Pink checklist 2020: why are the legendary African savanna raptors declining?

A panorama of African sun-burned savannah and extensive grassland is a view that is shared with our human ancestors through the depths of time. Embedded in rolling herds of ungulates and rumbling pride of large predators, the classic view would not be complete without the fierce slap of elephant footprints on dry dirt, the reptile eyes peeking out of water holes, or the rustling of termite legs in the foliage. And up in the sky? Of course, soaring birds of prey. As reported in the 2020 Red List update, however, Africa's birds of prey are certainly not a matter of course.

Not only are African vultures extremely endangered by poisoning and persecution, but related bird icons of the savannah are increasingly endangered. On December 15, BirdLife announced that three once widespread and widespread African birds of prey had been classified as endangered due to severe alarming rates of decline. This was determined through the monitoring work of BirdLife Partners, other ornithologists and citizen scientists across Africa and analyzed by the BirdLife Science Team for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius – a striking species that is famous for its distinctive head feathers that resemble "a secretary with quills behind the ear" – is one of three species that are currently at a very high risk of extinction, alongside the martial eagle Polemaetus bellicosus and Bateleur Terathopius ecaudatus. Habitat loss and degradation, poisoning, poaching, and disruption are all likely contributors to this decline. However, more research is needed to determine the root causes and most effectively combat them. Action is required faster as a Secretarybird stamps its long legs on prey.

Martial Eagle, Copyright David MacLeman, from the Surfbirds Galleries


Whether it's their size, fascinating traits, or exciting behavioral traits, these birds have always caught people's imagination. "Encountering a secretarybird in the wild can only be described as a fascinating experience," says Dr. Melissa Howes-Whitecross, Landscape Conservation Program Manager at BirdLife South Africa. “It sparked my love for birds, bird watching and ultimately my career as a conservationist, and I have yet to meet someone lucky enough to see one and not walk away in awe. Seeing them approach and hit dangerous snakes with pinpoint accuracy and extreme force will impress even the toughest of us. Or if you are able to get up close and personal with these majestic birds, all one can do is marvel at the intricate beauty of their long lashes and feather combs that surround soul-piercing eyes. Your listing should be understood as a serious warning signal that our fragmentation and mismanagement of open grassland and savanna ecosystems is having catastrophic effects. "

Dr. Kariuki Ndang & # 39; ang & # 39; a, Head of Nature Conservation at BirdLife Africa, will never forget to conduct bird surveys in the remote areas of Mau Narok in the Kenyan Rift Valley in 2003: “Suddenly two very large birds of prey appeared from the sky – held together by their claws swung in loops and fell until they were on the ground. I can still imagine the strong gush of air ruffling their feathers as they swung. Each of us on the small team, including the locals who showed us around, had stopped to look – binoculars were not required because of their size. It was then that I realized how big and powerful the fighting eagle is. This couple had played and enjoyed the vast expanse of untouched wooded meadows, but I doubt those meadows are still in the same state. "

Bateleurs are also famous for their behavior. The name means "tumbler" in French and refers to the way the birds rock and tilt their wings as they glide, as if finding their balance like a street performer. Jonathan Onongo of Nature Uganda (BirdLife Partner) recalls his first encounter in western Uganda: “I remember noticing the unmistakably unique shape of this majestic bird of prey flying over the grasslands of Semliki Wildlife Reserve. It makes me sad to believe that this iconic grassland raptor is now endangered worldwide. "

They are just as beautiful up close, says Temidayo Osinubi, coordinator for nature conservation programs at BirdLife Africa, and recalls a young Bateleur sighting in the Kruger National Park: “Without the unique black and red coloring of the adults, I could see how clearly her wings and body shape is when she settles down. “But has this youngster survived long enough to reproduce? The modern life of a bateleur is a real balancing act, as electrical power lines increasingly cross flight paths, enticing carcasses are strewn with poison, and suitable nesting trees are harder to find – and one that its size doesn't make any easier. Long gestational species are often the hardest hit.

All three species have a large range across sub-Saharan Africa, but in recent decades the declines have been so severe (up to 80% overall) that ornithologists have difficulty spotting them, especially outside of protected areas. For example, bateleurs are said to have decreased by 99% outside of protected areas and by 79% in protected areas over three generations of birds in North Cameroon. Howes-Whitecross experienced these dates in real life: “Having come across Secretarybirds frequently on the back roads of South Africa, their remarkable absence from many modern road trips is devastating but also motivating to sit up and do something to stop their deaths . ”

Multiple threats

The myriad of threats these birds face are almost too many to list, but habitat loss and degradation are a prime suspect. These birds of prey need a wide open habitat to look for prey and trees to nest. The development and transformation of natural environments into agricultural fields, plantations, mines and buildings makes the areas unsuitable and prone to collisions with infrastructure.

But even the birds of prey that nest in protected areas are not safe. Ernst Retief, spatial planning and data manager at BirdLife South Africa, has been following Secretarybirds for many years, whom he has equipped with tracking devices. He's seen through camera trap photos what caring parents they are, who can endure blazing sun and intense storms with ease. “I have seen extreme lows when I caught dead birds under power lines or in fences. But then there were fantastic days, for example when we found chicks in the nest of an adult bird that we had followed from its nestling days. "

A recent analysis of this persecution data revealed a high youth mortality rate of 46% within the first three years and the lack of support from the protected area network: only 4% of the points recorded fell in formally protected areas. This is reflected in Kenya, where most of the protected areas are reportedly too small for a pair of martial eagles. The size of their territory means that birds generally forage well outside of the sanctuary, making them more vulnerable to other threats.

The fighting eagle is one of the most haunted birds in the world. Both martial eagles and bateleurs sometimes take poultry, livestock, and locally valuable game, which means that local farmers and rangers often attempt to dispose of them, although their effects on this prey are almost certainly vastly exaggerated. The overall loss of wildlife is also a determining factor: with less wild prey, birds of prey are more susceptible to ingesting livestock. Unfortunately, persecution often takes the form of poisoning as these birds of prey are also opportunistic scavengers.

While tribal farming communities use poisoned bait, recent evidence suggests that use is much higher on commercial farms. In Namibia, for example, municipal farms are often located on state-owned land. In addition to the difficulty of acquiring the poison, farmers fear retaliation from the state because the use of the poison is illegal. These farms are also not fenced, and bait-laying puts other residents, pets and farm animals at risk. In contrast, commercial farms are often owned and fenced, with large numbers of animals spread out over large areas, meaning that the use of poisoned bait is widespread. Regardless of whether predators are attacked by birds or mammals directly in sub-Saharan Africa, birds of prey will still die collaterally.

Of course, this has to do with Africa's vultures, including savannah species, which, however, are exclusively dependent on catching. For the Martial Eagle, Bateleur, and Secretarybird, following their vulture cousins' steep declines toward extinction is terrifying, but it also means tackling root threats benefits both of them.

The future of the savannah sky

"While any species classified as threatened is obviously bad news, it doesn't have to be tragedy," said Ian Burfield, Global Science Coordinator (Species), BirdLife International. “For many, this is where the path to recovery begins, as the listing makes their plight visible and helps raise their protection priority. The topics identified by the Red List should form the focus of further research and measures. "

For the Secretarybird, BirdLife South Africa is one step ahead with a public campaign in 2019 for the species as “Bird of the Year” (see below) and they are working hard with private landowners to preserve the remaining grassland habitats through “Biodiversity Stewardship” & # 39; i.e. securing private land for conservation in addition to the formal network of protected areas. Secretarybirds can coexist with landowners who tend domestic livestock and game if landowners manage their land in a way that allows for biodiversity.

Protected areas and important biodiversity areas will be important strongholds, but we need to work outside these areas as well. This type of approach is central across Africa, says Ndang & # 39; ang & # 39; a: “Conservation and policy measures like participatory land use planning, strategic environmental assessments for infrastructure, agriculture, energy and other projects need to be inclusive, especially outside of it of protection areas. This requires the targeted application of species-based sensitivity tools by developers and will be the key to reversing the plight of the birds of prey in the long term. "

Think back to our human ancestors who observed African grasslands whose land use may be the big elephant in space – or savannah. “The Secretarybird is a symbol of wide horizons, views that people relentlessly narrow,” says Howes-Whitecross. "Humans are fragmenting the natural world, and this loss of connectivity between natural spaces and between humans and the environment is a very worrying development – with the loss of far-reaching apex predators as a symptom." Let's not allow these unforgettable encounters with African birds of prey to be among the last.

Secretarybird: South Africa's Bird of the Year

BirdLife South Africa nominated the Secretarybird for Bird of the Year 2019 and ran a successful awareness campaign that educated thousands of children and adults about the plight of this species and the protective measures in place to help them. Free educational materials and webinars can be downloaded from their website. In the same year, they ran a surveillance challenge using the Birdlasser app and received over 800 sightings of secretary birds from across South Africa that they can use to identify areas with remaining strongholds. They also maintain a breeding database and since 2018 another six tracking devices have been used on Secretarybirds. All of this data will be incorporated into a workshop on Secretarybirds in 2021, which will help lay the foundation for developing a conservation action plan.

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