Evaluating the ecosystem service provided by the Red-billed on cattle farms in South Africa

After spending two months in Sabi Sabi Game Reserve this year I developed an understanding of Red-billed Oxpeckers (Buphagus erythrorhynchus). By this time I had already been awarded a bursary from EWT’s Operation Oxpecker project towards the completion of my studies. The Sabi Sabi Game Reserve is located in the south-western section of the Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga. The 6500 ha private reserve is home to all game preferential hosts Oxpeckers like Impala, White Rhinoceros, African Buffalo, Plains Zebra and Giraffe. I was fortunate to see how the birds flock in large numbers (the most I have seen was around a 150:600 ratio with the African Buffalo herd). I was excited to be part of a study on the birds and actually enjoyed more than ten sightings where I observed how they feed, travel, call and monitor their surroundings in the wild.

Red-billed Oxpeckers are considered Least Concern in South Africa, but until recently they were listed as Near Threatened. While the decline of their hosts due to hunting has decreased, the use of organophosphates to control ticks has had a further negative impact on the population of the Red-billed Oxpeckers over the past decades. The main problem stems from the use of incorrect or excessive use of ectoparasiticides which are used in game and cattle farms across the country. The purpose of my research study is to comprehend the ecosystem service of the Red-billed Oxpeckers in farms as opposed to the use of ectoparasiticides as a measure to control ectoparasites.

A Red-billed Oxpecker feeding on insects from the back of a Buffalo

Since the study area comprised of the whole of South Africa, I wouldn’t have been able to reasonably collect data in less than a year. The best way to collect data was through a reputable survey which I designed with the help of the Operation Oxpecker Project Co-ordinator Leigh Combrink. The survey consisted of 14 simple questions that were sent to various farmers throughout the country about their farms, the types of animals (cattle or game) they breed, the presence or absence of the oxpeckers, the use and type of ectoparasiticides they use and so forth. Unfortunately only a few farmers took part in the survey which resulted in me having to combine my survey with another survey that was completed by the EWT’s Wildlife Ranching Project.
Most of the farmers were from the eastern region of the country, namely the Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Kwa-Zulu Natal and Eastern Cape provinces – which I found interesting because the Red-billed Oxpecker’s preferred habitats largely fall within these provinces (areas characterised by fairly moderate to high temperatures, such as savanna and woodlands). When examining the data for my draft research project, I found it surprising that most farmers would intentionally have the birds on their farms. With the common perception that farmers perceive the birds as pest, I was excited to discover that (according to my survey) most farmers (81%) categorise Red-billed Oxpeckers as beneficial animals to have on different farms.
The use of ectoparasiticides was a huge part of the project. During my birding trips in Pretoria (Onderstepoort area) I came across a farmer who has three cattle farms in Gauteng, Limpopo and Western Cape provinces. Due to the remote area where we met, I asked the farmer to complete the survey manually. He firmly said he does not use ectoparasiticides on all his farms; and mentioned that he only uses such products on the Gauteng and Limpopo farms. This supported my findings that conclude that the use of ectoparasiticides is dependent on the geographical climate of the area and subsequently the need for the Red-billed Oxpecker is dependent on the geographical description of the area. Also, I strongly believe that to an extent Red-billed Oxpeckers do provide a natural service of decreasing the populations of ticks better than the use of ectoparasiticides in certain farms within South Africa.
The survey is still open and will run until end of November 2015. We would really appreciate it if cattle or game farmers who have not yet completed the survey can assist us with the conservation of these remarkable birds by answering the questions at the following link: https://www.surveymonkey.net/analyze/svEgKZooXjQpoHWQ14dU6SyZTFA7hlcf7N8WOwsfkTo_3D.
Kagiso Mohlamme
Operation Oxpecker Honours Researcher

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