Guano

In the early nineteenth century most pioneers to this country were driven by the search for wealth. Many explorers and adventurers perished or turned back having been rebuffed by a harsh hostile land, its climate and people. Some fortunes however were maid, not so much as a result of ''lucky strike'', but by observant keen and tenacious pioneers, persevering in spite of seemingly impossible odds.
As the Karakul sheep was termed the ''Black Diamond'', because of the immense wealth the black pelts created for the farmers in the South, so Guano was for sometime called ''White Gold'' once its value became known. Indeed the scramble to mine it at times resulted in pandemonium reminiscent of the American ''Gold Rush''.
Apparently the ancient Incas of Peru were well acquainted with its value as a fertilizer, and it is recorded that they maintained strict laws enforcing the controlled mining and use thereof. HUANO in the Peruvian native tongue means dung or manure, which in Spanish became GUANO or GUANAR, and like many other discoveries in the Americas eventually gained world acclaim by being introduced to Europe. In 1835 the first Peruvian guano was successfully applied for the improvement of impoverished, overtilled soils.
Guano is in essence the sedimentary conglomerate of dung, carcasses, feathers, eggshells and sand accumulating in areas where seabirds congregate in confined space on small off-shore islands or rocky outcrops that by virtue of their inaccessibility offer shelter from natural predators. Climatic and environmental conditions favouring this scenario occur both on the west coasts of South America and Southern Africa. Both coasts have a cold ocean current washing their shores (The Humboldt and Benguela respectively) resulting in nutrient-rich waters, which in the natural food cycle eventually produce huge shoals of pelagic fish such as pilchards, harders, sardines and mackerel. This fish supply in turn caters for the great variety of sea birds which are found on both coasts. On our coast these are mainly the Jack-ass Penguin, Cape Gannet and Cape Cormorant.
The dry climate resulting from the cold ocean current further favours the build-up of guano and the retention of its nutrients due to a relatively low level of leaching.
As early as 1828 an American captain Benjamin Morrel reported in great detail on the marine wealth of our coast which included ''whales, crawfish, scalefish, sea-bird eggs and seals''. Of Ichaboe island he writes ''The surface of this island is covered with bird manure to a depth of 25 ft''.
Ichaboe is the best known of 14 off-shore islands with interesting names like Possession, Plum Pudding, Roast Beef, Halifax, Pomona, etc. on which bird and seal colonies exist, but it was only in 1844, after the worth of guano had become fully acknowledged in Europe, that the ''rush'' began. It is estimated that on Ichaboe alone 700 000 - 800 000 tons of guano were removed in a few years and that at times 300 ships were active among the islands. The guano layers were broken up and crushed by labourers, who at some point counted over 2000, loaded onto flat bottom rowing boats and transported to the ships anchored out at sea. This was arduous, dangerous work and at times squabbles broke out to the extent, that the British Navy had to dispatch a warship from Cape Town to maintain law and order.
In 1867 the islands were incorporated into the Cape Colony and Britain even retained ownership after Germany colonised the mainland. Not until 1994 did South Africa hand over the islands to Namibia, together with the Walvis Bay enclave.
Between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, a wooden platform, 200 m offshore was erected on ''Bird Rock'' in 1932 by a carpenter named Adolf Winter, who had studied the behaviour of sea birds. In spite of his critics who called the structure ''Winter's Folly'' he embarked on the project and eventually became a millionaire.
The 1.7 ha platform, entirely built of wood resting on 1000 stainless steel stilts embedded in the rock, is a home for mainly the black cormorant and it is calculated that approximately 500 000 birds could rest on it.
North of Swakopmund at the Salt Pans and at Cape Cross two more platforms of 4 ha each have been erected with success. The platforms found nowhere else in the world, currently produce about 2500 tons of guano per season and fetch about N$ 700 per ton.
Guano of a very high quality, due to the absence of sand on the platforms, is reaped every 12-18 month after the end of the main summer breeding season, when a layer of approximately 6 sm. has accumulated. Guano is rich mainly in Nitrogen (14-16%), Phosphorus (9%) and Potassium (3%), and used as a mix with artificial fertilizers in a liquid or solid form.
The indiscriminate looting originally, then the uncontrolled persistent mining of guano together with years of over fishing along our coast has reduced the bird population by over 60% since 1956, with a resultant drop in guano production. Strong evidence exists that the nutrients that were leached from guano-laden islands during winter rains stimulated abundant algae growth and thus ''kick-started'' the natural food cycle once more.
It is well known that crayfish catches have dwindled and shell fish, like black mussel are no longer found in the same abundance as before the islands were regularly ''stripped''. Could research into this aspect perhaps prove what is already suspected by some, that guano would be best left where it is dropped?
Under Namibian control, although classified as a mineral, the Guano resources fall under the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources. Guidelines are being formulated in regard to all aspects of the exploitation of Guano, and it is to be hoped that the result will be a regeneration of the bird population to a level from which a small sustained economically viable guano industry can exists in balance with nature.

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