South Africa's birding community has been shocked by the revelation that some protea farmers have allegedly been poisoning Cape Sugarbirds - a "flagship" of the fynbos region that occurs only here.

There are now fears that South Africa's lucrative fresh cut-flower protea export trade - reportedly worth R62 million a year - could face a backlash from overseas buyers as a result.

The controversial poisoning practice has been revealed in the latest issue of the magazine Birds and Birding by Jennifer Freeman, a Ceres farmer and freelance journalist who wrote the story after a full year's investigation.

Freeman said she had come across the poisoning practice when researching how to establish cut-flower protea production on her own farm, and it had been been advocated by a recommended industry consultant.

"The advice given was to sprinkle a solution of a pesticide, with the active ingredient monocrotophos, on to second-grade protea flowers and attach these to a few bushes in the orchard.

"I must, however, 'keep it quiet' and be sure to bury the doctored flowers and dead birds afterwards."

South African Protea Producers' and Exporters' Association (Sappex) chairwoman Maryke Middelmann said yesterday she had no first-hand knowledge of such poisoning and was "absolutely shocked and horrified" by the report.

"We strongly condemn this.

"One of our aims is to work with Cape Nature Conservation for the well-being of the fynbos biome - I hope and pray this is not one of our members."

The Cape Sugarbird is one of only six bird species that are endemic (occur naturally only here) to the fynbos region.

Its extremely sharp claws are a special evolutionary adaptation to allow the bird to maintain its perch on the proteas in strong winds while feeding on the plants' nectar and on insects in the flowers.

The poisoning is to reduce damage to cut-flower protea blooms caused by the birds' claws, as any flowers with scratch marks are usually automatically rejected by the export control board.

Concern has been expressed that if importers in America and, particularly, Europe get to hear about the poisoning practice, the protea export trade could face some form of official sanction and a possible boycott until the flowers are certified "sugarbird-friendly".

There are other methods of protecting the flowers - for example, wax-paper bags or pantihose cutoffs are used to cover blooms.

Walter Mangold of the World of Birds at Hout Bay told the Cape Argus he'd become aware of the issue 15 years ago, "if not longer".

This was when a well-known local bird and animal exporter of his acquaintance had a permit from then Cape Nature Conservation to catch Cape Sugarbirds on a Robertson flower farm and export them to the United States.

"He had no problems with a permit being issued because the Robertson farm was killing their sugarbirds to protect the proteas, and this was being hushed up.

An expert has pointed out that the poison used by the farmers - the highly toxic organophosphate monocrotophos, which is responsible for about 25 percent of all wildlife poisonings in South Africa - was never registered for use on ornamentals or cut flowers.

And since March, it has even been de-registered for its original intended use against invertebrate pests such as aphids, stalk borers, spider mite and ballworm on crops such as maize, wheat, cotton, tomatoes and potatoes.

Professor Gerhard Verdoorn, chairperson of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's poison working group and an agrochemical-environmental consultant, said he would be raising the issue of poisoning birds with the statutory registrar of poisons.

"They (protea farmers using the poison) have been acting against the law completely, I don't care what they say."

Pointing out that the European Union (EU) had "very stringent" controls relating to environmentally acceptable methods of production, Verdoorn added: "If the EU knew about this, they wouldn't even import these flowers."

Peter Ryan, a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town's FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, said he had been "rather shocked" to hear about the practice.

Promeropidae was the only endemic family of birds in southern Africa and it was represented by just two species of which the Cape Sugarbird was one. "So in a sense it's a flagship bird for the region, and for fynbos it's probably the flagship."