After being largely ignored for many years by conservation organisations, the Taita Falcon has now become an increasingly important priority in raptor conservation circles. This small, specialised bird of prey is known to occur in only one place in South Africa - the Mariepskop escarpment in Mpumalanga/Limpopo.
The increasing awareness of this small bird in conservation circles has been in part triggered by the removal last December of a young bird from its parents in one of the three confirmed nesting areas in the escarpment. The bird subsequently died.
Following this event, a workshop was held at Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre at the end of January, bringing together representatives from the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), Limpopo department of environmental affairs, BirdLife South Africa, various bird of prey breeders, a Taita falcon expert formerly from Zimbabwe, and various other local birding experts, including Dave Rushworth, who initially discovered the birds in the escarpment.
With less than 50 nest sites known worldwide, most of which are in the Zambezi Valley in Zimbabwe, the bird merits stricter conservation measures. There are three confirmed nest sites in South Africa, and four or five more potential sites.
Andre Botha from the EWT's bird of prey working group has said that he is surprised that the bird is not considered in South Africa's Red Data Book on birds. Botha is positive about the results of the workshop. "Deadlines were set and tasks were allocated, and the deadlines have been met."
Funding is now being sought to initially survey the population in the escarpment and to closely monitor the existing nest sites. Rumours of the birds being present in the Soutpansberg will also be followed up on if funding becomes available. Once more is known about the current situation, a population Habitat and Viability Assessment is planned to help focus conservation efforts.
The bird is scarce over its entire population distribution, but is being increasingly threatened in its stronghold in Zimbabwe by human actions - microlight and helicopter flights have disturbed its prime nesting sites in the Zambezi valley, the use of pesticides are thought to have reduced the population, aalng with illegal collection and trade of live birds and eggs.
Among the outcomes of the workshop is the development of a protocol on captive breeding, which environmental affairs will use to source organisations willing to start a captive breeding program, based on two birds currently in captivity. This will help ensure that the species remains in existence in South Africa while details of conservation plans are being ironed out.
The legislation to prevent the problem of nest robbing will also be worked on so that it can be successfully applied. Any studies undertaken will be the first to be performed in over 15 years, and the first to specialise in the Taita.
By Melissa Wray