The resurgence of Red-billed Oxpeckers
By Ryan Hillier

When Kwandwe Private Game Reserve was first established, the founding populations of wildlife included over 7,000 animals that had been relocated from various areas across the country. It was a mammoth task, quite literally – just imagine the planning and preparation that goes into moving an entire herd of elephants over thousands of kilometres! Lion, rhino and cheetah were among a multitude of species that were brought in; all had been locally extinct and some, like cheetah, for over 100 years. And whilst the birdlife didn’t require the same enormous effort to make a return as their mammalian counterparts, there was one notable exception…

In the preceding years, Red-billed Oxpeckers had become locally extinct in the Eastern Cape and their reintroduction to the Kwandwe area was imperative. The small birds form half of what is probably the most recognisable symbiotic relationship in the bush, so much so that it is hard to imagine life without them.

Their demise was ultimately caused by two main factors, the first of which was the dwindling number of their preferred hosts: buffalo and rhino. This resulted in a loss of the Oxpeckers’ prey – ticks – which in turn led to the birds using domestic livestock as host species. This, however, had disastrous consequences for as early as 1890, the livestock dips in use contained arsenic trioxide, a fatal chemical, and the local population of oxpeckers was erased entirely.

After being absent for the better part of a century, the first reintroduction of Oxpeckers took place in 1990. A total of 83 birds were relocated from the Kruger National Park to three separate areas around the Eastern Cape. One of them was the Great Fish River Reserve, right next door to Kwandwe, where 31 birds were released. A further 77 birds were then released in the same area in 2003, and subsequently several others in different locations within the province. The programme has proved to be a great success and the birds have bred successfully, hugely increasing their numbers.

Current distribution maps show the expanding Oxpecker population throughout the Eastern Cape, and in the Kwandwe area, one can see first hand just how well they have flourished. A decade ago, we would be lucky to see a half a dozen Oxpeckers together and usually only on large herds of buffalo. Today, that many can be seen on a single giraffe! They continue to breed well, and we frequently see lots of juveniles who lack their namesake red bills and have black bills instead, making them easy to recognise. The more the numbers grow, the more we see them on all manner of host species, ranging in size from impala to giraffe.

Such determination to protect not only the large mammals and ‘special’ birds, but smaller species too is crucial to the conservation of our ecosystem as a whole. Gone are the days when we would use our binoculars to scour the backs of a rhino or buffalo herd in the hopes of finding an Oxpecker; now the Oxpeckers show us where the rhino and buffalo are – exactly how it should be!