Working for birds in Africa

Important Bird Areas of Ethiopia: a first inventory

Fri, 28/12/2012 - 14:52 -- abc_admin
Solomon Tilahun, Sue Edwards and Tewolde Egziahber. 1996. 314 pp, several line drawings and maps. Ethiopian Wildlife & Natural History Society, Addis Ababa. $20.
pages 65 - 66

I lived in Ethiopia for three years in the 1970s and have returned several times since then to renew my acquaintance with its rich avifauna. More recently, I have been researching and writing the Important Bird Area (IBA) texts for Botswana, so it was with particular interest that I anticipated reading this recent publication. I was not disappointed. The Ethiopian Wildlife & Natural History Society (EWNHS) and in particular, the three editors, Solomon Tilahun, Sue Edwards and Tewolde Egziahber, as well as Yilma Dellelegn, the IBA co-ordinator, and all the IBA survey team in Ethiopia, must be warmly congratulated on its production. I can fully appreciate what a mammoth task it has been to identify the sites, undertake the surveys and research, and write the text for this extremely useful book. Ethiopia has very diverse habitats from the Dallol Depression in the Danakil Desert some 116 m below sea level, to the Simien mountain peaks of over 4,000 m, and a range of alkaline and freshwater lakes. The mountain plateaux, long-isolated from the rest of Africa, have developed grasslands and forest with a unique flora and fauna. There are 16 endemic bird species and a further 14 shared with the former province of Eritrea, now a separate country. The main criteria for IBA selection are: the presence of globally threatened species, of which Ethiopia has 30; of species with restricted ranges (Endemic Bird Areas) and of particular assemblages of species in specialised habitats or of large concentrations of waterbirds. Given the richness of habitats and species throughout the country and the large waterfowl populations in the Rift Valley lakes, it is not surprising that as many as 63 IBAs have been identified. As the authors note, this is a provisional list; eight other areas may qualify but for various reasons the survey team was unable to obtain data for them. The book follows a similar format to the IBA inventories already available covering Europe, the UK and the Middle East. Preceding the inventory of sites are introductory chapters on the country's geography and climate, natural resources, government structure, and a very useful summary of the history of the country, explaining the breakdown in the relationship between man and wildlife over the centuries. Very few communities still control their own natural resources but those that do are responsible for safeguarding important remnants of natural habitat, such as the forest island on Mount Zuquala. The IBAs are arranged alphabetically by political regions, and for each IBA, there is a description and an explanation of why the site has been selected as an IBA, a summary of its bird and other wildlife interest, the threats facing the area, and a short bibliography. I found the texts very informative and immensely readable, helped, I must admit, by the decision to refer to birds by their English names rather than scientific names as in other IBA publications. Some of the IBAs will be familiar to visiting birders: Lakes Awasa, Abijatta, Shalla and Zeway, the Awash National Park, the beautiful Bale Mountains (its endemic mammals sadly so depleted in the early 1990s), Bahir Dar - Lake Tana, the Jemma Valley (well-known for its Harwood's Francolins Francolinus harwoodi) and the small Lake Gefersa close to Addis Ababa. Descriptions of the IBAs brought back many memories of trips with the EWNHS to sites such as the crater lakes at Debre Zeit. I became quite nostalgic when reading accounts of more remote or less accessible areas which I had once visited. With the diversity of habitats and birds, it has clearly been a difficult task for the EWNHS to identify sites that qualify as IBAs. However, I did feel that the reasons for including some few sites appeared tenuous. Widely dispersed, threatened or near-threatened endemics or Palearctic migrant raptors do pose a problem but it seems that any site supporting a few pairs or individuals, has been included. Thus, Gefersa Reservoir whilst an interesting site, has no recent record of White-winged Flufftail Sothrura ayresi, supports only a few pairs of Rouget's Rail Rougetius rougetii and Abyssinian Longclaw Macronyx flavicollis and a few highland biome assemblage species covered by other sites. Should Lake Langano rank as an IBA on the basis of small numbers of wintering or passage Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni and Pallid Harrier Circus macrourus, and occasional Lesser Flamingo Phoenicopterus minor? Perhaps this is an unfair criticism as the inclusion of such sites in this inventory does highlight areas to which further fieldwork should be directed. It would be helpful too, if a map of each IBA could be provided in any update. Ethiopia faces great pressures from a rapidly growing population (over 3% p.a.) with its needs for fuel and land for grazing and cultivating. Consequent destruction and degradation of forests and woodlands, further planting of the alien Eucalyptus trees, overgrazing of grasslands and drainage of wetlands has greatly accelerated over the last two decades to the detriment of endemics such as Yellow-fronted Parrot Poicephalus flavifrons, Spot-breasted Plover Vanellus melanocephalus and Rouget's Rail Rougetius rougetii. Conflicts between farmers and waterfowl, notably geese and cranes, are now commonplace. I was saddened to read of the almost total destruction of Acacia woodland in the Rift Valley by Lake Gelila above Koka Dam. This woodland provided excellent habitat for numerous Palearctic migrants in the early 1970s and was a site where I spent many productive weekends ringing with Dr John Ash. Some may find the rather garish blue and yellow cover and poor paper quality unappealing and some maps difficult to decipher. However, presumably recycled materials have been used and the book is well-bound and should be durable. I can highly recommend it to all those interested in the avifauna of this remarkable country and indeed of the African continent. I am sure, as the authors hope, it will be a model for other countries involved in producing IBA inventories. It is also a 'must' for any birders planning a trip to Ethiopia. I only hope that it will help direct birdwatchers to poorly known sites so that they can help fill the gaps in knowledge and stimulate them to submit records to the EWNHS for any future update of this important book.

Stephanie J. Tyler

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