South African cowherds are discovering that when it comes to debugging their cattle, nature knows best.

Generations of cattle owners who dipped their livestock in pesticides ended up killing not only the ticks that feast on them, but also the red-billed oxpeckers that eat the ticks. Now environmentalists want to cut out the pesticides, hand the job back to the birds, and in the process save them from extinction.

“We are repairing the damage done 100 years ago and (putting) nature the way it should be,” says Arnaud Le Roux, whose Endangered Wildlife Trust is overseeing Operation Oxpecker. The birds are being collected at a research facility in the north of the country and will be distributed to cattle farmers and private game park owners nationwide.

The Mpongo Game Park in southeastern South Africa has received 20 birds.

The bird is famous for its bright red bill, yellow-ringed eyes and voracious appetite for ticks.

An oxpecker can eat 13,000 of them in a day, and the meals are everywhere — on antelope, horses, cattle, buffalo, rhino, lion, elephant and leopard.

The ticks carry a host of illnesses including red water disease, a common killer of cattle, but are harmless to oxpeckers.

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