Back in the day, birdwatching was assigned to aging “twitchers” in beat up old cars in game reserves with binoculars around their necks and stickers on their bumpers reading something along the lines of “bird watching please pass.”

Fast forward a few decades and you now have a special name for travelling to spot birds – avitourism – which is apparently one of the fastest growing segments of nature tourism in the world.

That was pre-Covid, of course. However, rather than simply disrupting another promising opportunity within the hospitality space, lockdown actually may have helped it take flight by getting more people watching birds both from their back yards and nearby nature spots.

As things return to a new normal and researchers tell us that there’ll be a greater demand for more authentic experiences, chances are that bird watching will become increasingly trendy.



The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) was taking opportunities offered by birders so seriously that, in 2009, it commissioned the Avitourism in South Africa research study. The report that was released in 2010 estimated that around three million trips were undertaken each year, specifically for birding purposes.

The report put the total size of South Africa’s avitourism market at between 21 000 and 40 000 avitourists annually. Of these, between 13 000 and 24 000 are locals.

The DTI noted that avitourists spent an estimated  R927 million to R1,725 billion per year. Domestic avitourists’ fork out between R482 million and R890 million annually.

According to the report, although domestic avitourism represented a major untapped market, foreign avitourists were an even more important area for future growth. Even then, the size of the international avitourism market was between 8 000 and 16 000 avitourists per year with an estimated spend of between R309 million and R618 million. To wrap up, avitourism’s potential contribution to GDP was thought to be in the range of R1,205 billion to R2,243 billion annually.

The DTI may have recognised that South Africa has attractive core birding assets compared to competitor destinations – particularly when it came to diversity, endemism and rarity – but it also noted that insufficient data and a lack of co-ordinated industrywide planning for future development made it difficult to develop a targeted strategy to grow this sector.


Instead of waiting for further progress, private reserves such as KZN’s Thanda Safari have decided to bring the birdwatchers out from behind the bushes by not only offering well curated bird watching expeditions but also roping in tourists to help with the gathering of data.

They will be hosting a bird ringing weekend under the watchful eye of bird conservationist James Rawdon from Friday 22 to Sunday 24 October 2021.

Rawdon, who originally studied biology and worked for many years in the South African and Botswana bush has always been involved in nature and conservation and had a keen interest in birds. He pursued bird ringing as a hobby and obtained his bird-ringing license in 2012. He has been ringing birds and sharing his passion for birds at various sites in and around KwaZulu-Natal ever since.

“Bird ringing allows you to see the birds up close and it provides a wonderful opportunity to teach children and adults about birds, conservation and the preservation of their natural resources,” he explains.

Rawdon believes that Thanda Safari, a 5-star private game reserve set in an ancient landscape in the northern reaches of Zululand, KwaZulu Natal where the Great Rift Valley meets the Lebombo Mountains, offers the perfect environment for getting up close and personal with birds. It is not only home to the Big 5 but also to a plethora of birds.


The fitting of birds with coded leg bands, according to BirdLife South Africa which believes that bird ringing is a valuable scientific tool that can provide essential information for conservation.

“Bird ringing and related marking techniques, including colour-rings, data loggers, radio and satellite transmitters, allow individual wild birds to identified and to be followed in space and time. This can provide information of importance to the conservation of species and their key habitats through expansion of our understanding of their broad- and fine-scale movements, survival, ecology and behaviour which

would otherwise not be obtained without marked individuals,” the organisation states in its positioning statement on the subject.

The process itself falls under the South African Bird Ringing Unit (SAFRING) at the University of Cape Town and involves far more than simply adding a bit of birdie bling.

Each bird that is caught has to be weighed and measured before a ring is fitted. Statistics that must be recorded include the estimated age, the degree of moult, and the measurements of the bill and important wing feathers.

Comparisons when birds are recaptured or when rings are recovered have proved invaluable.

Although, sadly, data available online is very dated when it comes to SAFRING, it seems that up to 70 000 birds are ringed annually.

The organisation’s website does make one important point – the database on which this information is captured provides critical information relating to movement and survival of critical species. Research that is important to fisheries, agriculture, conservation and water management is influenced by the information gathered and can be a cost effective tool for monitoring the impact of pollution, poisoning, power line incidents, long line fishing fatalities and other dangers.


Actually participating in bird ringing will allow Thanda’s guest to experience first-hand how wild birds -including returning migratory birds – are caught, ringed and released, according to wildlife expert and resident wildlife photographer, Christian Sperka

He explains that high fly nets – measuring 3.6 metres in height and between 250 and 300 metres in length are used to capture the birds. “The birds fly into the net and drop into a net pocket where they become very still. They are not harmed in any way. They are collected and then bagged and processed. This means they are measured, ringed and basically looked at and recorded before being released back into the wild directly afterwards.”

The ringing area is set up during the afternoon before the day that the ringing takes place. The nets are opened about an hour before sunrise.

Guests who are on hand get to hold and gently help the birds to take flight back into the wild.

Sperka says that 147 birds across 32 different species were captured and ringed during a previous bird ringing conducted by James Rawdon at Thanda.  

The Birding Weekend with James Rawdon:

* Date: Friday 22 to Sunday 24 October 2021

* Price: From R2 995 per person, per night sharing at Thanda Tented Camp

* Package includes: 

* accommodation – two nights double occupancy at the luxurious Thanda Tented Camp – spacious colonial safari-style tents with en-suite bathroom and private viewing deck

* two game drives daily with guide and tracker

* Bird Ringing exercise – Saturday and Sunday morning (guests will spend time with James and the Thanda Wildlife team and handle, hold and release birds)

* all meals

* selected local beverages (soft drinks, house wines, spirits and beers)

* Excluded: conservation levy of R200 per person per stay, gratuities and all items of a personal nature.


Booking is essential – to make your reservations contact:

Thanda Safari


T: +27 (0) 32 586 0149 |

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