Does rehabilitation have a role to play in conservation? Are the results really having an effect on the species under threat?

The Garden Route, including towns like George, Wilderness, Sedgefield, Knysna on to Plettenberg Bay is renowned for it’s scenic beauty and amazing biodiversity in wildlife, but is all this under threat? Although many nature reserves exist all along the Garden Route, fringe conflicts between humans and wildlife still occur on the edges of these areas. Protected areas only act as islands of safety for wildlife. Urban sprawl threatens the homes and lives of many different plant and animals species living on the borders and even in these “safe” areas.

Even simple things like allowing your dogs to run free on the beach can have negative effects on the marine species. You may not even be aware of the threat that dogs can pose to marine bird life on the beach.

Then there is the more deliberate ways that humans threaten wildlife, like the setting of snares, use of poisons and bushmeat trade. Also, farmers using inhumane ways of managing livestock predation because they learnt these techniques from their fathers. These practices remain entrenched in the community despite a myriad of reasons why these practices are no longer sustainable or acceptable. Farmers and residents begin to see wildlife as enemies and threats and forget that everything is connected in nature.

Animals and humans are all part of the finely woven balance of the ecosystem and we, as the so-called intelligent species should be the ones to change and learn to co-exist.

We are located in The Crags near Plettenberg Bay and we believe that we play a very important role in raising awareness of the importance of biodiversity.

Our conservation philosophy focuses on 3 main things: Awareness which educates people on the issues facing wildlife today and how to make a change. Thus the long term changing of behaviour and questioning accepted practices. And: Rehabilitation, which is  the immediate intervention, meaning rescuing casualties of the human-wildlife conflict., rehabilitating them and returning them to the wild. The final leg is the desired result in supporting and promoting bio-diversity and importance of wild spaces.

Tenikwa offers several conservation tours to see non-releasable indigenous wildcats of Southern Africa creates Awareness, and in turn utilize the gate takings to fund the rehabilitation work of Tenikwa. Creating awareness is very important, but it is a long process to change people’s perceptions and motivate them to change their ways. That is where rehabilitation comes into the important fight of conservation. It is the immediate intervention, something that can make a change now and directly contributes to maintaining bio-diversity if this animals is released and goes on to survive and breed.

Although the rehabilitation work at Tenikwa started with humble beginnings with the rehabilitation of birds in a woodshed, today it is one of the long-standing, recognised Wildlife Rehabilitation Centres in the Western Cape and one of few that rehabilitates both marine and terrestrial species.

Rehabilitation contributes to conservation and bio-diversity only if the goal is to ensure that the animal can survive the return to the wild and go on to breed and thus contribute to the wild gene-pool. The fact is that animals belong in their niche in nature. They have a specific function they play in their eco-system that is fundamentally important. What is the animal without the habitat? Rehabilitation is only one cog in the wheel to maintain the bio-diversity of wild spaces.

Rehabilitation involves passion, skill, perception and perseverance. It is hard work, expensive and can sometimes last long periods of time. But it is also a science that must, at times, take a step backwards and re-assess whether the day to day activities are achieving the goal, as it is easy to become caught up in emotion, the feel-good fluffy stuff,  and individual cases.

Tenikwa in the last 11 years of rehabilitation has many success stories with rehabilitation.

In the beginning of 2015 an African Crowned Eagle was found in an underground parking area at Melville’s Corner Shopping Centre in Plettenberg Bay. It was assumed that he flew into a wall. Coincidentally and luckily for the eagle, the person who found him was Dr. Van Reenen of Marineway Animal Hospital who brought him to Tenikwa Rehabilitation Centre. The eagle was examined on admission by our vet, Dr. Daryl Hunt. Thankfully, the eagle did not sustain any physical injuries. The eagle was fed and hydrated and plans were made for a quick release. The ringing and release of the Crowned Eagle was coordinated by Dr. Mark Brown, ornithologist and Director of Nature Valley Trust. The Eagle was released in Natures Valley with the combined efforts of Dr. Brown; Birdlife SA and Tenikwa. The real success behind this story is that the different conservation bodies, each with their own objectives, working together, leading to a successful outcome, with one intention in mind – getting the bird free.

Unfortunately not all rehabilitation work and releases ends on a positive note.

In December 2013 a young female Cape Clawless Otter was found during the demolishing of an old house near the SANParks Rondevlei offices and brought to Tenikwa. During her admission examination she was diagnosed with head trauma and it was thought that she had an eye injury. However later it was discovered that she was born with a empty eye socket. Tenikwa remained in contact with IUCN Otter Specialist Group through the entire rehabilitation period to seek their advice on how to take care of the otter. Natural food was sought, so that she would be properly prepared when the time came for her release. At the natural and typical age for an otter to be separated from her mother, she was transferred back to SANParks for a soft release. The next seven months she was sighted and reported several times by different people, but as the months went by, she moved further away from the protected area. Sadly , she was also frequently harassed by dogs and fishermen, even within protected areas. The last encounter with dogs proved fatal and she died on the 29th of May 2015. Despite the sad outcome, there was several positive aspects to this case. She was able to find food and fend for herself for 7 months, proving that the rehabilitation process was not lacking. There was also joint input and collaboration between conservation bodies, the community and the IUCN experts along the way. The tragic fact is that she died due to the conflict that brought her into rehabilitation in the first place: The conflict between human development and wildlife.

The lesson to be learned from the above is that the laws in place in Protected Areas and wild spaces are fundamental for the protection of the species occurring in those areas. Although you may not always be aware of the presence of these species, YOUR presence can and do affect them.

African penguins are frequently brought to Tenikwa, mainly because a penguin found on the beach on the Garden Route is indicative of ill health. African Penguins face a large variety of threats, including oil spills, over-fishing, predation by seals, boat collisions and pollution. Their population has decreased rapidly in the past few decades and they have recently been upgraded on the Red Data list to Endangered. The penguin on arrival at Tenikwa will undergo a series of tests and often require intensive treatment and surgery on admission.

Kenny, the African Penguin arrived at Tenikwa on the 12th of January 2015 after being hit by a boat propeller. He was weak and had deep lacerations on his right leg and right shoulder. Thankfully, after a few days of dedicated care and stabilisation, he was strong enough for surgery.. There was even a customised leg brace manufactured for Kenny’s leg during his recuperation. After a while he was able to join other penguins to swim in the into the penguin pool area at Tenikwa along with some of the resident penguins of Tenikw., but his prognosis for full recovery and release was was always questionable. Several operations, intensive veterinary and physiotherapy, supplement therapy and twice weekly vet visits, he finally turned the corner and was transferred to SANCCOB.  Today Kenny swims in the ocean with the rest of the penguins in the wild – back where he belongs.

Kenny’s story shows that rehabilitation needs patience and dedication, but with the release of the patient being the ultimate goal. With only around 17000 penguins left in the wild, every penguin that we can get back to the ocean counts towards stabilising the dramatic decline of this species.

The above example of rehabilitation shows that people are still fighting valiantly to ensure the survival of threatened species. However what is pertinant is that if we as humans do not change, all efforts of pulling individual species back from extinction may well be in vain, if the natural spaces are degraded to the point that they cannot support the wildlife.

We believe that rehabilitation does make a big difference to conservation. It is a way in which we can counter-act some of the environmental degradation that is occurring all around us, and a way we can directly contribution to supporting bio-diversity and a healthy environment which benefits us in many different ways as well.

And so, perhaps,  the more important question should be asked: Can humans learn to live in harmony with nature and not against it?