Owls Come to the Rescue
Cummins South Africa employees decided it was not enough to merely increase recycling in Alexandra Township, an informal settlement of Johannesburg, South Africa, near the Company’s offices in Kelvin.
To really address Alexandra’s problems, they had to look for ways to reduce the area’s population of rats – some the size of small cats.
And the best way to control the rat population, they concluded, was to encourage the growth of the owl population, a natural predator but long considered a symbol of bad luck in South Africa.
That’s how what started as a fairly straight-forward Environmental Challenge project to promote recycling became an effort to change people’s beliefs and behaviors not just about trash, but about owls, too.
“Now the owl has come to the rescue of Alexandra residents, surpassing traditional methods of solving the rat infestation,” said Kholofelo Nthane, Project Co-Leader and Cummins’ Environmental Community Involvement Team (CIT) Leader.
The project was one of 15 winners in the Company’s 2012 Environmental Challenge. The Challenge is a competition among Cummins more than 200 Community Involvement Teams to put together the best community project addressing an environmental problem. Winning teams receive $10,000 grants for use by the not-for-profit of their choice. The South Africa project was named Best New Entry.
Alexandra’s rat problem has been attributed to the illegal dumping of solid waste in the community. Alexandra is home to approximately 500,000 people, but its infrastructure was never designed for a population of that size. The rat population exploded, presenting both a physical threat to residents and spreading disease.
Believing that education is the key to change, employees decided to partner with the Ithute Primary School in Alexandra. From the outset, they wanted to address the community’s trash and rodent problems in a sustainable way, without putting students or teachers at risk.
Their research led them to look at whether increasing the population of barn owls might be one answer. Barn owls are used as a biological control in a number of countries including Malaysia, Israel, the United States and other parts of South Africa.
Adult owls can eat four to six rats per day. Eight adults in one family can consume just over 1,000 rats per month. And they can reduce that population without using poisons that might harm people.
Cummins partnered with the Owl Foundation to build a nesting box for owls on top of the school. Then, they set about addressing the cultural issues involved in the program.
“Many regard owls as evil, so we had to introduce the children to the harmless nature of owls and their purpose to reduce rodents,” said Ally Dhlamini, Project Co-Leader.
The Owl Foundation and Cummins South Africa employees gave Ithute students an eco-centric view of owls and their niche in the food chain while being careful not to dismiss anyone’s cultural beliefs.
As part of this education effort, an art competition was held where students drew or painted pictures of owls. Members of the Kelvin CIT were assigned to different classes to help, and the winning class was recognized with a trophy.
To improve waste management, employees implemented a recycling program at Ithute. Cummins employees assisted with the delivery and set up of recycling bins in various colors to separate glass and tin, plastic, paper and cardboard and organic material.
Employees also worked with the school’s environmental teachers and Abilities Projects Management Corporation (APMC), a professional environmental management company that Cummins’ CIT had worked with before, to establish eco kids clubs at the school.
The clubs are intended to create, educate and support “green” initiatives in the community. Run by students, an eco club was established for every grade. They will put together an environmental plan for the community that will be submitted to the Cummins CIT for possible collaborations.
Though there is much work ahead to eradicate the trash and rat problems, both employees and Alexandra residents say after years of struggle, there’s finally cause for optimism.