Fake gannets save small coastal town
September 01 2006 at 02:11PM
When a covey of seabird-killing seals ate the main tourist draw of
Lamberts Bay, residents of the small Cape West Coast town called in an
artist and a flock of fake gannets to save the day.
Cape gannets had been breeding on a tiny island off Lamberts Bay,
250km 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 harbour.
But in the space of a few weeks in December last year the birds, all
20 000 of them, disappeared.
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 nests.
Conservation officials called the seal behaviour unprecedented but
could not save the birds.
After about 200 gannets had been killed, the rest flew off to find a
safer neighbourhood, 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
R1.5-million and R2-million a year for the town before the birds left.
"When guests discovered there were no birds, they checked out."
Breytenbach called a town meeting in January to discuss the crisis.
She was chosen to head an action committee that explored ways to bring
the birds back.
"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 made a mould 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 in July.
"Within an hour of putting out the decoys, the gannets started
landing," said island manager Yves Chesselet.
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.
Breytenbach said the six months that the colony was deserted ensured
Lamberts Bay would not take its birds for granted again. - Reuters
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