Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Urgent: Action needed to prevent Africa’s first recorded bird extinction

Liben Lark is widely tipped to become mainland Africa’s first recorded bird extinction, unless urgent action is taken to prevent its demise from the only area it now inhabits: a single grassy plain in southern Ethiopia.

Liben Lark © Greg Davies (Undated)

Liben Lark was for some time known only from two specimens collected at adjacent sites near Negele in the former Sidamo province (now Guji Zone), southern Ethiopia, in May 1968 and April 1974. Since 1994 there have been subsequent sightings of small numbers (<10 on each occasion) in the Negele area. Analysis of these locations on satellite images and recent fieldwork suggests that the species is restricted to a very specific habitat (tall-grass prairie) in the calcareous plateau east and south of Negele.

Liben Lark Range Map © Birdlife International

Between 1973 and 2002 the area of tall-grass prairie decreased by about 30%, and in 2003 much of it was being rapidly encroached by agriculture and shrubs (Acacia drepanolobium and others) that are probably favoured by excessive grazing pressure and the suppression of seasonal fires. Remaining grassland is being heavily degraded by overgrazing. By 2007-2008 it appeared to be restricted to a single grassland patch 30-36 km2 in area, and the global population was estimated at just 90-256 mature individuals, with the effective population size perhaps even smaller owing to a potentially skewed sex ratio caused by predation of females on the nest.

Without urgent and concerted intervention global extinction is likely within the next few years.

Liben Lark © Paul F Donald/RSPB (Undated)

Conservation measures underway: Fieldwork took place in 2007-2008 to investigate the species’ status. A workshop in 2009 involving key stakeholders resulted in the creation of an intersectoral committee to manage the restoration of the Liben Plain, an agreement to oppose any further agricultural expansion and a willingness to work with conservation organisations to preserve pastoralism.

Conservation measures proposed: Conduct further surveys (during the breeding season, when birds are likely to be singing and hence most conspicuous) throughout the Negele Plateau to establish its range and population, and determine whether there is a significantly biased sex ratio. Investigate the causes of bush encroachment in the area. Urgently determine the most appropriate means to safeguard areas of suitable habitat from further degradation and disturbance. Identify key areas where livestock and disturbance can be kept to a minimum and the natural fire regime is maintained. Raise awareness of the local communities and authorities of this important endemic taxon.

A glimmer of hope from the Bird Fair?

Classified as Critically Endangered, the highest level of threat, this globally threatened bird has now been thrown a lifeline thanks to funds raised by the British Birdwatching Fair held at Rutland Water last August. Birdfair organisers Martin Davies (from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – RSPB) and Tim Appleton (from Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust – LRWT) presented a £242,000 (US$395,000) cheque to Dr Marco Lambertini, BirdLife International’s Chief Executive at a special reception hosted by His Excellency Berhanu Kebede, Ethiopia’s UK Ambassador, at the Ethiopian Embassy in London.

These funds will be used by the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society, the BirdLife Partner in the country, to work with local communities to reduce the impact of over-grazing livestock and prevent conversion of the land to arable farming. Helping the grasslands recover will benefit both the lark and the pastoralists living there.

Man-made and natural phenomena all conspired, historically; to ravage Ethiopia’s wildlife riches and this landlocked African country now has 22 species of bird facing extinction. Conservationists hope that the proceeds from the 2010 British Birdwatching Fair will help turn the tide and save the Liben Lark and a range of other highly threatened species.

Martin Davies, of the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) – one of the fair’s co-founders and key organisers – said: “Ethiopia has a remarkable natural heritage and is hugely rich in species found nowhere else in the world. Over 840 species of bird have been recorded in Ethiopia, 17 of which are unique to this country and 29 others nearly so. Unfortunately, this wonderful wildlife is under increasing threat and we hope that the proceeds from this year’s event will help the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society and BirdLife International to take the urgent steps needed to secure the future of this country’s unique birds. We also hope that the event will help raise the international profile of this wonderful country, so rich in wildlife.”

“Once again Birdfair have delivered a huge boost for conservation. This money will be used to secure a future for Southern Ethiopia’s incredible birds”, said Dr Marco Lambertini, BirdLife International’s Chief Executive.

Reference: BirdLife International (2011) Species factsheet: Heteromirafra sidamoensis. Downloaded from on 30/03/2011. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2011) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 30/03/2011.


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