The Owl Project is en­cour­ag­ing chil­dren in Joburg’s town­ships to ap­pre­ci­ate and pro­tect these fas­ci­nat­ing rap­tors that feed on rats, writes Estella Moore

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WHEN owls fly, they swish like trees in a breeze. The chil­dren nod­ded at this de­scrip­tion, and some backed it up with a “yes”. The boy elab­o­rated: “They make a sshhh-sshhh sound like they’re not there, but we know they are be­cause even if we can’t see them, we can feel the shadow of their wings.”

Some of his friends gig­gled. Where they’d been too shy, he had stepped up to an­swer a ques­tion. But while chil­dren de­light in the as­sur­ance of other chil­dren, it was the truth of his ac­count that im­pressed them.

And that wasn’t the only po­etic con­fi­dence shown in a group of grade 6s and 7s from Alexan­dra who met at the Birdlifesa Fair at the Wal­ter Sisulu Botan­i­cal Gar­dens ear­lier this month.

Drawn to­gether by the Owl Project (owl­pro­ject.org) – which showed its col­lec­tion of nearly 2 000 chil­dren’s art­works il­lus­trat­ing the mys­ti­cal hunt­ing bird – the young cre­atives were there to ad­mire their own ex­pres­sion.

Their neigh­bour­hoods rel­e­gated to the fringes of mod­ern Johannesbu­rg through poverty, this col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween them and the en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists is help­ing to crush stereo­types of both. Run by Joburg-based Ecoso­lu­tions Ur­ban Ecol­ogy, owl­pro­ject.org is work­ing hard to see that hap­pen.

Apart from fa­cil­i­tat­ing the art­works – which this year in­cluded a daz­zling pa­rade of masks – it con­tin­u­ally col­lects and col­lates data. Most re­cently, this was en­hanced by 4 000 ques­tion­naires filled in by chil­dren and their par­ents in Alex, some from schools which had par­tic­i­pated in its pro­grammes, and some who had not.

In that in­stance, the project sought a more ro­bust un­der­stand­ing of the “mytholo­gies” sup­pos­edly sur­round­ing owls.

The re­sults showed that chil­dren whose schools had par­tic­i­pated had got the mes­sage that owls are good for the en­vi­ron­ment, and their par­ents’ an­swers re­vealed that their minds were chang­ing too, be­cause of this.

Ecoso­lu­tions’s founder, ecol­o­gist Jonathan Haw, says that while the science is im­por­tant, it also mat­ters that “we’re turn­ing them on to the mag­nif­i­cence of na­ture”.

The chil­dren at the Birdlife fair were from Marl­boro Com­bined, Carter Pri­mary and Iputheng Pri­mary in Alex, and they num­ber only a few among the 100 000 who have be­come owl­pro­ject.org’s “am­bas­sadors”. The cam­paign is also ev­i­dent in Katle­hong, Vosloorus and Thokoza in Ekurhu­leni, and Klip­town in Soweto.

The project has grown as ur­ban owl habi­tats have ex­panded and peo­ple’s spa­ces have con­tracted. And although it’s a love of the rap­tor they have in com­mon, there is a clear pur­pose to the work they’re all do­ing.

Ecoso­lu­tions has just cel­e­brated two decades in busi­ness.

Owl­pro­ject.org has been a part of it for al­most as long – it is now reach­ing a sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren, in­clud­ing high num­bers grow­ing up in crowded and work­ing-class ar­eas.

In ad­di­tion to ed­u­ca­tion and art pro­grammes, it has put up many owl boxes in schools which are quiet zones at night when the hunters are at their most ac­tive. Proud of their in­volve­ment, chil­dren not only get to par­tic­i­pate in feed­ing the birds, but ex­pe­ri­ence the thrill of their flight and re­turn.

A pi­o­neer of those fa­mil­iar wooden owl boxes, Ecoso­lu­tions ex­tends its straight­for­ward phi­los­o­phy into com­mu­ni­ties in richer sub­urbs as well as ar­eas which are eco­nom­i­cally stressed. Its zeit­geist is the same it has al­ways been: safer, cleaner en­vi­ron­ments through con­ser­va­tion.

This has oc­ca­sion­ally an­tag­o­nised a few more tra­di­tional an­i­mal ac­tivists who have al­leged that owl­pro­ject.org is re­leas­ing barn owls into places like Alex to detri­men­tal ef­fect be­cause peo­ple are harm­ing and even killing them though su­per­sti­tion.

But Haw, who doesn’t sub­scribe to such po­lar­is­ing ideas, says they don’t have to re­lease “new” owls into town­ships be­cause there’s a sim­ple equa­tion at play. Barn owls, which adapt well to dense ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments, are al­ready plen­ti­ful there as there is a con­sis­tent food sup­ply of rats.

That said, Ecoso­lu­tions does re­turn owls to their old hunt­ing grounds.

The com­pany does a lot of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion work with its part­ners on owls brought from across Johannesbu­rg, and has found that re­leas­ing these birds into the wild once re­cov­ered from in­jury can be detri­men­tal.

Stud­ies show that barn owls – which are not en­dan­gered – would aim to re­turn to where they had come from, and Haw says the same is true of most wild crea­tures.

AZWINNDINI NETSHIMBON­I Zen­ze­leni Pri­mary School teacher

Owl­pro­ject.org of­fi­cer Delina Chipape says the “su­per­sti­tion” is­sue may well be the “mythol­ogy” it­self. She says she has more faith in the peo­ple liv­ing in the ar­eas where she works than some out­side may give them credit for, and is not con­vinced town­ship res­i­dents widely share a pre­sumed fear of owls as har­bin­gers of death.

Although the in­flux of mi­grants from other African coun­tries has brought some shifts in cul­tural re­sponses to owls, South Africans are less in­clined to dis­crim­i­nate against this com­pan­ion in their des­per­ate fight against dis­ease.

A fam­ily of barn owls can eas­ily con­sume up to 2 500 rats a year, and even owlets are fit for that pur­pose just

The owls even stay in our ceil­ing at school. We are all well-fa­mil­iarised with them now

weeks af­ter fledg­ing. Plus, more owls mean less use of rat poi­son – poi­son be­ing one of the most preva­lent rea­sons for ill­ness, sui­cide and death in poorer com­mu­ni­ties such as Alex.

Rais­ing con­scious­ness comes nat­u­rally to Chipape, who is an artist and de­signer as well as a con­ser­va­tion­ist.

She is in­vig­o­rated by her work at the project, daily steer­ing an Ecoso­lu­tions bakkie around busy streets where more and more shacks are be­ing built on the verges to ac­com­mo­date a steady flow of ar­rivals. She sees ev­ery­one around her as pos­si­ble par­tic­i­pants in an owl-friendly na­tion.

Her first pub­lic talk hap­pened in 8th Av­enue on Alexan­dra Hofmeyer Street, where an in­jured owl was found ear­lier this year and taken to the Sand­ton SPCA by chil­dren liv­ing there.

Among them were two boys who had thrown stones at the owl, bring­ing to mind sto­ries from many child­hoods in which sub­ur­ban chil­dren con­ven­tion­ally used pel­let guns to shoot bar­bets. Still to­day, re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tres can be busi­est dur­ing the school hol­i­days tend­ing to gar­den birds in­jured by BB am­mu­ni­tion.

“One of the many things I love about this job is the wow of it,” says Chipape, who in­vited the boys and some of the chil­dren in their neigh­bour­hood to help re­ha­bil­i­tate the in­jured owl.

They vol­un­tar­ily vis­ited the Sand­ton SPCA, which is on the edge of Alex, ev­ery day, help­ing to feed the owl and mon­i­tor­ing its progress be­fore it was re­leased.

Those “am­bas­sadors” then also took part in one of Chipape’s favourite ac­tiv­i­ties: mar­vel­ling at what lies in­side an owl pel­let. Owl­pro­ject.org sup­plies ju­nior sci­en­tist kits to many of the chil­dren it meets, whose eyes are then opened to the per­fect rat skele­tons they can con­struct sim­ply by piec­ing to­gether what’s left once the owls have had din­ner. Noth­ing could make the rat-eat­ing power of these birds more real than this ev­i­dence.

Chipape is now ex­tend­ing the project’s reach by ed­u­cat­ing driv­ers at the two ma­jor taxi ranks in Alex. They’re also be­ing of­fered stick­ers which pro­mote the cam­paign and, like thou­sands of chil­dren – and their par­ents, teach­ers and prin­ci­pals – many are likely to join the move­ment that con­firms owls are not omens, but her­alds.

Where there’s an owl, there’s an un­stint­ing ap­petite for the rats that not only harm hu­mans, but also eat val­ued sup­plies and de­stroy ca­bles of all kinds that cost pre­cious funds to re­place. Peo­ple have re­ported see­ing rats as big as cats scur­ry­ing through the al­ley­ways where they live, but barn owls, on av­er­age the length of a ruler, are not in­tim­i­dated.

Teacher Azwinndini Netshimbon­i of Zen­ze­leni Pri­mary School – which bor­ders the tu­mult of Alex’s main ar­te­rial Lon­don Road – said owl­pro­ject.org’s work was part of their class­room cul­ture.

“When there are owls in our boxes, the chil­dren will come dur­ing the evening to see them. The owls even stay in our ceil­ing at school, in­side the roof. We’re all well-fa­mil­iarised with them now.”

Zen­ze­leni Pri­mary has been a part­ner of the project for many years, as has its ad­ja­cent school, Iphuteng Pri­mary, where teacher Eliz­a­beth Mashiloane says the timetable is even ad­justed slightly to ac­com­mo­date the chil­dren feed­ing the owls when the birds nest in their box.

Haw, who has had a pas­sion for rap­tors since high school, gets joy from wit­ness­ing the har­mony that ex­ists be­tween peo­ple and owls.

“When we were work­ing in Se­bo­keng years ago, there was a 15-year-old girl from Res­i­den­tia Sec­ondary School who joined the cam­paign. In 2001, the BBC found her again when it was mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary about the Owl Project in the town­ships, and asked her about the im­pact it had had on her. She said, ‘I learned that if I’m scared of some­thing, I just need to find out more about it, then I won’t be afraid any more’.

“That was ex­actly the pur­pose.”


Owl­pro­ject of­fi­cer Delina Chipape with one of the barn owls she loves.


Jonathan Haw is the founder and en­vi­ron­men­tal di­rec­tor of Ecoso­lu­tions, the com­pany which in­cor­po­rates the Owl Project. |


Delina Chipape dis­sects owl pel­lets with chil­dren from Alexan­dra at the Sand­ton SPCA. |

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