South African shelter offers refuge to wildlife that fall prey to suburban hazards

An orphaned water mongoose, a black sparrow hawk with a fractured leg and a young crocodile that was sold by an illegal pet trader. These are a few of the thousands of animals in dire straits that have found refuge in a South African shelter seeking to help indigenous creatures, many of which live in or stray into city suburbs.

Life in the spacious, residential areas of Johannesburg, South Africa's biggest city with a population of nearly 4 million, is a mixed blessing for many birds, reptiles and mammals. A lot of wildlife thrives by foraging in the huge quantities of garbage that are generated daily, or eating rodents that are attracted to the waste. The hazards of urban living are many: cars, pet dogs, pesticides, rat poison, electric fencing and swimming pools.

Traditional beliefs can also be a threat to wildlife. Some people associate barn owls with death, and try to eradicate them.

As Johannesburg's rainy season approaches, it is now breeding season for many birds and mammals. That means busy times for FreeMe, a rehabilitation center in northern Johannesburg that says each year it treats about 10,000 animals that have been injured, displaced, abandoned or orphaned.

The center is sometimes "bursting at the seams," said Nicci Wright, senior animal manager at FreeMe, which accepts animals from all over the country.

Wright recently helped transfer two honey badgers from the Johannesburg Zoo to the Kalahari Desert in a small airplane, a complicated operation in part because the animals had to be transported in crating that could contain their strength, ferocity and intelligence. Wright said lions don't even take them on and she once saw a herd of elephants turn tail and flee an encounter with honey badgers, which have powerful jaws and sharp claws.

"It's just known that you don't mess with them," she said.

The collision between the wild and human development is sometimes stark. Habitat loss and power line collisions are taking a toll on the Secretary Bird, distinctive for its long legs, crest feathers and orange skin on its face, according to BirdLife South Africa, a conservation group.

Last month, residents in a Johannesburg suburb were startled to see a young hyena loping in the streets. The animal, now seven months old, was eventually captured and is now at the city zoo, where it is receiving treatment for lacerated feet while conservationists devise a plan to release it back into the wild, with a collar that will allow them to track its movements.

FreeMe's website advises people who encounter hyenas in their neighborhood not to harass or chase them, not to leave food for them and not to worry about safety because the animals will make an effort to avoid humans.

Other animals currently staying at FreeMe include a snouted cobra; African rock pythons; a pair of baby steenboks, a kind of antelope; a chameleon with eye injuries, possibly caused by the pecking of birds; orphan porcupines, one of which had fallen into a deep hole and could not get out; barn owlets that had fallen through the ceiling at a shopping center; and a crocodile that had been sold as a miniature to an unsuspecting customer. In fact, the crocodile could grow to three meters (10 feet).

A Nile monitor, a kind of lizard, was found on a construction site with a tail injury. It was nursed to health and recently released back into the wild.

Non-profit FreeMe has a small full-time staff and trained volunteers, and coordinates with other conservation groups, including the Endangered Wildlife Trust. Rynette Coetzee, a project manager at EWT, said some animals are also killed and used in traditional treatments for ailments, and that the government should do more to educate people about laws protecting species and the need for required permits.

"It's not that that they don't want to be compliant, it's just that they don't know how to go about it," Coetzee said of market traders in "muti," or traditional medicine.

EcoSolutions, a South African environmental company, launched a project to introduce barn owls into the Johannesburg townships of Alexandra and Soweto despite traditional perceptions that the bird is linked to death or a "witch's assistant," said Zander van Manen, a consultant and technical manager at the firm. The aim is to eliminate rats in the heavily populated areas. EcoSolutions has given talks at schools and allows children there to raise the owls and impart the message about their benefits to their parents.

While parents might not listen to conservationists, van Manen said, "they are a lot more susceptible to their kids."