Zimbabwe bird sanctuary has 400 species, not enough tourists

HARARE, ZIMBABWE (AP) — A fish eagle swoops over the water to grab a fish in its talons and then flies to its nest.

Nearby are a martial eagle, a black eagle, an Egyptian vulture and hundreds of other birds. With an estimated 400 species of birds on an idyllic spot on Zimbabwe’s Lake Chivero, about 40 kilometres south of Harare, the Kuimba Shiri bird sanctuary has been drawing tourists for more than 15 years.

The southern African country’s only bird park has survived tumultuous times, including violent land invasions and a devastating economic collapse but the outbreak of coronavirus is proving a stern test. “I thought I had survived the worst, but this coronavirus is something else,” said owner Gary Strafford. “One-third of our visitors are from China. They stopped coming in February… and when we were shut down in March, that was just unbelievable.”

A life-long bird enthusiast, Strafford, 62, established the centre for injured, orphaned and abandoned birds in 1992 and tourism has kept the park going.

With Zimbabwe’s inflation rising to over 750 per cent, tourism establishments are battling a vicious economic downturn worsened by the new coronavirus travel restrictions.

A bird handler prepares a bird for flight at the the bird sanctuary Kuimba Shiri, near Harare, Zimbabwe. PHOTO: AP

Zimbabwe’s tourism was already facing problems. The country recorded just over two million visitors in 2019, an 11 per cent decline from the previous year, according to official figures.

However, tourism remained one of the country’s biggest foreign currency earners, along with minerals.

Now tourism “is dead because of coronavirus,” said Tinashe Farawo, the spokesman for the country’s national parks agency. National parks and other animal sanctuaries such as Kuimba Shiri are battling to stay afloat, he said.

“We are in trouble. All along we have been relying on tourism to fund our conservation… now what do we do?” he asked. Kuimba Shiri, which means singing bird in Zimbabwe’s Shona language, was closed for more than three months. It’s the longest time the bird sanctuary, located in one of the global sites protected under the United Nations Convention on Wetlands, has been shut.

On a recent weekday, the only sound of life at the place usually teeming with children on school trips was that of singing birds perched on the edges of large enclosures. Horses, zebras and sheep fed on grass and weeds on the lakeshore.