Shannon Hoffman flies a pair of barn owls (Cinnamon and Nutmeg) during the afternoon flying show.
Shannon Hoffman flies a pair of barn owls (Cinnamon and Nutmeg) during the afternoon flying show.
A bearded vulture
A bearded vulture

Durban - The African Bird of Prey Sanctuary, opened and owned by Ben and Shannon Hoffman, is an ideal place for adults and children to visit during the Christmas holidays. The sanctuary, 25km outside Pietermaritzburg, has the widest selection of indigenous raptors or birds of prey in the southern hemisphere and also the largest raptor breeding project. Of the 81 raptor species in the sanctuary, one quarter are listed in the red data book, which means that conservation measures need to be implemented in order for them to survive – hence the sanctuary’s existence.

Ben and Shannon have the ideal eco partnership: Ben is the “behind the scene man”, while Shannon trains the birds to become aerial acrobatic performers and runs a school education programme.

Ben runs the Rehabilitation Unit called Raptor Rescue and is the first person in the world to breed white headed vultures in captivity, a significant achievement because these birds lay only one egg each year. He has also had great success in rescuing, hospitalising and treating sick or injured birds in a hospital he has recently built, which has an ICU unit, recovery enclosures and flight fitness tunnels.

Injured and needy birds of prey are treated the minute they get to the sanctuary where they are either settled in spacious cages with food, water and medicine or in the hospital. Birds that are able to return to the wild are released as soon as possible with identity rings on their legs and are backed up, when funds are available, with radio tracking devices. Unfortunately, the sanctuary rescues many “end of line birds” that are unable to be released.

“Spring and early summer is high season for us as many migrant birds arrive in South Africa exhausted from their long journey and also because many young birds start venturing out alone and getting into trouble,” Shannon says. “In addition, our modern world is a harsh one for birds. They’re hit by vehicles, poisoned by pesticides and they’re also rapidly losing their homes through building or farming projects.

“We frequently have emergency calls to rescue and treat badly injured birds and, when we get there, the poor things are often nothing but feathers and bones. They often smash their faces against their enclosures or start losing their feathers when they get here, but it doesn’t take long for them to realise that we’re their friends and they begin to trust us.”

In addition, Ben also co-ordinates any research programme with the University of KZN in Pietermaritzburg and the sanctuary’s large collection of indigenous raptors acts as a valuable source of biological data for non-invasive projects.

Shannon has had a long experience of working with birds of prey in South Africa and abroad and, as soon as they settle down, it is her turn and she begins training them to become aerial acrobatic performers.

Her current super stars include vultures, owls, hawks, eagles, falcons, kestrels and kites who all take part in the Sanctuary’s amazing daily flying exhibition.

“They all have 40 minutes training every day which is based on a food-based reward programme,” she explains.

Apart from hospitalisation, convalescence and lessons in aerial acrobatics, Ben and Shannon also deal with the usual squabbles of avian family life.

“We love all our birds equally but our most special one is a bearded vulture. The African Bird of Prey Sanctuary is now home to the only specimen of this species in captivity. This bird is not able to be released and can be seen in a temporary enclosure at the Sanctuary while funds are raised to build her a cliff face home.”

As well as training her avian acrobats, Shannon masterminds a school education programme to make pupils more interactive with the wild and also to give them an awareness that it is our responsibility to ensure that these amazing, vulnerable birds are protected against extinction.

The African Bird of Prey Sanctuary, which has a gift shop and a coffee shop, is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 9am-4pm, and flying shows are 10.30am on weekdays and 3pm on Sundays and holidays.

It is run in partnership with the Mayibuye Community Trust who receive a percentage of the takings.

How to help

Sponsor a bird.

Application forms available at reception. Small birds cost R750 a year to maintain, medium sized birds R1 000 and large ones R1 500. Ben and Shannon are looking for sponsorships for their bearded eagles.Monthly donations are welcome.

Erect an owl box

Available at the Sanctuary shop and cost R300.

Sign up for ‘My Planet Fund-raising Programme.’

Everyone who signs up and swipes a card at participating outlets at Woolworths, SupaQuick, Wimpy, Reggies and Waltons is raises funds for the sanctuary at no additional cost to themselves and they will also receive an electronic newsletter.

Contact details

The African Bird of Prey Sanctuary is 67km from Durban and 25km from Pietermaritzburg on the N3. Turn off at Exit 45 and it is clearly marked

Tel/Fax 031 785 4382

E-mail: [email protected] - Sunday Tribune