Why you should care
Because urbanization means all creatures — human and animal — need to get along.
Shane McPherson dons a riot helmet and DIY armor, gathers his climbing gear and heads out. Ringing juvenile crowned eagles is delicate work that involves protective mothers with two-inch talons capable of puncturing a major organ or artery. Not to mention the gravitational dangers of climbing the 120-foot trees that hold the nests. “I’ve done over 300 climbs in Durban, and I haven’t fallen yet,” says McPherson. “You only get to do that once.”
The raptor ecologist was born in New Zealand but traveled to Durban, South Africa, for two reasons: its incredible biodiversity and the pioneering work of professor Colleen Downs at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in collaboration with the eThekwini Municipality, which includes Durban and surrounding towns. Downs, a native South African, has been in the zoological game for decades (thanks to a family friend who persuaded her to skip medical school and study natural sciences instead), but her shift to urban ecology research has been more recent. In the early 2000s, when decreases in funding made it harder to send students to remote areas for long stretches of time, she realized “the answers to many important ecological questions could be found in our backyards.”
For Downs, 53, that backyard is Durban, on the subtropical eastern coast of South Africa. It’s a city of 4 million that has weathered the storm of urbanization especially well — the result of the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System (D’MOSS), introduced by the municipality in the 1980s to conserve green spaces and wildlife corridors, and the area’s dramatic ravines that impede construction across large swaths. But before Downs started her work, the only evidence of the area’s biodiversity was anecdotal. In little more than a decade, she and a growing team of enthusiastic young scientists have gathered baseline data on feral cats, large-spotted genets, hadeda ibises, fruit bats, vervet monkeys, trumpeter hornbills, agama lizards … plus 12 other species, and counting.
Downs is known for being soft-spoken and downplaying her role (“I just sit in an office finding money while the students do the exciting stuff”), but Lindsay Patterson, a student of hers finishing a Ph.D. on the city’s vervet monkeys, is amazed by Downs’ support for students developing their own study topics (most professors, Patterson explains, use students to pursue their own agendas). This unconventional approach means students take on greater responsibility for their research — and it also “obliges Downs to be a bit of a workaholic,” says Patterson, in managing her popular and growing department.
Not everyone in Durban is interested in urban ecology, or has the time to wait for conclusive data.
Patterson’s focus on vervet monkeys, which roam the city freely, was controversial from the start. For the most part, the monkeys are attracted to gardens, but they can be led astray by careless human activity to associate trash cans and open kitchen doors with food. This, coupled with bird lovers who suspected monkeys of raiding nests, a widespread myth that vervets carry rabies and a belief that the city’s monkey population was exploding, generated public opposition to the vervets, including calls for their extermination.
Patterson set about separating fact from fiction. One of her most striking discoveries was that most people’s perceptions of the monkeys were positive, but the 29 percent of Durbanites who disliked them “were very vocal about it.” On the flip side, she did confirm that monkeys were preying on nests. And her biggest finding may be just around the corner: Preliminary analysis of her doctoral work suggests (in one of her study areas) that the monkey population appears to be stable — not exploding, as some contend.
Patterson hopes her findings will quell the calls to exterminate monkeys, an impractical and expensive undertaking, especially when monkeys are threatened by humans, cars, dogs and eagles — which brings us back to the tree-climbing Kiwi in riot gear. When McPherson started his work, crowned eagles also made enemies due to their reputation as pet killers. Using camera traps, he showed that “domestic cats comprised less than 1 percent of the eagles’ diet” — and among the 836 prey items analyzed, there was not one domestic dog. Since then McPherson has been using his discoveries to persuade Durbanites they are in fact lucky to have the highest density of crowned eagles in South Africa. He is also rallying residents to report the ID codes of ringed crowned eagles to assist with his research.
But not everyone in Durban is interested in urban ecology, or has the time to wait for conclusive data. For instance, people on both sides of the “monkey war” were quick to discount Patterson’s research because they long ago made up their minds based upon anecdotal evidence. Which makes Sean O’Donoghue, who manages the Climate Protection Branch of eThekwini Municipality and sits on the Durban Research Action Partnership steering committee with Downs, an important and mollifying voice amid the discord. “Where wildlife conflicts exist,” he says, “the best way to find solutions is to fully understand the problem and co-generate solutions with a range of stakeholders affected by the problem.”
For their part, Downs and her team are the first to admit that the real work of reducing human-wildlife conflict and devising management recommendations is just beginning. Even so, the impact of their efforts is already being felt: Other African cities, including Johannesburg, are interested in following the so-called Durban model, and with urbanization in Africa expected to continue apace, Downs hopes their work will lead to a greater understanding of the challenges — and less need for body armor (unless eagle moms are concerned).