August 26, 2006

Fake birds save S.African town after seal bloodbath

By Anton Ferreira

LAMBERTS BAY, South Africa (Reuters) - When a gang of
seabird-killing seals ate the main tourist draw of Lamberts
Bay, residents of the small South African town called in a
surfer, an artist and a flock of fake gannets to save the day.

Cape gannets had been breeding on a tiny island off
Lamberts Bay, on the Atlantic coast 250 km (160 miles) north of
Cape Town, since the early 1900s, becoming a profitable --
albeit raucous and smelly -- part of the landscape.

Birdwatchers from all over the world flocked to the town to
see the birds, spending generously in local shops, restaurants
and hostelries.

"We thought the birds would always be there," said Marriete
Breytenbach, owner of the Lamberts Bay Hotel overlooking the
harbor. "No one imagined they would ever leave."

But in the space of a few weeks in December last year the
birds, all 20,000 of them, did just that.

The problem was a handful of rogue bulls from a nearby fur
seal colony. The mammals had previously attacked and eaten
gannets at sea, but now some of the seals were waddling over
the rocks into the bird colony to savage the gannets on their

"It was terrible, a massacre," Breytenbach said. "The
gannets were killed or maimed left, right and center."

Conservation officials called the seal behavior
unprecedented but could not save the birds. After about 200
gannets had been killed, the rest flew off to find a safer
neighborhood, leaving nothing but an empty stretch of muddy
guano for disappointed tourists.

"We had a drop of 65 percent in the number of foreign
visitors," Breytenbach said, estimating the hospitality
industry was worth between 1.5 million and 2 million rand
($200,000 and $300,000) a year for the town before the birds
left. "When guests discovered there were no birds, they checked

Breytenbach called a town meeting in January to discuss the
crisis. She was chosen to head an action committee that
explored ways of enticing the birds back and keeping them safe
from the seals.


"The gannets were flying overhead, circling the island, but
not landing," she said. "Somebody suggested we try decoys."

Duck hunters have long known that carved wooden ducks
floating on the water will attract the real thing into the
range of their shotguns.

The action committee gave the task of making gannet decoys
to a local artist, Gerrit Burger, who normally creates
mermaid-like sculptures in which human torsos emerge from
twisted antelope horns.

Burger made a mold of a life-size gannet and used it to
produce 50 decoys from plaster of Paris.

The fake birds were deployed on the deserted nests early in
July after the provincial nature conservation authority,
CapeNature, had appointed an island manager, Yves Chesselet,
who is working on plans to protect the gannets from the seals.

"Within an hour of putting out the decoys, the gannets
started landing," said Chesselet, whose passion is surfing.
"The real gannets didn't like the decoys taking over their
nests. They pecked the decoys' eyes out."

Burger was proud of his decoys. "I was very chuffed
(pleased) that the gannets thought they were real," he said.

Nearly 10,000 gannets had returned to the island by
mid-August. In a few weeks they should start to lay eggs and
Chesselet will have his work cut out; not only do the lurking
seals pose a threat, the gannets can also be spooked by kelp
gulls and tourists.

The Lamberts Bay gannet colony, linked to the mainland by a
50-meter (yard) causeway, is one of six breeding colonies used
by the species and the only one easily accessible to

A bird hide of fake rock has been built within arm's reach
of the edge of the densely packed bird colony, with only a
one-way mirror the size of a cinema screen separating humans
from gannets.

The hide provides a panoramic view of thousands of
wheeling, nesting, bickering gannets, all squeezed into an area
the size of a football pitch.

The birds, with wingspans of 1.8 meters (six feet), observe
a rigid etiquette aimed at avoiding alarm and conflict in their
cramped quarters.

They bow deeply to indicate that a certain nesting spot is
taken, they stretch their necks in a gesture known as
"sky-pointing" to indicate to their neighbors that they intend
to take off, and each has its own identification call that it
utters as it circles to land.

Breytenbach said the six months that the colony was
deserted ensured Lamberts Bay would not take its birds for
granted again.

"There are about 2 million seals in southern Africa, but
less than half a million gannets," she said. "The gannets are a
threatened species, but seals are not. Why should the seals be
allowed to take over the island?"