Conservation of African vultures takes center stage at global bird race

The spectacular ‘Champions of the Flyway’ global bird race will take place in Israel this month. For the first time ever, Kenya will be participating in the race with a team comprising of three Nature Kenya and three NABU (Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, BirdLife in Germany) staff. Conservation of African vultures is this year’s race focus, with proceeds raised from the event earmarked for this cause.

A project in Africa, Kenya to be precise, has been chosen as the beneficiary of funds raised by the event. The project – ‘Preventing Poisoning to Save Africa’s Vultures’ – is currently running in Maasai Mara, Narok County. Under this project, Nature Kenya, the Peregrine Fund, BirdLife International and the Kenya Birds of Prey Trust are involved in several initiatives aimed at reducing poisoning-related wildlife deaths. Teams signed up for the race are also independently raising funds to help tackle the rapid and catastrophic decline of African vultures.

‘Champions of the Flyway’ is an annual event organized by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (BirdLife in Israel) in partnership with BirdLife International. This year, seventeen teams of birders from across the globe will converge at Eilat, southern Israel, from 20th March to compete in a 24-hour race to identify bird species at a designated area (the whole of southern Israel). The race will take place on 26th March with the team identifying the most bird species being crowned the 2019 ‘Champions of the Flyway’.

Nature Kenya’s Paul Gacheru, Rebecca Ikachoi and James Mutunga will be joining forces with NABU’s Dirk Wegener, Thomas Tennhardt and Werner Schroeder under team ‘Zeiss Vultures Unlimited’. The team is raising funds to support community awareness on the negative impacts of wildlife poisoning, create local community champions for vulture conservation and train KWS rangers and community members on rapid response to wildlife poisoning incidents in the Maasai Mara area. They will be battling it out with teams of birders from the United Kingdom (UK), the United States (US), Holland (the Netherlands), Italy, Canada, South Africa, Switzerland and Israel.

The ‘Champions of the Flyway’ race is a culmination of an intensive fundraising exercise for the benefit of birds. Every year a conservation cause is chosen, in collaboration with BirdLife International, and all participating teams raise money and awareness for the chosen cause. The campaign has raised over $350,000 for bird conservation projects in Georgia, Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Turkey, Serbia and Croatia.

The 24-hour bird-spotting race also generates great drama and excitement and reaches out to a huge international audience with over one million people being exposed to the project annually via social media platforms.

‘Champions of the Flyway’ is the brainchild of the Israel Ornithological Center of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Having an exciting bird race at the peak of migration to catch the attention of birders was the idea behind the event.

Your support counts!

African vultures are under serious threat of extinction. These majestic birds that act as nature’s “clean-up crew” need your support to remain in the skies. You can participate in this cause to save African vultures by supporting team ‘Zeiss Vultures Unlimited’ achieve its fundraising target. To find out more or make a donation kindly type this link on your web browser: http://bit. ly/2D9WooL  and hit the enter key.

You can also visit the ‘Zeiss Vultures Unlimited’ official webpage http:// or check out the ‘Champions of the Flyway’ film to get a real feel of the event.

Raising butterflies to conserve forests

Butterflies are some of the most beautiful insects on earth. Fluttering their coloured and patterned wings, these charming creatures arouse awe and a sense of harmony wherever they fly. The Taita Hills forests are home to many of these flying beauties. As a matter of fact, there are three butterfly species that are endemic to these forests – found nowhere else on Earth.

Chawia forest is among the three remaining large forest fragments in the Taita Hills. At the fringe of this forest, a group of youth is engaged in butterfly farming, proving that there’s a financial stake in keeping the forest intact. Comprising of 14 members, the Chawia Youth Group rears and sells butterfly pupae as one of its core livelihood activities. What sets this group apart from others is its determination to keep Chawia forest conserved by encouraging the planting of indigenous trees.

“This forest is very important to us because the butterfly species found here are dependent on it and its indigenous trees,” explains Amos Mwamburi, a member of the group.

The group considers conservation of Chawia forest a priority as it is directly linked to their livelihoods. The group has a tree nursery with over 4,000 seedlings, mostly indigenous ones. This year they are planning to plant 1,000 trees as part of their forest restoration initiative. The trees intended for planting are those mostly preferred by butterflies. In addition, each member of group has planted trees in their farms.

To raise butterflies, they start with butterfly eggs, which hatch into tiny caterpillars. The caterpillars feed on the leaves of certain forest trees. They grow and grow. When they are big enough, the caterpillars turn into pupae. Inside the pupa, the caterpillar transforms into a. butterfly. After a few days or weeks, the adult butterfly will hatch from the pupa.

More than 25 types of butterflies inhabit Chawia forest, including Cymothoe teita and Papilio desmondi teita, a subspecies of Desmond’s Green-banded Swallowtail. These two butterflies are endemic to Taita Hills forests. Some species of swallowtails and pansies can also be found in Chawia forest.

According to Mwamburi, on average the group sells around 200 butterfly pupae per month, translating to Ksh.11,000. The pupae are either sold to Kipepeo Centre in Gede near Malindi or to brokers, depending on the butterfly type. The pupae are in turn exported abroad for live exhibits. Kenya has over 800 butterfly species and is ranked among the world’s leading producers of pupae.

“One good thing about butterflies is that they lay many eggs. A single butterfly can lay up to 150-200 eggs, and if these manage to reach the pupae stage, we are talking of over 100 pupae from just one butterfly,” says Mwamburi.

Although the group’s members rear two of the Taita endemic butterflies, Mwamburi is quick to point out that they do not sell their pupae.

“We do not sell the Papilio desmondi teita and Cymothoe teita pupae. We release adults of these two butterfly subspecies into the wild to increase their numbers,” he says.

Butterfly farming has enabled Mwamburi and his colleagues to not only earn a livelihood but also to actively advocate for conservation of Chawia forest.

“We carry out awareness activities around here, where we encourage community members to plant indigenous trees in their farms. People are now beginning to appreciate the importance of conserving our forests which also serve as sources of water. We stand to lose a lot if these forests are destroyed,” he adds.

Like the other surviving indigenous cloud forests of Taita Hills, Chawia has suffered substantial vegetation loss and degradation over the years. Currently, only about 86 ha of the original Chawia forest remains.

The Taita Hills comprise two main mountain massifs, Mbololo and Dawida, rising from the dryland below. The forests that remain on the hilltops are extensively fragmented. Taita Hills forests are part of the Eastern Arc, one of 34 global biodiversity hotspots, and are ranked as one of Kenya’s Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs). Two Critically Endangered birds are only found in these forest remnants: Taita Thrush (Turdus helleri) and Taita Apalis (Apalis (thoracica) fuscigularis). Severe fragmentation, isolation and decline in quality and extent of indigenous forest cover in Taita Hills pose major threats which affect the breeding success and survival of the two bird species. Helping the community to conserve the forests is therefore vitally important.

Nature Kenya, under the ‘People Partner with Nature’ program, has been supporting communities living adjacent to the Taita Hills forests to engage in income generating activities, such as butterfly farming, beekeeping, eco-tourism, among others, that reduce pressure on the environment. The program is being implemented in partnership with DOF (BirdLife in Denmark) with financial support from DANIDA/ CISU. The overall objective of the program is to ‘reduce the destruction of forested KBAs and contribute to the realization of best participatory forest management practices for the benefit of all.’ This program is also running in Arabuko- Sokoke Forest and Dakatcha Woodland in Kilifi county.

Grey crowned crane census to be conducted

Kenya loses at least 800 grey crowned cranes yearly,scientists have warned. Raising the alarm, the scientists added that the bird is facing extinction. They were speaking before the launch of a
nationwide survey for the bird.

“The species is in trouble. Its future is fading fast,” said Wanyoike Wamiti a scientist from the National Museums of Kenya (NMK). The National Museums of Kenya, the Nature and
Biodiversity Conservation Union – Germany (NABU) and other partners will conduct the survey. Forty volunteers forming at least nine teams drawn from Kenya, Germany, UK, France, Rwanda and Tanzania
are to take part.

The environmentalists attributed the decline on habitat loss and illegal collection of the birds’ eggs. In 1986, there were 35,000 of the species. The number reduced to 12,500 in 2015. A partial survey last year showed the birds were endangered. There were only less than 10,000.

“The population has declined by 80 per cent in a period of 40-50 years,” Dr. Peter Njoroge said. He is a senior scientist at NMK. Dr. Njoroge said the census set to run until March 8 will be critical in coming up with an action plan to save the birds. The grey crowned crane is one of the 15 living species of the cranes in the world. It is currently listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) head of research and multilateral agreements Solomon Kyalo said Kenya, as a signatory to treaties and conventions, is required to cooperate with other countries to
protect the birds.

“KWS is obligated to prepare status of wildlife and present the report to the Cabinet secretary before being tabled in the National Assembly,” he said. Kyalo said the report will help the country to
intensify conservation efforts. After the census, figures will be consolidated with those KWS has in its database. Scientists say invasive plant species ruin the bird’s nesting places.

Nature Kenya’s communications and advocacy manager Serah Munguti said the data will be used in policymaking.