African black oystercatcher

The African black oystercatcher is at the constant mercy of dogs and humans. Image: Adobe Stock

Share the Shores: How you can help to protect South Africa’s seabirds

Humans, dogs and seabirds are a recipe for disaster unless creating harmony becomes a matter of careful management and planning.

African black oystercatcher

The African black oystercatcher is at the constant mercy of dogs and humans. Image: Adobe Stock

Two of the Western Cape’s most recognised seabirds, the white-fronted plover and the African black oystercatcher, are at the forefront of a “Share the Shores” campaign to make the lives of South African coastal birds a lot less precarious.

The plover is a tiny, cream-coloured bird smaller than the palm of your hand. Among its enemies are humans who tread on its nest, often unknowingly, and dogs that run freely along its beach territory, terrifying and often killing newly hatched babies.

The other icon for change is the African black oystercatcher, with its distinctive red-rimmed eyes, whose existence is so fragile that survival of the species can’t be guaranteed without intervention.

Seabirds disappearing from South Africa’s shores

Populations of seabirds around South Africa’s shores are diminishing at alarming speed, says Dr Mark Brown, a marine scientist and senior researcher based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

While the COVID-19 lockdown and beach bans helped restore many of the birds’ vulnerable habitats, and increased breeding numbers, the opening up of beaches in February could cancel out any gains made, Brown said.

“The outlook going forward is not good for these birds,” Brown said. “The only solution is working out an acceptable compromise to suit humans, dogs and nature. To say that people can’t exercise their dogs on beaches would cause a huge outcry and quite frankly would be counterproductive.”

New blueprint a ‘win-win’ for both humans and seabirds

Research officer Brittany Arendse with a newly ringed baby plover. Image: Supplied

Brown and his team, in conjunction with the Nature’s Valley Trust, using Plettenberg Bay’s beaches as a blueprint to come up with a plan. They devised a “win-win strategy” that encompasses the co-existence of people, dogs and biodiversity on South African beaches. Their focus is mainly on seabirds that use beaches as their nesting and breeding habitats.

“These birds have an almost neurotic and conspiratorial approach when it comes to disturbances of any kind. That’s why we have to be so careful when it comes to stress,” Brown said.

The plan includes dividing delicate biodiversity areas of the coastline, which are popular with tourists, into three distinct segments. The segments are a Red Zone for tourists and visitors, where no dogs are allowed; an Orange Zone where dogs are allowed, but only on leashes; and a Green Zone, where dogs are allowed to run free under the control of their owners.

‘It’s all about compromise’ and education

“It’s about compromise,” said Brown, who has published more than 80 scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals, and was a contributing author to Roberts VII Birds of Southern Africa.

“The idea is to look at a solution that is not confrontational, but inclusive, and will be supported by the public, municipalities and tax payers.”

Particular focus has been on educating pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds about seabird and coastal conservation. More than 50,000 pupils have had direct access to the Nature’s Valley Trust’s environmental education programmes. 


Dogs roaming free on the beach is often at the expense of coastal birdlife. Image: Adobe Stock

In the case of the white-fronted plover, numbers have dropped by almost 70% along the Western Cape coastline and the breeding pairs are not fledging their young successfully. The black oystercatcher faces the same threats as the plover when it comes to loss of eggs due to disturbances.

Recent research shows that plover parents are highly fearful and neurotic, believing their babies are constantly under attack. In the hot summer sun, these seabirds sit on nests built into the sand to cool down their eggs. They fly off when disturbed. Extensive exposure to sun kills the eggs and that is why many chicks don’t hatch.

Plovers have an alarm call that alerts their babies of a disturbance, be it a human or animal threat. The babies respond by literally dropping where they are. This and their extreme camouflage make them difficult to spot when they are cowering in the sand, and makes trampling by humans a very real threat. They will only move when the mother gives the all-clear, but by that time the babies may already be dead. 

For more information on Share the Shores, visit

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