One of the things I find quite frustrating when leading safaris is trying to convey to clients the sheer power and presence of some of the larger birds of prey that occur in our region. The frustration comes from the fact that it is almost always difficult to get close enough to these birds to be able to enjoy a proper look at them. Most eagles in the wild are by nature a little shy and avoid any close approaches by humans. And of course many of our sightings are of flying birds, and these are often seen from a distance.
So it was that last week, while holidaying with family at Nature’s Valley on South Africa’s Garden Route that we decided to visit Eagle Encounters, a raptor rehabilitation centre in the vicinity of Plettenberg Bay. I am not always convinced of the motives of many of the captive animal ‘centres’ that are currently opening all over South Africa, but the couple who own and run Eagle Encounters, Dennis and Janet, impressed me with their approach. Almost all the birds at the centre are there for good reason. Some have old injuries, while others are confiscated pets with no experience of living in the wild. All the birds have very spacious living conditions, with open air and naturally shaded areas in their sheltered quarters. The birds can be viewed from a pathway, and there are daily shows during which Dennis demonstrates the bird’s flying capabilities. At the same time he takes great care to explain to visitors the status of our raptors and conservation threats that they face.
I came away from my visit totally in awe yet again of all three of our ‘big’ eagles. There are currently a martial, a Verreaux’s and a crowned eagle at the centre. Being able to get so close to these kings of the bird world really takes one’s breath away. But, as impressive as they are to see in captivity, I always end up thinking that given another set of circumstances, the eagle – of all creatures – would probably prefer to die free than to be kept earthbound.
However, these captive birds do have another role to play: as ambassadors for their kind. One of the greatest influences we can have on the future of raptors and their wild habitats is to make sure that they are understood and appreciated.
Just as inspiring as the sight of the eagles and their lesser relatives at Eagle Encounters was the sight of the many children visiting the centre. So if you find yourself anywhere in the vicinity, go and see the eagles, and the owls, falcons and goshawks too. Barny, the very vocal barn owl, will steal your heart for sure. Even better, take a child along and share these exciting raptors with them.
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