Working for birds in Africa


Fri, 08/02/2013 - 10:26 -- abc_admin
Image Credit: 
Original source: The Independent, 13th December 2005

Long-billed Tailorbird Orthotomus moreaui
A critically endangered species found only in the Eastern Arc mountains
East Usambara Mountains, Tanzania

Image Credit: 
Bill Newmark


Conservation in Africa is such a large and complex subject that it is both difficult to do justice to it and write something meaningful in a short web page. There are many aspects to conservation including species, sites and habitats as well as the interactions between them and in turn their interactions with the activities of man.

What we have considered is the need to conserve specific sites in order to save the most endangered avian species. We begin by looking at the extinction of species over the last few centuries. We then look at the numbers of currently endangered species in Africa, where they are located and some of the threats they face. We look at what needs to be done to save species in imminent danger of extinction and the impact of not taking action now.

Finally, we briefly touch on the value of conservation activities to man in countries where there are so many pressing issues other than conservation.

Avian extinctions

The history of avian extinctions in Africa during the last 500 years is interesting. Remarkably, there have been no known extinctions from continental Africa over this period of time. Those extinctions which have been recorded have been of species confined to small islands and have coincided to a large extent with the arrival of man on those islands.

Included in the list is arguably the most famous avian extinction of all, that of the Dodo Raphus cucullatus on the island of Mauritius. The reason for the majority of these extinctions is presumed to be habitat loss, the result of hunting by man for food and the introduction of alien species such as rats and cats. In summary, there have been about 40 avian extinctions and the following table shows their distribution over the centuries.

Century Number of extinctions

If this historical perspective is perhaps not as bad as many people would have expected, the view looking forward is bleak indeed.

Endangered species

There are between 80 and 90 critically endangered and endangered bird species which breed in the continent of Africa and its associated islands. A critically endangered species is one which is facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future and an endangered species is facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future. The list of these species can be found readily by searching the BirdLife International Datazone. Sadly, some have not been seen for many years and may already be extinct.

The countries with the largest number of endangered breeding species and which are therefore the major areas of risk and conservation concern are shown in the following table. The distribution of endangered species is split almost equally between islands and continental Africa.

Country No. of endangered species
Democratic Republic of Congo
South Africa
São Tomé e Príncipe 
Tristan da Cunha


What can be done?

A grouping of 52 of the world’s principal biodiversity conservation bodies such as the Charles Darwin Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, BirdLife International and Conservational International has established The Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE). AZE has identified and listed the sites housing the world’s most endangered species of mammals, conifers, reptiles, amphibians and birds. Each site is either the only place where that species resides, or which contains at least 95% of the known population.

The map above shows the location of the sites of the most endangered species. Although the map shows the sites of other species as well as birds, it can be seen that the major areas for conservation concern are broadly aligned with the list of countries in the table above. The following quotes relate to the high risk areas of Madagascar and the Eastern Arc Mountains.

“Madagascar and the Indian Ocean islands pack a great deal of biodiversity into a relatively small area but deforestation is putting many species under great strain. The island has lost about 90% of its original vegetation, placing many species in great danger.”

“Much of East Africa's biodiversity is concentrated in the Eastern Arc mountains and coastal forests of Tanzania and Kenya. The Eastern Arc mountain chain is a series of heavily forested isolated peaks, where there are 1,500 plant species and 50 endemic reptiles. Because of this density of species, the region is thought to be the hotspot in the world most likely to suffer the greatest plant and vertebrate extinction. Agriculture and the encroachment of human development, along with logging, are the greatest threats to biodiversity in the region. Several species of colobus monkey are endangered along with three species of sunbird. Only about 2,000 km2 or 6.7% of the original hotspot remains unspoiled.”

Not all of the sites are the responsibility of nations with low income per head.

“Gough and Inaccessible Islands, part of Britain’s Tristan da Cunha territory in the South Atlantic, and Amsterdam Island in the extreme south of the Indian Ocean, which belongs to France, are some of the most isolated parts of the world. Even here, in what should be pristine environments, man has threatened the abundant birdlife. On Gough Island, one of the most important seabird colonies in the world, introduced house mice are preying on eggs and chicks of the 22 breeding species of birds, particularly those of the endangered Tristan Albatross Diomedea (exulans) dabbenena, while the Spectacled Petrel Procelllaria (aequinoctialis) conspicillata, which only breeds on Inaccessible Island, is also under threat from longline fishing. Across the other side of the world on Amsterdam Island, there has been extensive deforestation and introduced cats and rats, left behind by seal hunters, have threatened the survival of the Amsterdam Albatross Diomedea amsterdamensis.”

AZE has chosen the species and sites because they have easily defined, concentrated populations which are facing particular threats from mankind such as urban growth, deforestation, commercial activities, agricultural expansion or the introduction of invasive species. The list does not include all the endangered and critically endangered species because AZE believes that other more wide-ranging endangered species require different measures.

The objective is to eliminate the threats posed by mankind and restore habitats. AZE has called upon governments, scientists, conservation organisations and zoos to safeguard sites and develop programmes to safeguard each of the species. It believes that the public and the world banking community should provide the necessary finance. The strategy is not just to focus on the animals but also to work alongside local communities to do something for their livelihoods.

Is conservation important?

With numerous life-threatening issues such as conflict, poverty, famine and disease facing the people of Africa, it is hard to imagine that conservation of the continent’s natural resources in general and birds in particular is a high priority. Indeed, gradual degradation of those natural resources is taking place in order to exploit minerals and timber, extract water and increase the land available for agricultural use.

This is not a problem that is unique to the continent of Africa and one could perhaps suggest that environmental degradation has been less significant in Africa than in several other areas of the world. Africa does however contain many of the world’s poorer countries and it is in such areas that people are most dependent on local natural resources and ecosystems for their supplies of fresh water and food.

"Although saving sites and species is vitally important in itself, this is about much more," said Mike Parr, Secretary of AZE. "At stake are the future genetic diversity of the earth’s ecosystems, the global ecotourism economy worth billions of dollars per year, and the incalculable benefit of clean water from hundreds of key watersheds. This is a one-shot deal for the human race," he added. "We have a moral obligation to act. The science is in, and we are almost out of time."

The AZE report notes that “human activities have led to global extinction rates which are between 100 and 1,000 higher than those of recent millenia. Unless we stem the tide, our descendents will inherit a biologically impoverished world, look back with regret and wonder why their parents and grandparents did not act while they still could.”

Sources of information

The Independent 13th December 2005;

BirdLife International/AZE

Conservation News

16th May 2008: New partnership to improve African biodiversity and livelihoods

The Spanish Agency for International Cooperation and Development (AECID) is funding a BirdLife International project in Africa for the first time. The project aims to support Africa’s poor through sustainable use of biodiversity. This will be achieved through improving the livelihoods of local communities by promoting sustainable use of renewable natural resources.

The BirdLife Africa Secretariat will work alongside Partners to build capacity for policy dialogue at local, national, regional and global levels. The project will be implemented by Site Support Groups (SSGs) based at Important Bird Areas – international biodiversity hotspots. The SSGs will illustrate linkages between poverty reduction and the sustainable biodiversity use. Successful examples of local communities and national NGOs working in partnership will also be promoted.

“BirdLife and our Partners are committed to successful project delivery”, said Dr Hazell Shokellu Thompson - Africa Regional Director of BirdLife International. “The project illustrates the strength of the BirdLife Partnership as SEO (BirdLife in Spain) played a crucial role in bringing the work of the BirdLife Africa network to the attention of AECID.”

The project is being implemented by BirdLife Partners in Kenya, South Africa and Ethiopia. Collaborating Partners include BirdLife International Africa Partnership Secretariat, BirdLife South Africa (BirdLife in South Africa), Ethiopia Wildlife and Natural History Society (BirdLife in Ethiopea) and Nature Kenya (BirdLife in Kenya).

Source: BirdLife International

21st April 2008: The great migration crisis

Many of the birds that migrate to Britain and Europe from Africa every spring, from the Willow Warbler to the Cuckoo, are undergoing alarming declines, new research shows. The falls in numbers are so sharp and widespread that ornithologists are waking up to a major new environmental problem – the possibility that the whole system of bird migration between Africa and Europe is running into trouble.

It is estimated that, each spring, 16 million birds of nearly 50 species pour into Britain to breed from their African winter quarters, and as many as five billion into Europe as a whole, before returning south in the autumn. Many are songbirds weighing next to nothing, and their journeys of thousands of miles, including crossing the Sahara desert each way, have long been recognised as one of the world's most magnificent natural phenomena on the scale of the Gulf Stream or the Indian monsoon. But now their numbers are tumbling precipitately.

Well-loved migrants such as the Spotted Flycatcher, the Garden Warbler and the Turtle Dove are increasingly failing to reappear in the spring in places where they have long been familiar. Across Britain, many people who used to look forward each year to hearing the first Cuckoo – just about now, in the third week of April – no longer have the chance to do so. If fewer and fewer birds are returning to their breeding grounds, the inevitable consequence is that their populations will shrink ever more rapidly, ultimately, towards extinction. That may still be a long way off for the global populations of many migrants, but in Britain, several species are heading towards disappearance.

This worrying prospect is outlined in the first full statistical account put together by experts seeking to understand what is happening and why. Figures in an unpublished survey produced by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds paints a startling picture of plunging populations. Of the 36 British-African migrant species for which there is long-term population data (going back to 1967), 21 have declined significantly.

The study, compiled by the RSPB research biologist Steven Ewing and likely to be published later this year, goes on to show that this pattern is not confined to Britain. It is being repeated across Europe as a whole, from Spain to Finland, with 27 out of 37 European-African migratory species for which there is reliable long-term population data – 72 per cent of the total – undergoing declines.

Source: The Independent

15th April 2008: African BirdLife Partners integrate climate change issues into their conservation programmes

The scientific evidence for climate change and its damaging effects on people, biodiversity and habitats is overwhelming. It is already having multiple impacts on birds and their habitats, including: changes in behaviour and phenology, such as timing of migration; range shifts and contractions; disruption of species and community interactions climate change therefore clearly poses new challenges to traditional approaches to conserving biodiversity through site-based approaches, such as Protected Areas (PAs) and Important Bird Areas (IBAs). The BirdLife Partnership in Africa has become increasingly concerned about this issue and the possible adverse implications for biodiversity and the people dependent on it.

Using the “Conservation in the face of climate change” project, a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation-funded project as a launch pad, the Partnership is now gathering the necessary scientific and policy information to help them integrate climate change issues into their conservation programmes. The project aims at developing an Adaptive Management Framework (AMF) for the conservation of birds and other biodiversity across Africa.

The overall goal is to develop a model for improving the resilience of high biodiversity areas or networks in Africa against the projected impacts of climate change and thus ensure they retain their efficacy for protecting biodiversity and providing ecosystem services into the future. Specific outputs will include: a model that is adaptable and modifiable to suit local African conditions linking a network of high-biodiversity sites across the continent; a menu of policy options for dealing with the impacts of climate change and a web-based information exchange facility accessible to all to be used in sharing of the experiences and knowledge from this project and other initiatives.

The matter is now considered urgent, given that climate change is already happening. “We intend to develop a plan and projects on climate change in this year”, said Achilles Byaruhanga, CEO NatureUganda (BirdLife in Uganda). “More importantly we hope to develop adaptation measures to cope with anticipated effects of global warming such as the more frequent and severe floods expected in some areas of Uganda”.

NatureUganda is not alone in this drive to develop the measures necessary to ensure that biodiversity conservation gains made so far are not eroded by climate change. BirdLife Partners in Africa will be implementing the MacArthur Foundation-funded project across Africa, especially in the Albertine Rift where in addition to NatureUganda, the Association Burundaise pour la Protection des Oiseaux (ABO) and the Association pour la Conservation de la Nature au Rwanda (ACNR) will be leading development of a pilot adaptive management framework starting with a workshop planned for May this year. In addition, the BirdLife Africa Partnership Secretariat together with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and Durham University are modelling the distribution of birds under different climate change scenarios. This information, some of which will be presented at the May workshop will help conservationists in Africa to plan adaptive measures.

21st May 2007: 1,221 and counting: More birds than ever face extinction.

The latest evaluation of the world’s birds has revealed that more species than ever are threatened with extinction, and that additional conservation action is critical to reversing current declines. BirdLife International’s annual Red List update – which takes into account population size, population trends and range size for all 10,000 bird species worldwide states that 1,221 species are considered threatened with extinction and are to be listed as such on the 2007 IUCN Red List.

The latest update also shows an additional 812 bird species are now considered Near Threatened, adding up to a total of 2,033 species that are urgent priorities for conservation action. The overall conservation status of the world’s birds has deteriorated steadily since 1988, when they were first comprehensively assessed. Now, more than a fifth (22%) of the planet’s birds is at increased risk of extinction.

Bird species restricted to oceanic islands continue to be among the world’s most threatened birds due mainly to the introduction of alien invasive species. This year has seen St Helena Plover Charadrius sanctaehelenae uplisted to Critically Endangered, having suffered considerably in recent years from habitat degradation due to a proliferation in invasive plants and predation from cats, another invasive species.

While the number of bird species included on the Red List increases, there is cause for encouragement: where conservation actions are put in place, species have shown signs of recovery.

Mauritius Parakeet Psittacula echo, which survives in south-west Mauritius (having become extinct historically on Réunion) has been downlisted (to Endangered) due to a highly successful recovery programme that has included release of captive-bred birds, measures to control predators and the provision of artificial nest sites. The programme has been led by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, a conservation NGO that has worked closely with the Mauritian government.

Further good news is provided by Spectacled Petrel Procellaria conspicillata, downlisted from Critically Endangered to Vulnerable, after an increase from an estimated 1,000 pairs in the 1980s to some 10,000 pairs in 2006. The population increase is part of a long-term recovery largely in response to removal of pigs from its only breeding site, Inaccessible Island, Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic, and has occurred despite losses to long-line fisheries.

Source: BirdLife International

11th December 2006: Southern Africa’s Natural Wonders Part of New Transboundary Conservation Area. Five-Nation Protected Region Includes Victoria Falls, Okavango Delta.

Five southern African nations have agreed to form a transboundary conservation area larger than the United Kingdom that includes natural wonders such as Victoria Falls and the Okavango Delta along with famous wildlife parks.

A Memorandum of Understanding signed by environment and tourism ministers from Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe commits their governments to create the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) stretching from southern Angola south to the Makgadikgadi Nxai Pan in Botswana, then east beyond Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and north through Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River up to Kafue National Park in Zambia.

The conservation zone covering 278,000 square kilometers already attracts visitors from around the world to the scenic beauty of Victoria Falls, known as “the smoke that thunders,” and the spectacular wildlife of the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park in Botswana.

This government-led initiative uses conservation as an impetus for ecotourism development across borders. Establishing the vast conservation area promotes collaborative efforts to protect the region’s rich plant and wildlife and help local communities benefit from ecotourism and other sustainable economic development.

“Nature knows no borders, and this commitment by southern African neighbours will help protect some of our planet’s most beloved charismatic flagship species – including the world’s largest remaining elephant herds – while bringing economic opportunities for the region’s people,” said Russell A. Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International (CI).

6th December 2006: Clampdown need on Grey Parrot trade

The Animals Committee of CITES, the convention governing international trade in species, has recommended up to a two-year ban from January 2007 on exports of African Grey Parrots Psittacus erithacus from four West African countries (Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea), where the distinctive (sub)species timneh is found, and in Cameroon, where the more widespread (sub)species erithacus occurs. For a further two countries - Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo - the Committee has recommended that quotas should be halved to 4,000 and 5,000 birds respectively.

The Animals Committee, which met in Lima, Peru, in July 2006, also called for scientific-based field surveys of wild populations, and the development of National and Regional Management Plans before resuming any trade. The plans will need to tackle illegal trade in Grey Parrots and establish ways to prevent export quotas being exceeded.

“BirdLife welcomes the export bans and quota reductions,” said Dr Hazell Shokellu Thompson, Head of BirdLife’s Africa Division. “There is ample evidence Grey Parrot numbers in the wild are declining through unsustainable exploitation. BirdLife Partners across Africa will assist national governments wherever possible with parrot surveys and monitoring so that scientifically justified decisions can be taken about the levels of sustainable trade permissible.”

Concerns over the high volume of trade prompted the Animals Committee to include the Grey Parrot in its most recent ‘Significant Trade Review’, the work subsequently being contracted to IUCN by the CITES Secretariat, with BirdLife International and TRAFFIC involved in the review. The results show that unsustainable numbers of birds are being traded, the majority of them destined for Europe. Earlier, BirdLife African Partners at their annual Partnership meeting (CAP) had agreed to collaborate on improving the conservation status of the Grey Parrot.

Source: BirdLife International

28th August 2006: Saved from extinction: conservationists hail recovery of 16 threatened bird species.

The first global audit of threatened species has revealed that 16 species of bird that were on the brink of extinction in the mid-1990s have been saved by determined conservation efforts.

In a stunning illustration of what can be achieved when concerted action is taken by governments and environmental groups, some of the most beautiful and rare types of birdlife have even seen their numbers increase tenfold in a decade.

The majority of the bird species, ranging from the Norfolk Island Green Parrot to the Mauritius Parakeet Psittacula echo, had populations of less than 100 in 1994. Most were tipped for imminent extinction. Yet conservationists said the findings showed that, with international co-operation and adequate funding, they can halt and even reverse a worldwide decline in bird types. But they also warned that governments around the world are still doing too little to save millions of birds from being lost for ever.

5 of the species are on the African list and the following shows how their number have improved between 1994 and 2004:

Zino's Petrel Pterodroma madeira from 20-30 pairs to 65-80 pairs;

Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita from 59 to 106 breeding pairs;

Pink Pigeon Nesoenas mayeri from 70 to 350;

Mauritius Parakeet Psittacula echo from 5 pairs to 280-300 pairs;

Seychelles Magpie-Robin Copsychus sechellarum from 48 to 136.

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