South African cowherds are discovering that when it comes to debugging their cattle, nature knows best.
Generations of cattle owners who dipped their livestock in pesticides ended up killing not only the ticks that feast on them, but also the red-billed oxpeckers that eat the ticks. Now environmentalists want to cut out the pesticides, hand the job back to the birds, and in the process save them from extinction.
"We are repairing the damage done 100 years ago and (putting) nature the way it should be," says Arnaud Le Roux, whose Endangered Wildlife Trust is overseeing Operation Oxpecker.
The birds are being collected at a research facility in the north of the country and will be distributed to cattle farmers and private game park owners nationwide.
The Mpongo Game Park in southeastern South Africa has received 20 birds, and Mtshutshisi Nomlenze is delighted.
"These birds are good. We don't have to dip the cattle anymore ... The dip is very expensive," said Nomlenze, who tends his employers' cattle and his own animals.
The 64-year-old told The Associated Press he remembers seeing oxpeckers as a young man, but they disappeared as he grew older.
The bird is famous for its bright red bill, yellow-ringed eyes and voracious appetite for ticks. An oxpecker can eat 13,000 of them in a day, and the meals are everywhere _ on antelope, horses, cattle, buffalo, rhino, lion, elephant and leopard. The ticks carry a host of illnesses including red water disease, a common killer of cattle, but are harmless to oxpeckers.
The spectacle of animals grazing peacefully while birds peck away at them undisturbed is a familiar one in South Africa. The birds also clean wounds, warn animals of lurking predators or advancing storms, and besides food, they get bits of fur to pad their nests.
Le Roux says the reintroduction of oxpeckers is gaining momentum. In areas where they are being distributed, farmers are encouraged to stop using pesticide dips _ or at least the more toxic varieties _ and let the birds do the job.
Peter Oberem received birds three years ago and says he has seen a sharp drop in ticks at his game farm in northern South Africa.
"We had calls from game farmers from as far away as 50 kilometers (30 miles) thanking us for bringing the birds," he said.
Oberem also works for a dip manufacturer, AfriVet, which has an oxpecker as its logo and sells dips that birds can safely ingest.
"We distributed leaflets and explained the importance of the birds to the farmers. We went around teaching them which dips to use to avoid killing the birds. The farmers here are very, very happy," says Oberem.
Sandile Naki, 18, roamed his village hunting oxpeckers with a slingshot when he was younger. Now he's a preservationist.
"Conservation people asked us to take care of these birds and report when we see their eggs," says Sandile.
Seniors at a high school in Timbavati Game reserve in northern South Africa are also helping by educating schoolmates and villages not to interfere with oxpeckers and their eggs, Le Roux said.
"I am looking forward to the day when these birds are back in the wild without us having to distribute them in this way. That day I'll be sleeping nicely," he says.
On the Net:
Endangered Wildlife Trust: http://www.ewt.org.za