In a breathtakingly beautiful bushveld setting outside Pietermaritzburg you will find this wonderful bird of prey sanctuary – home to the widest selection of indigenous birds of prey in Southern Africa. Husband and wife duo, Shannon and Ben Hoffman, show their love and passion for conserving these birds during their spectacular shows from Tuesdays to Sundays. The sanctuary is a genuine working facility with active rehabilitation, research and conservation projects being undertaken continuously behind the scenes, and is in partnership with the local Mayibuye Community – who own the land on which the raptor projects are managed and receive a percentage of all gate takings received. Let’s chat to Shannon and find out how it all came about and how the business has evovled since its inception four years ago.
Q: What inspired you to start the business?
A: I had the opportunity to work with raptors in Arabia, where the art of falconry is very much a tradition. Coming home I realised how little I knew about our own raptors and how South Africans are generally unaware of the variety of aerial predators we have around us. So I started off with just a flying display team, met Ben (my husband and partner) and eight years later we have a sanctuary dedicated to raptors. I manage the public side of things (the shows, bird park, restaurant and shop) and Ben is a biologist and manages Raptor Rescue, the rehabilitation ‘wing’ of what we do, any research projects and the captive breeding programs.
Q: How important is the initial capital when starting a business?
A: Animals suck money, but they deserve a high standard of care. We put everything we had into the projects and had family help too. Then other people approving of our conservation work have made donations - whether in cash or kind. We recycle, reinvent and have become skilled in the art of DIY. It takes longer, but comes at a quarter of the price.
Q: How has your turnover increased? What have you learnt from this process?
A: Turnover has tripled, but so have running costs. The operations are a lot bigger which require more staff. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean profit!
Q: How is your business unique?
A: Very few people are crazy enough to ‘fly birds’ for a living. Seriously, we are now the biggest dedicated bird of prey facility on the continent. I think what makes us different is that we are not only a bird park but a working conservation facility behind the scenes. So we are in touch with what factors threaten wild raptors and what misconceptions that need to be addressed in order to help preserve indigenous raptor species.
Q: How has your business evolved since you opened?
A: It’s got a lot bigger – as more people hear about the conservation and rehabilitation work, the more raptors are handed into the hospital. There is an increase in demand outreach education work. This however requires extra staff. We now have six full-time and two temporary staff.
Q: Do you have a funny tidbit or story about your experience as a small business owner to share with us?
A: Ben says that his is the only profession where you are allowed to ‘pick up chicks’ twice a week (we feed day old chicken mortalities from the hatcheries to our birds of prey). And when seeing that a radio transmitter was attached to the tail of one of our flying birds in show, a lady once asked if the show birds were ‘radio controlled’ …I wish!
Q: In what ways do you think your business is benefiting the community?
A: We give people a chance to come into contact with the raptor species that make South African skies their home. This increased awareness will help us to conserve our natural heritage in the long run.
Q: What are the main challenges when running your own business?
A: To juggle the behind the scenes conservation, rehabilitation and management requirements of the raptors and the requirements and expectations of our visiting public.
Q: What are the main rewards?
A: The honor of working with the beautiful, proud species that are birds of prey.
Q: Why do you think your business is successful?
A: We are too stubborn to give up. The raptors and their struggles to survive make our difficulties look like child’s play.
Q: What advice can you give to someone starting their own business?
A: Be aware of ‘the long haul’ and try to keep your overheads down.
Q: How is your business is Proudly South African?
A: We only work with indigenous species. RSA has one of the most diverse range of raptors in the world.
Entrance fee is R30 for adults and R18 for kids under 13
Tel 031 785 2981 for more info or visit the ABOPS website