African Birds In Trouble

Of the 10 000 bird species on Earth, 1226 are listed as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.
Forty of the 1 226 bird species that risk extinction occur in South Africa and of these 20 are endemic. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, species are now disappearing from our planet at an alarming rate, and studies have shown that this is mostly driven by human activities.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species ranks plants and animals according to threat levels and risk of extinction, thus providing an indication of biodiversity loss. This has become a key tool used by scientists and conservationists to determine which species are most urgently in need of conservation attention, both on a regional and global scale, thus guiding the work of governmental conservation departments and environmental NGOs.

In South Africa, a number of birds are listed on the IUCN Red List, with several heading for extinction should some of the threats continue and should the NGOs who are implementing conservation action halt their important work.

The Wattled Crane

The Wattled Crane, is the most severely threatened crane on the African continent. Recent surveys in Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia, countries long thought to be strongholds for the wattled crane, show that the global population is only half of what has been reported in recent years. Some of the greatest losses have occurred in South Africa, where a 38 percent decline between 1980 and 2000 left the national population critically endangered. Only about 235 individuals remain in South Africa, mostly concentrated in isolated pockets of the KwaZulu-Natal midlands.

The loss of wetland habitats are among the primary threats that endanger them. The loss of their habitats are caused mainly through intensified agriculture, dam construction and industrialization. Many of the birds are electrocuted, because of the blind spot in their vision they are often entangled in power lines.

Kerryn Morrison of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's African Crane Conservation Programme says, "Genetic diversity studies indicate that this sub-population is genetically different from populations in other regions of Africa, making wattled crane conservation urgent in South Africa."

The programme works with local communities to protect the wetland habitat of this species. They key is to encourage private landowners to conserve the Wattled Cranes on their properties. Through this work both the cranes and the communities benefit, as wetlands provide resources and services to these communities in the form of clean drinking water, reeds for crafts, medicinal plants and fertile land in which to grow crops.

The African Penguin

The African Penguin, was uplisted to endangered on the IUCN Red List earlier this year. The population has declined by 60.5 percent in the past 28 years, primarily due to food shortages linked to commercial fishing and recent, large-scale changes in fish distributions. The impacts of predation and competition (especially with Cape Fur Seals) is an increasing problem as penguin colonies shrink.

The average penguin lives up to 10 - 15 years, however many aren't fortunate to reach their potential life span. Overfishing, results into mass migration and starvation, and pollution remain a big threat and all contribute to the steadily decreasing population of the African Penguin. There's a high risk that the species may become extinct. Venessa Strauss, CEO of SANCCOB says, "Research has proven that hand-reared chicks fare as well as naturally-reared chicks in the wild. With less than 19,000 breeding pairs left in the wild in SA, African penguins are an endangered species and it remains critical to save every individual possible to bolster numbers in the wild."

The long-term goal of this project is to collect valuable information that will inform decision makers regarding the possibility of establishing new penguin colonies." In conjunction with this, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) is investigating competition with fishing. BirdLife South Africa is supporting several research programmes towards improving our understanding of the impacts of fishing on African Penguin breeding.

The Blue Swallow

The blue swallow, inhabits short, undulating, mist-belt grasslands along the eastern South African escarpment and north-western Swaziland.

The South African blue swallow population of approximately 50 known pairs is locally classified as critically endangered. The global population, estimated at less than 1 500 pairs, is considered vulnerable. In South Africa (KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo Province), their numbers have declined by more than 80 percent over the last 100 years, mostly as a result of habitat destruction caused by afforestation.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust's Ian Little, manager of the Threatened Grassland Species Programme, says, "They occur in very few formally protected areas with the bulk of the population occurring on privately owned land. Our strategy will in future focus on identifying and addressing key threats to the species, based on monitoring data collected over the years".

Recent South African species listings include the grey crowned crane and black crowned crane uplisted to vulnerable, the African penguin from vulnerable to endangered and the southern ground hornbill Bucorvus leadbeateri upgraded from vulnerable to endangered.

Only one species was downlisted, the Corncrake crex, from near threatened to least concern. South african Birds of all shapes and sizes face extinction.

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