like a nor­mal bird. They say I’m ly­ing, but I con­vince them to leave it alone.”

When Ra­math­opa, the stu­dent, sees peo­ple in Alexan­dra throw­ing stones at an owl, she dashes up to stop them.

“They call them ‘things.’ I try to ex­plain that these birds are harm­less, you have to let it go, be­cause they have a right to live in our en­vi­ron­ment,” she said.

Last year, an owl was some­how trapped in one of her school’s class­rooms.

“Ev­ery­one was scream­ing. Even the teach­ers were a mess. The prin­ci­pal was even afraid of it, say­ing, ‘Get rid of that thing!’ I just went and picked it up. I re­leased the owl and it flew away to Alex.

“I’m not afraid of owls.”

Robyn Dixon Los An­ge­les Times

THESE OWLS nested in the at­tic of Al­lyn Bagu’s home in Johannesburg. “I was think­ing of mov­ing,” she said, shud­der­ing. “It’s bad luck.”

Robyn Dixon Los An­ge­les Times

ECOSO­LU­TIONS PLACES res­cued owls in nest­ing boxes in trees in crowded town­ships.

Robyn Dixon Los An­ge­les Times

OWLETS res­cued by EcoSo­lu­tions. Town­ship chil­dren will care for them un­til they are re­leased.

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