South Africa’s oldest wildlife sanctuary CROW struggling to survive – Clint Halkett-Siddall

CROW is South Africa’s oldest wildlife rehabilitation centre. For the past 43 years, the centre has been rehabilitating and releasing wild animals and birds. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which suspended their international volunteer programme for two years, combined with the devastating floods Kwazulu-Natal in 2022 and the current cost of living crisis, the centre is now in danger of closing down. In an interview with BizNews, Clint Halkett-Siddall, the Director of CROW, shed light on the centre’s current plight. What was once a sanctuary rescuing 3,000 to 4,000  injured, orphaned and displaced animals and birds annually is now facing a grim reality: a mere 10 months of operational costs stand between them and closure. Halkett-Siddall said CROW has, in a bid to keep their doors open, initiated a BackaBuddy campaign, reaching out for support. He emphasised the critical role played by CROW in educating future generations. CROW’s education program has already reached 160,000 pupils. Urbanisation, he said, is exacting a significant toll on South Africa’s wildlife. – Linda van Tilburg

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Excerpts from the Interview

Rescuing between 3,000 and 4,000 a year from 1977

Crow is dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing all wildlife within KwaZulu Natal. We rescue between 3,000 and 4,000 animals every year and have between 300 and 400 animals on our property at any given time. As we head into our busy baby season, we currently have 355 animals on our property, but that number is sure to increase over the coming months. 

 We have permits for every species of wildlife in Kwazulu-Natal, including lizards, reptiles, antelope, game species, birds of prey, garden variety birds, and even small shrews. Additionally, we have permits for threatened and protected species both in the marine and terrestrial environments.

A lot of people do know about us. It is quite scary though being going for 43 years and there are also a lot of people that don’t know about us. It’s all about awareness. But I think as soon as anybody puts it on a chat group, somebody will know about us on WhatsApp or the internet. They can Google us. We do show up top of the Google list when wildlife rehabilitation is put in. So people find us in many different ways.

We also welcome people to drop off animals if they are not a dangerous species, for example, a baby bird or something, just to help us with fuel costs, things like that because it is quite an intensive and expensive operation to run.

The impact of COVID, KZN floods, cost of living

Everything’s gone up obviously with the inflation, currently with fuel, food prices for our feed for our animals, amongst other things. But the International Volunteer Program which generates about 50% of our overheads basically went from 80% bookings down to 0% overnight, and that lasted for about two years. So for two years, we were losing out on about R150,000, 180,000 worth of income each month.

since COVID regulations were phased out. We did start getting a lot of international volunteers coming through in the post-COVID tourism boom, I think, with tourism. I think it really was locked inside for so long and they wanted to get out. So this last June, July, and August being the European and American holidays, we were actually fully booked, which was fantastic. And it is slowing down a little bit now going out of the holiday season. But fully booked, which was fantastic. And it is slowing down a little bit now going out of the holiday season. But we have got bookings, one or two people up to three people all the way through to June next year. So things are definitely looking up on our volunteer program side.

 Due to inflation, the cost of fuel, food prices for our feed for our animals, and other expenses have increased. Additionally, the International Volunteer Program generates about 50% of our overheads, went from 80% bookings down to 0% overnight and lasted for about two years. So, for two years, we were losing out on about R150,000 to R180,000 worth of income each month.

However, since COVID regulations have phased out, we have started receiving a lot of international volunteers coming through in the post-COVID tourism boom. This last June, July, and August being the European and American holidays, we were fully booked, which was fantastic. Although it is slowing down a little bit now going out of the holiday season, we have got bookings from one or two people up to three people all the way through to June next year. So, things are definitely looking up on our volunteer program side.

Struggling to keep their doors open 

CROW has been struggling to keep their doors open due to a loss of income over the past few years. With people’s pockets being tighter nowadays, our supporters don’t have as much spare change to donate towards us as they had in the past. We were facing a situation where we were down to about 10 months’ worth of operational costs left to be able to keep our doors open.

We launched a BackaBuddy campaign that’s doing quite well. You can go on there to support us as well as our website. We have been extremely blessed since our appeal went out and we received a lot of support from members of the public, whether it be that they are starting their fundraising campaigns for us, same as corporations. We have had some charities and some trusts reach out to us, but the support has been overwhelming. We’re not out of the water yet, but we still have quite a way to go. If anybody is in a position that they can support, it would be highly appreciated. You can go onto our website, which is www.crokzn.co.za. You can give us a call. Our details are on there as well if you’d prefer to get our banking details. Otherwise, we do have the BackaBuddy crowdfunding campaign and then we also have a PayPal account that deposits can be made into for donations

Education programmes to change attitudes towards wildlife preservation are in South Africa 

Education is the key to conservation, and PROS are very active in education. In the past 14 years since we revamped our wildlife education program termed Wildlife Warriors, we’ve reached over 160,000 learners. And strangely enough, last year for the first time in the past 10 years, the number of admissions dropped to just below 3,000 animals that came through our doors. So there could be other factors involved there, but I’d love to say that it’s down to education and the perception change in our country.

The best cage is an empty cage 

Reptiles are my favourite animal, so I always bring a reptile into the conversation. And we did have a crocodile released last year, a 1.2-meter crocodile in Tongaat that was on a farm and was going to be destroyed. But we went out, rescued it, and it was released in Tula Tula. We currently also have a baby crocodile that hatched out as an egg that was confiscated from a member of the public who illegally harvested it. So, we’re raising the croc at the moment. We’ve got a beautiful baby Blesbok that just came in. Poachers going to use it for the muti trade and he’s doing extremely well. Then we’ve also got some genets that are about to be released. We’ve got a group of dassies that are about to be released. Our vervet monkeys will be going out to Pongola next month once the good rains have come, and we’re releasing them on a 40,000-hectare reserve that’s a five-year rehabilitation program with the vervet monkeys. So there’s plenty going on and many success stories. I think every time an animal is released back into the wild, it just brings up emotions and it’s just such a good feeling.

I believe it’s important, especially in areas where urbanisation is taking such a large toll on our wildlife and we’re losing our habitat for these animals, and there is more human and animal conflict. It’s crucial that we rescue these species, rehabilitate them, and return them to wildlife areas where they belong. This way, they will have a secure future and be able to keep the species going for not just us but also our future generations. Education is also extremely important to ensure that the next generation is more conservation-conscious.

We are not a sanctuary at all. So any animals that can’t be released, especially if they’re threatened or protected species, we send those to specialised breeding programs for threatened and protected species. However, our philosophy is that the best cage is an empty cage. So if an animal is going to spend the rest of its life in a cage, then usually the decision will be made that it will be more humane to euthanize that animal.

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