Working for birds in Africa

The Birds of Togo. An annotated Check-list

Sat, 29/12/2012 - 13:08 -- abc_admin
Robert A. Cheke and J. Frank Walsh. 1996. 212pp. BOU Check-list No. 14. British Ornithologists' Union, Tring.
pages 138 - 139

Coastal West Africa is becoming increasingly well served with the extremely useful BOU Check-list series. The Gambia, Nigeria, Ghana and, stretching a geographical point, Cape Verde Islands have been covered so far and one for São Tomé, Príncipe and 'Pagula' - as the cover of this book has it - is in preparation. Now comes the current volume on Togo, and what a scholarly and extremely thorough examination of the avifauna of this ornithologically poorly-known country it is. As an erstwhile resident of Côte d'lvoire, at a time immediately following publication of the Ghana volume, I have personal experience of just how helpful these Check-lists can be. Comparatively speaking, the avifauna of Côte d'lvoire was less well documented, so to have information of what was where in neighbouring and ecologically similar Ghana was a great advantage. This included the fun of inferring what species, apparently absent from Cote d'lvoire, 'ought' to be where and then trying to find them in comparable habitat. Mostly fruitless but occasionally not, which left one feeling quite unreasonably smug. The current volume follows the established format. The Introduction comprises sections of political history, the history of ornithological exploration, geography, climate, vegetation etc, analyses of migration and breeding data, a consideration of the zoogeographical origins of the avifauna relative to the Dahomey gap and the status of conservation in the country. The authors have had to wrestle with the complex colonial history and consequent shifting borders of Togo, which they clearly explain but which, equally clearly, has caused them considerable headache and extra work in trying to establish whether 19th Century records from German Togoland now lie over the border in Ghana. An informative map is provided, showing these confusing changes, but could have been made more so by indicating where present day borders lie. The section on the ornithological exploration of Togo is fascinating. One striking feature here was how much collecting and study took place under German rule between the 1880s and 1914 and how little in the half century that followed, until a series of Belgian expeditions began in the late 1960s. The lengthy section on vegetation, based largely upon satellite imagery work from the mid-1970s, goes into considerable detail and shows Togo to be surprisingly ecologically diverse: five 'eco-floristic zones' in fact. Outlines of these are shown on one map and in detail on a second in colour, based upon the satellite images themselves. Fifteen different habitat types are shown here, through subdivision of the eco-floristic zones, and one has to work quite hard in some places to decide which of the six shades of yellow/orange or five of green applies where. This is a minor complaint, however, about what is a considerable advance on the more generalised vegetation maps seen elsewhere in the series. Of the vegetation of the country as a whole the authors say that its 'most distinctive is its extremely degraded state'. The bulk of the book is devoted to the Systematic List, giving details on the status and assessments of relative abundance of the 624 species so far recorded from within its borders. This seems, on the face of it, a surprisingly large total, given the small size of the country, but is a consequence of those five eco-floristic zones. I was impressed by the number of lowland forest species on the list - one doesn't think of Togo as having much forest but this was not the case. It is, however, sadly true today - some 3000 square km remain, less than 8% of its historical extent, of which only about 470 were considered undisturbed in 1980. The future for the likes of the Lagden's Bush-Shrike Malaconotus lagdeni in the country must, consequently, be bleak. The number of the authors' own records in the list is also striking, reflecting just how large a contribution they have made to our knowledge of the avifauna of the country. Their involvement with Togo dates back to the 1970s, and during the next decade they spent much time living in the country, working on a World Health Organisation onchocerciasis control programme, which enabled them to visit many remote parts of the country - often by the unsporting means of a helicopter! The book includes 53 good quality colour photographs by the authors - because they are in colour (and many taken from the helicopter!) the 36 or so habitat shots are more useful than such things often are. The remainder are bird photographs, most which are of non-passerines; the four of headlamp-dazzled nightjars stand out. Finally, a complaint. This complaint applies equally to the book under review and to the others in the series with which I am familiar, and concerns the maps. A specific example serves to illustrate the point. An extremely important collecting locality in Togo is Misahohe - much of the early German material comes from this site, and for many passerine species, eg Green-backed Twin-spot Mandingoa nitidula and Little Green Sunbird Nectarinia seimundi, it remains one of the few places in the country from which the species have been recorded. The Introduction contains seven maps of Togo but on none of these does the name Misahohe appear - unlike the other main German collecting locality, Bismarckburg. which is shown. To attempt to locate it. one has to refer to the Gazetteer at the back of the book, return to the front, map reference lodged in short-term memory or written on a separate piece of paper, and try to assess its location using a map of one's choice. It is, in fact, very close to the Ghana border, immediately NE of the (mapped) town of Kpalime. None of the maps come with latitude and longitude marked more helpfully than by marginal indications at 1° intervals. This makes things difficult enough in relatively small Togo: on maps in the companion volume for Nigeria (Elgood et al 1994, BOU Check-list no. 4. 2nd ed), these range up to 5° intervals! So, come on BOU, make an excellent production even better by ensuring that, henceforth, the main localities referred to in the text appear, where possible, on at least one map. Where overcrowding might become a problem, print faint gridlines across the map at, say, fifteen minute intervals or something equally appropriate. Now. what would be even better, would be the inclusion of altitudes in the Gazetteer as well.

Dr L. D. C. Fishpool

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