Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The language of birds

Sometimes when nature communicates it does so through the birds. For instance, an increase in the Crowned Lapwing species could signal range degradation ÔÇô possibly due to overgrazing. I learn this from Dr. Kabelo Senyatso, the Director of BirdLife Botswana.

He is talking about a unique concept that links birds with development, and thereby use birds to address environmental concerns.

“People are beginning to see what we are saying, which is that an increase or decrease of a particular bird species is an [environmental] indicator,” he points out.

He makes reference to the incident when crows invaded Francistown a few years back.

“Some people said the birds should be shot,” he recalls. “I impressed that the crows were an indication of poor waste management. Nothing had changed, except waste management. Indeed, at the time the council was struggling with waste management.”

Senyatso talks excitedly about BirdLife’s collaboration with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks to monitor the status of wildlife in the parks. The programme uses various bird species as indicators. As he explains, a marked increase or decrease in a bird species is an indicator in change in the environment. After proving successful inside the parks, the programme is now being rolled outside the parks. In this particular case, twice a year volunteers count birds along a 2km transect. Apparently, the programme even managed to pick that quelea birds would be an issue beforehand, thus providing useful intelligence so that farmers can be forewarned.

Our conversation steers to the best method to contain quelea birds. Previously, the most common control measure was to spray the birds. Senyatso points out that the major problem with spraying is that the chemicals used can be harmful to human beings since they are washed off into boreholes.

The chemicals also used to affect dogs and wild animals. In view of the danger posed by spraying, Senyatso says his organisation successfully lobbied the Crop Protection Division to explore other measures. The latest innovation is to torch the trees that have young hatchlings. Senyatso finds this control measure to be more preferable because it results in low damage to non-target species.
“This year,” he smiles mischievously, “we are trying an even crazier idea.”
The brainwave is to use falcons to scare away quelea birds from farms. Senyatso insists that the idea has not been tried anywhere in the world. He tells that in other countries, falcons have been used to drive away birds from airports. A number of falcons have already been bought from some breeders in South Africa, and they are now are being trained.

Senyatso is aware that if the idea works, it will lead to other issues, such as how ordinary farmers obtain falcons. For now, his focus is on finding out if indeed falcons can be trained to drive away quelea birds. He says training falcons to aid farmers is an example of using birds to address a development issue, in this case food security.

“We know that crop loss due to quelea birds is big,” he says. “Of course, there are other pests like rats and porcupines. Other people should worry about those.”

Sometime next year, Senyatso wants to roll out a programme that will demonstrate the value of keeping owls. He knows that with this one he is going to have to navigate carefully around cultural beliefs that associate owls with witchcraft. His point is that as settlements grow in size and big trees are cut down, people are losing the benefit of birds like owls.

The programme will entail putting an owl in a nest box and place it in a field. Since the owl is territorial, it is expected that rats will decrease in the area around the experimental field because owls eat rodents. The obvious benefit to farmers is that rats eat seeds and even spread some diseases.

“We hope that the more people see the benefits of birds the more perceptions will change. We want to provide practical demonstration that these birds provide a service,” he says.

This blends with his argument that he is not leading a crusade to conserve birds just for the sake of conservation, but because they provide a service to people and the environment. His wish is that other professionals will do an analysis of the benefits of other wildlife species.

Another major benefit that comes with having a diverse bird population is bird tourism, an industry that internationally is said to be worth US$80billion (about P640billion). Although locally the contribution of birds to Botswana’s tourism revenue has not been quantified, Senyatso imagines that it might be quite significant.

BirdLife Botswana has led efforts to pilot birding tourism in Botswana. Part of the preparatory work included taking a group of unemployed young people in Otse to benchmark in South Africa, where birding tourism is a developed business. Other groups have been identified in areas with impressive bird species such as Ngami, Makgadikgadi, Kasane, and Tswapong. The idea is to train a pool of guides from these areas.

What makes Botswana a potential leading birding tourism destination is its diverse bird species, which Senyatso puts at 580 different species. Now, this is a large number, considering that southern Africa has about 1 000 species. Botswana accounts for about 5% of bird species recorded globally.

“Countries ahead of us in terms of species diversity are less secure, such as DRC, and Colombia. Within Africa we are fairly competitive,” he says.

The other thing that sets Botswana on a higher plane is that a lot of birds attractive to tourists are to be found here in large numbers. A case in point is the flamingoes. Senyatso explains that the Makgadikgadi colony is the only consistently breeding site in southern Africa, and it sustains the subcontinent. Apart from Makgadikgadi, smaller colonies are to be found in Namibia and a man-made dam in South Africa. While South Africa is estimated to have about 50 breeding pairs, Namibia has several hundreds. In contrast, Botswana has 60, 000 flamingoes of one species, and 40, 000 of another variety. Of the two species, there are 20, 000 and 10,000 breeding pairs respectively.

But against this beautiful picture, there is something worrying in the background. It is the declining numbers of Botswana’s vultures. Senyatso explains that there are two main ways through which the vultures die. The first results from farmers who poison carcasses hoping to target wild animals that kill their livestock.
“Unfortunately vultures see the carcass first,” he says.

He points out that about 100 vultures died in Lesoma in this fashion.

The second trend, which Senyatso finds particularly worrying, is linked to poaching. What happens is that after taking the tusks, the poachers poison the dead elephants specifically to kill the vultures because otherwise they would circle and alert anti-poaching personnel. Senyatso says the worst incident happened in Kwando when up to 200 birds died from poisoning.

“The Otse colony is estimated to be less than 100, while the Tswapong colony is less than 400. If together these colonies number 600 and you lose 200 birds, it just shows you how serious this is. We hope when the issue of poaching is addressed people realize that vultures are also involved,” he says.

Senyatso worries that if the trend is not reversed Botswana’s vultures could be extinct possibly in the next two or three decades.

He doubts that farmers would poison the vultures intentionally because most know the benefit of the birds to the ecosystem, which is to eat dead animals. Since vultures are immune to anthrax, they actually remove the disease from the system when they eat animals that succumbed to anthrax.

It’s intriguing that Senyatso’s interest in birds developed almost by mistake. When he worked for Thusano Lefatsheng, where he coordinated the Devil’s Claw programme, he travelled extensively to mobilise the harvesters. He would drive from one village to the next, and there would be nothing to see except birds. One day while in Gaborone, he walked into a bookshop and bought a field guide.
“I started picking differences between the different birds,” he recalls. “It became fascinating, and then I wasn’t bored.”

Later he came across the Botswana Bird Club, and he signed up. In 2004, it was decided to establish a professional setup and change the organisation’s name, which he joined as its first staff member. It was a one-man office, which has since grown to 12.

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