On May 14 BirdLife International will release the 2009 Red List update for birds. BirdLife is the official IUCN Red List Authority for birds and this year will see a number of species being uplisted – meaning their situation is getting worse.
The 2009 update highlights the plight of Sidamo Lark Heteromirafra sidamoensis. Found only in south-central Ethiopia, its global range was previously estimated at 760 km2 with a population size of almost 2,000 individuals. But studies in 2007-2008 by researchers from BirdLife, the University of Cambridge, Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (BirdLife in Ethiopia) and University of East Anglia discovered that available habitat covered just 35 km2, and density estimates provided a global population estimate of only 90-256 adults, all found on the Liben plain. This new information – recently published as a paper in the journal Animal Conservation – means that Sidamo Lark is being uplisted to Critically Endangered – the highest level of threat – in the 2009 Red List update. If it were to go to extinct, it would have the dubious honour of being the first known bird extinction for mainland Africa.
The lark is adapted to Ethiopia's "rangeland" – the savanna of native grasses that traditionally covered large parts of east Africa, but is now rapidly disappearing. In areas where the Liben plain has been overgrown by bush, converted into farmland or destroyed by overgrazing, the team rarely found Sidamo Larks. If the rangeland goes, so will the lark.
Rangeland degradation is often overlooked by conservationists, but it is not just the birds that suffer from the change in land use. The native people, the Borana pastoralists, also rely on intact rangeland to support their nomadic lifestyle. The degradation of the Liben Plain results directly from the Borana losing the use of their traditional rangelands. This has disrupted the subtle and sustainable seasonal movements of livestock which previously allowed grassland to be maintained in good condition.