Four Critically Endangered African vultures to get global protection

Four critically endangered vulture species  found in Africa are set to get a new hope for survival from a 12-year multi-species coordinated action plan set for tabling at a United Nations (UN) summit this month. The critically endangered White-backed, White-headed, Hooded, and Rüppell’s vultures are among 15 vulture species from 128 countries set to get collaborative international protection under the Multi-Species Action Plan to Conserve African-Eurasian Vultures (MsAP).

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of species threatened with extinction has listed a majority of these vulture species as critically endangered, indicating a very high risk of extinction in the wild. Three endangered vulture species — the Cape, Lappet-faced and Egyptian vultures; and two near threatened — the Bearded and Cinereous vultures, found in Africa, are included in the action plan. The plan also covers the Red-headed, White -rumped, Long-billed and Slender-billed vultures, all critically endangered and mostly found in Asia.

Vultures are considered nature’s garbage disposers, as they feed on the carcasses of dead animals that are often infected with diseases such as anthrax, cholera, botulinum toxin and rabies that would be lethal to other scavengers. They therefore play a critical role in maintaining healthy ecosystems. Despite their vital role in nature, vultures are often portrayed as greedy and unprincipled in popular culture. In the field, they are under extreme pressure from a range of human activities. Drastic and widespread population declines in recent years in Africa and Asia have seen some vulture species sliding towards extinction.

In Africa, poisoning is the leading cause of vulture deaths. These deaths occur when people try to kill mammalian predators of livestock (and in some areas feral dogs), with poison-laced carcasses or baits, accidentally attracting vultures. Elephant and rhino poachers also poison vultures in an attempt to mask their tracks, which would otherwise be revealed by the birds circling overhead. The strategic action plan seeks to address threats facing vultures through promoting concerted and collaborative international conservation actions. Among the objectives of the Vulture MsAP are to:

  • Rapidly halt current population declines in all species covered by the Vulture MsAP;
  • Reverse recent downwards population trends to bring the conservation status of each species back to a favourable level; and,
  • Provide conservation management guidelines applicable to all Range States covered by the Vulture MsAP.

The Vulture MsAP will be tabled at the 12th session of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention  on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS COP12) slated for 23rd to 28th October in the Philippines capital Manila. Representatives from more than 120 countries will be in attendance.

New online database could reduce poisonous threat to wildlife

The use of poisons to kill wildlife in Africa has rapidly accelerated over the past decade, and is having a devastating

effect on the populations of many species. In Kenya there has been as escalation in the use of poisons due to various reasons. Highly toxic     pesticides are used to lions and hyenas in retaliation for damage to livestock. Monkeys and elephants are targeted due to conflicts with farmers. Very concerning is the use of poisons to harvest animals as a food source where fish and waterbirds are frequent targets. Due to the indiscriminate nature of poisons, there are almost always unintentional consequences that affect a broad range of terrestrial and aquatic species, including humans. Vultures are the most severely afflicted, as they are typically the first to arrive at a poisoned carcass, and they feed in large numbers. There are also serious issues involving contamination of lakes, rivers, and waterholes whenever toxic pesticides are sprinkled into these water sources to harvest fish or other aquatic species.

The Peregrine Fund has been collecting data on wildlife poisoning since 2005 and has now joined forces with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) based in South Africa to assess the scope and impact of this critical threat to vultures and other wildlife species across Africa. In partnership with the Vulture Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission and The Gadfly Project, the Peregrine Fund has collated all historical and current incidents of wildlife poisoning into the African Wildlife Poisoning Database or AWPD, www.africanwildlifepoisoning.org

So far, the database contains records of 272 poisoning incidents that have killed over 8,000 animals of 40 different species, from 15 countries. Although records of poisoning date back to 1961, in the past decade there has been a sharp escalation in poisoning incidents, with most of the deaths occurring during this time. Aside from vultures, species affected range from large carnivores, such as lions, leopards, and hyenas, to elephants, impalas, cranes, and storks. However, by far the most deaths are of vultures, comprising ten different species, including two species that migrate to Africa from Europe. Poisoning is the most significant threat to vultures in Africa and Eurasia and, over the last 30 years, has contributed to declines in excess of 80% in some African species. Currently, the IUC N Red List of Threatened Species lists four species of African vulture as Critically Endangered and three species as Endangered.

The AWPD is designed to facilitate simple, effective capture of relevant data, either by using a mobile device at a wildlife poisoning incident, or by inputting data via the website. Users can access basic information on poisoning incidents and mortalities, and view these on a map of Africa. The AWPD will contribute to gathering better information on poisoning incidents, as well as on the drivers of wildlife poisoning

Mainstreaming Biodiversity: A key component to Sustainable Economic Development

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The economic survival of various production sectors, and of the people depending on those sectors for their livelihoods, is intricately connected to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. As such, biodiversity is considered as part of the functioning of the productive sectors.

However, over the years we’ve witnessed the rapid decline of biodiversity. One of the major challenges in preventing this decline has been finding ways of addressing the issue where it matters most; the production sectors that exert the greatest pressure. It is out of this realization that a forum was convened in Nairobi in July to deliberate on mainstreaming biodiversity into sectors of the economy.

The forum dubbed the “National Dialogue on Biodiversity Mainstreaming into Sectors of the Economy” was organized by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources as part of the National Forest Program (NFP). Stakeholders from various sectors of the economy who attended the forum at the Laico Regency Hotel on July 25 were in agreement that biodiversity conservation is a pre-condition for achieving sustainable development. As such, it needed to be integrated into all sectors and across sectors: biodiversity needed to be mainstreamed.

Addressing stakeholders during the forum, the Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Prof. Judi Wakhungu explained that forests hosted the bulk of biodiversity in addition to providing water, sequestrating carbon, providing a base for renewable energy, hydro generation and supporting other sectors of development.

“In spite of the centrality of forests in environmental stability, forest ecosystems are increasingly under threat from the ever growing pressure to meet human needs,” noted Prof. Wakhungu.

Major threats to Kenyan forests include competition for land due to agricultural expansion, settlement and urban development, excessive extraction of forest products, unsustainable charcoal production and overgrazing.

Prof. Wakhungu informed stakeholders that the government was developing a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) and also the first National Wildlife Conservation Strategy. She added that implementation of the strategies and programmes would require substantial budgetary allocation and called for a creative mix of resources from all stakeholders including public, private sector and local communities.

Participants in the forum were drawn from government agencies, the private sector, civil society and community forest associations (CFAs).

Nature Kenya in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources is organizing a similar forum to discuss implementation of conservation initiatives and biodiversity mainstreaming in the Taita Hills and Tsavo conservation area.

Maasai Mara National Reserve: IBA IN FOCUS

The Maasai Mara ecosystem is home to approximately twenty-five per cent of Kenya’s wildlife. It hosts more than 95 mammal species besides being a recognized Important Bird Area (IBA). Presently, about 70 per cent of this wildlife is living outside the gazetted conservation area – the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Adjacent land owned by local communities form key dispersal and diversity areas.

The Maasai Mara National Reserve is Kenya’s most-visited protected area. It is world famous for its high density of herbivores and predators and the spectacular annual migrations of wildebeest. In 1996, the reserve was nominated for designation as a World Heritage Site.

Habitats in the Masaai Mara are varied, including open rolling grassland, riverine forest, Acacia woodland, swamps, non-deciduous thickets, boulder-strewn escarpments, and Acacia, Croton and Tarchonanthus scrub.

The Mara’s extensive grasslands are a stronghold for the threatened, migratory corn crake and the near threatened, restricted-range Jackson’s widow bird. The woodlands around the reserve are probably the centre of abundance for the threatened, restricted-range grey-crested helmet shrike. The restricted-range rufous-tailed weaver has recently been sighted within the reserve, near the southern border, and may be expanding its range northwards. More than 500 other bird species are known to occur, including 12 species of Cisticola and 53 birds of prey. Grassland birds are especially well represented. Large numbers of Palearctic migrants winter in the area, including Caspian plover and white stork.

Friends of Maasai Mara (FoMM) is the Maasai Mara IBA site support group (SSG). Since its formation in 2014, Friends of Maasai Mara has addressed critical environmental and wildlife biodiversity conservation and protection actions meant to create awareness and sustainable conservation among the community, government, and other stakeholders.

Knowledge Sharing: Mara communities visit Lion Guardians

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Community exchange visits have always been considered as important strategies that can be applied to promote a practical-based learning approach to some of the best lessons worth replicating. The Lions Guardian model is one such notable approach. This community wildlife conservation initiative encourages “sustainable coexistence” between lions and humans.

The model has successfully managed to blend science with Maasai traditional knowledge and cultural practices to drastically reduced incidents of human-wildlife conflict and minimized cases of retaliatory wildlife killings in Amboseli.

Based on this understanding, Nature Kenya, under a BAND Foundation funded project, organized a visit to Amboseli for a community group from Maasai Mara. The eighteen community members were part of a community exchange visit whose aim was to learn more about the Lion Guardians’ proven community conservation model, as well as gather ideas, lessons and strategies for sustainable coexistence with wildlife from communities that the Lion Guardians is working with. The group comprised of opinion leaders and representatives from various conservation organizations involved in the implementation of human wildlife conflict and poison control related projects within the Mara ecosystem.

The methodology applied for this activity was a practical approach that entailed visiting and interacting with locals in community managed ranches, and conducting field visits to get feel of how wildlife conservation is carried out with minimal interference to human activities as a key objective of mitigating human wildlife conflicts. Like in any other ecosystem where there is direct interaction between human and wildlife, it is expected that there would be conflicting interests as far as utilization of ecosystem services is concerned. In such cases, different communities residing within these ecosystems devise strategies on how to manage conflicts arising from these interactions.

For the Maasai community living around Amboseli National Park, the key approach they have adopted is preserving indigenous culture which promotes co-existence between humans and wildlife. Most of their communally owned land has been divided into ranches, with grazing patterns. The ranches have further been subdivided into different sections for different uses including grazing and conservancies. The communities, under the guidance of their leaders, have developed grazing plans that guide where the communities can graze their livestock at specified times, ensuring minimal conflict with wildlife.

Problematic lions are collared and ‘morans’ using skills acquired on GPS use complemented by their traditional knowledge, keep track of them. This enables them to pin-point the location of the lions and guide cattle grazers away from them. Furthermore, community scouts patrol grazing zones to ensure that cattle herders and wildlife do not cross paths. ‘Moreso’, a Maasai culture of killing lions as a rite of passage, was turned around with the introduction of the Lion Guardians program. The morans have instead been transformed into guardians of lions.

The community also devised ways of ensuring there is a balance in satisfying the needs of all resource users; for instance, local communities have been mandated to ensure that water points (mainly those fed by pumped water from boreholes) have readily available water at night for use by wildlife so as to minimize conflicts.

It is hoped that the delegation from Maasai Mara will replicate some of the lessons they learned to manage human-wildlife conflict and reduce poisoning incidents. After thoughtful review, the community representatives will develop action plans for implementation of the lessons learned.

Among the long term outcomes expected from the visit are to engage local communities in and around Maasai Mara in implementation of non-poisoning control systems for predators, and creating greater public awareness of the vulture crisis and appreciating the role they play in human and wildlife health.

Nature Kenya is implementing the “Saving the African Vulture” Project in the greater Mara Ecosystem. The project seeks to reduce poison related vulture deaths as a contribution towards the halting and long-term reversal of vulture declines in Africa. The vulture crisis is complex and multi-faceted, but poisoning is by far the most important and urgent threat they face. Stopping vulture poisoning is therefore a top priority to enable their numbers to stabilise and build solid foundations required to effectively address other threats they face.

Hinde’s Babblers Breeding in Kabete, Nairobi

Following the initial sightings of Hinde’s Babblers at the University of Nairobi’s Upper Kabete Field Station on 26th February (Simon Carter and David Guarnieri) and 8th March 2017 (Nature Kenya Wednesday Morning Bird Walk), marking the first official records of the species in Nairobi, I have been monitoring the birds as I am a student at UoN Upper Kabete Campus. On one occasion while observing the birds with Allan Kipruto (a schoolmate), we got a brief glimpse of what seemed to be a very orange-looking individual in the bushes where the rest of the Babblers (4 adults) were noisily moving around. We suspected it was a juvenile but couldn’t confirm since it quickly went deep into the bush and did not re-emerge.

About 2 weeks later on June 12th, this time on my own, I once again saw this orange-ish babbler in amongst the more regular-looking babblers. Luckily this time I had a camera and quickly snapped a couple of photos before the strange bird dove back into the bush. On taking a closer look at the photos, I was amazed to see that it was indeed a juvenile Hinde’s Babbler! Its head and tail had the same dark grey colour of the adults but it lacked the typical ‘scaling’ patterns and it was orange/rufous on nearly the rest of its body. Its eyes were dark (unlike the red of the adults) and it had a clear yellow gape, a sure sign of its youth. This marks the first ever breeding record of Hinde’s Babbler in Nairobi and the first ever record of a Kenyan endemic bird species breeding in Nairobi. Birds continue to surprise us every day and this unpredictability is what to me keeps bird watching so interesting.

TAITA HILLS IBA

The Taita Hills in south-eastern Kenya (3º20’S, 38º20’E) rise abruptly to peaks ove 2,000 metres above the semi-arid plains of Tsavo. The hills contain some of the highest levels of endemism in the world, forming a key part of the Eastern Afromontane Biodiversity Hotspot. They also serve as a catchment for the expansive Tsavo ecosystem. Taita Hills also form the northernmost extreme of the Eastern Arc, a chain of forested mountains extending from Kenya to southern Tanzania.

Taita Hills forests Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) are part of BirdLife International’s Tanzania-Malawi Endemic Bird Area. The hills harbor the montane cloud forest whose vegetation is much influenced by both Eastern Arc and Kenyan highlands.

Biodiversity

Despite losing about 98% of forest cover in the last 200 years, the remaining Taita Hills forest fragments continue to support a high number of endemics and unique flora and fauna, including Kenya’s most threatened birds: the Critically Endangered Taita Apalis and Taita Thrush. Other endemics include: the Taita Hills Purple-glossed Snake, the Sagalla Caecilian, the Taita Warty Frog, the Taita Blade-horned Chameleon and three endemic butterflies. The flora is also rich and full of endemism in these small and extremely fragmented forests, where more than 13 plant species endemic to Taita Hills occur. The hills are also home to the Vulnerable Taita Falcon and Abbott’s Starling, the Endangered Taita White-eye and the Near Threatened Southern Banded Snake-eagle.

Conservation

Dawida Biodiversity Conservation group (DABICO) is the Taita Hills IBA site support group. The group has 13 constituent groups and is involved in activities such as establishment of tree nurseries, beekeeping, handicraft, eco-tourism and butterfly farming. DABICO manages the Ngangao Forest community resource centre that was built through collaboration with Nature Kenya, the Taita Taveta Wildlife Forum and the Community Development Trust Fund. The resource centre offers environmental education to school children and is also a camping site for visitors.

Nature Kenya in partnership with DOF – the BirdLife Partner in Denmark, through funding from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) through CISU (Civil Society in Development), has been running the “Integrating Livelihoods and Conservation – People Partner with Nature for Sustainable Living” program in Taita. The long term objective of the Program is to: reduce the destruction of forested IBAs and contribute to the realization of best participatory forest management practices for the benefit of all. To achieve the objective, the program is supporting the formation of two Community Forest Associations (CFAs) which is still ongoing. The program is also supporting groups engaged in livelihood activities such as beekeeping, fish farming, tree nursery, handicraft and butterfly farming.

Fighting deforestation through fuel wood management

Firewood and charcoal are considered the two main sources of cooking fuel in most rural and urban areas in Kenya. Statistics from the Ministry of Energy indicate that more than 90 per cent of rural households use firewood for cooking and heating, while more than 80 per cent of urban households use charcoal.  It is therefore not surprising that this demand for fuel wood is the one of the major drivers of deforestation in Kenya. As a result, forests and woodlands are rapidly being degraded, while biodiversity is seriously depleted and basic ecosystem services are being negatively affected particularly in areas with no formal protection such as Dakatcha Woodland and Taita Hills forests Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs).  Arabuko-Sokoke Forest IBA is another coastal forest that is under serious threat though it enjoys protected status.

The school feeding program initiated by national government as part of ensuring increased student enrolment and retention is one factor that is silently contributing to deforestation in rural areas. Given that most schools do not have woodlots to sustain their feeding programs or the capacity to purchase firewood, pressure is transferred to surrounding natural habitats. Left with few options, students are asked to bring to school sizeable pieces of firewood every day. In some schools, parents are required to supply firewood at the beginning of the term as part of their contribution to their children’s education.

A new conservation intervention may now offer a glimmer of hope for affected coastal forests, however. The adoption of “energy saving stoves”, which burn firewood more efficiently than traditional open fire of a three-stone stove, is taking shape in these areas. As an entry avenue in forest conservation, this initiative seeks to change community behavior and attitudes towards conservation through schools located adjacent to these forests.

The installation of school energy saving stoves in Taita, Dakatcha and Arabuko-Sokoke is being undertaken through the “Integrating Livelihoods and Conservation - People Partner with Nature for Sustainable Living” program. The program aims at enhancing participatory forest management and contributing towards improving livelihoods of the community in order to reduce pressure on forested IBAs. The program is being undertaken by Nature Kenya in partnership with DOF – the BirdLife Partner in Denmark with funding from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) through CISU (Civil Society in Development). To date, three schools in Taita (All Saints Murughua, Vichwala and Mazola primary schools) have been installed with the energy saving stoves. Over 30 households have also been installed with the home version of the stoves.

Fuel Wood Use Calculation

On average a typical school has 400 students. If each student brings to school a piece of firewood weighing 2kg every school day this equates to 800kg of fuel wood brought to school daily. A school term runs for an average of 70 days. This translates to 56,000kg (56 tons) of fuel wood in use per term and 168 tons per year.  According to a paper titled Wood to Energy: Sources and Supply by Langholtz et. al., an acre of pine plantation can produce three dry tons of fuel wood. Using this as the baseline, a school consuming 168 tons of fuel wood clears about 56 acres of forest or woodland annually. These 168 tons of dry wood are equivalent to 75,600kg of Carbon with a storage capacity of 98,823kg of Carbon Dioxide.

The “energy saving stoves” intervention seeks to significantly reduce fuel wood consumption by schools as a means of protecting forests. And the stoves are indeed living up to expectations. Tests conducted in Taita to determine their efficacy in reducing fuel wood consumption have yielded positive results. Water boiling tests were carried out in nine schools to establish the amount of firewood and cooking time consumed by the improved stoves and the traditional ones.

Encouraging Results

Results from the test showed that the energy saving stoves consumed over 60% less firewood compared to the traditional open fire stoves. Whereas open fire stoves used approximately 15kg of fuel wood to bring 30 liters of water to boil, the energy saving stoves only used 5kg! The energy saving stoves also took a shorter time to bring the water to boil, and produced less smoke.

The ongoing installation of energy saving stoves at the three sites is expected to benefit 15 schools by the end of 2017 and up to 3,000 households. It is hoped that use of these energy saving stoves will at least reduce pressure on Kenya’s shrinking coastal forests.

Nature Kenya’s Advocacy Manager – Finalist for the Tusk Conservation Award

Serah Munguti, Nature Kenya’s Communications & Advocacy Manager is 1 of 3 finalists from Malawi, Nigeria and Kenya in the prestigious Tusk Conservation Award whose patron is Prince William.

Serah has been managing Nature Kenya’s Tana delta projects including the Tana River Delta Land Use Plan (LUP) and Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) that won a prestigious international award for planning excellence in London on 5th May 2016.

Prince William, the charity’s Royal Patron, has previously spent time in Africa working with the recipients of past commendations, said it was “vital” that the work of both rangers and conservationists was recognized