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African Bird Conservation Priorities

…the most critical species to watch?

African bird conservation in the spotlight: what are the most critical species to watch?

A recent note on the Birding Ecotours website -see here- highlights some very worrying trends in the state of Africa’s birds. Gough Island Bunting is one of the highest conservation priorities, because by losing this unusually unique species, we will potentially lose a disproportionate share of Africa’s bird diversity – the reason being that this species has no close relatives. Gough Island Bunting is a critically endangered species that has been displaced by feral mice into suboptimal habitat - and if we lose this bird to extinction, then we will lose an entire genus, not just a species.

Staying on the island theme, the blog reveals that Madagascar is arguably even more imperilled than previously thought. Two entire genera of birds (a ground-roller and a mesite; both Threatened with extinction) survive only in a single Important Bird Area in extreme south-western Madagascar that is not even formally protected! Madagascar Serpent Eagle and Humblot’s Flycatcher are other examples of Endangered Madagascan species that have no close relatives, once again meaning that we would lose more than a fair share of bird diversity if either of them suffer extinction. And in fact, not just genera, but entire bird families in Madagascar are under threat, according to the table presented in the blog.

Moving onto vast mainland Africa, birds to watch carefully include Shoebill, Secretarybird, Picathartes (Rockfowl) and other entire families represented only by one (or two) threatened species. And there are many entire African genera that could easily go extinct, the most threatened single-species genera on this continent being Udzungwa Forest Partridge (a Tanzania endemic that few birders have seen), Hooded Vulture and Ethiopian (Stresemann’s) Bush-crow (a bird lurking solely in a tiny part of arid southern Ethiopia).

Remarkably, there are also three whole genera on this continent, all of them in West Africa, that are Data Deficient. We don’t even know enough about these single-species genera to understand whether they are truly threatened or not. One of them, the gorgeous Emerald Starling, is too poorly known even to understand how taxonomically unique it really is so some authorities (such as Birdlife International) do place it in its own genus whereas others don’t. The other two are African River Martin (which lost its closest relative when White-eyed River Martin went extinct in Thailand recently) and Maned Owl.

Roughly, a third of the world’s avian genetic diversity is contained in only a tenth of the planet’s bird species (see Jetz et. al. 2014 which is references in the blog). Thus, the blog recommends looking beyond just species - and to consider higher taxonomy - when allocating scarce resources to bird conservation projects. The EDGE of existence programme is starting to do this – see http://www.edgeofexistence.org/about/edge_science.php and the table presented in the blog on the Birding Ecotours site is also a good start.

The concepts presented in the blog also have implications for birding (not just conservation), as realistic birders can target as much of the avian family tree (recently published by Jetz et al.) if they feel they can’t find all 10000 species.

The tragedy of the Dodo is not that we lost just a species, but that we lost one of the most unique birds the world has ever seen. The take home message is that we don’t want the same thing to happen multiple times. Yet this is quite possible, as this blog so scarily shows.

Chris Lotz

13th October 2014