Conservation of birds in Africa: are we making any headway?



This issue of AJE is focused on avifauna to coincide with the 12th Pan-African Ornithological Congress (PAOC) to be held at the University of Cape Town in South Africa 7–12 September 2008 with the theme: Birds and People – Interaction, Utilization and Conservation. Continued success of the PAOC from its first meeting in 1959 shows African ornithology growing from strength to strength: involving ever increasing numbers of African scientists and birders, and tackling complex conservation issues. But, as a budding conservationist working in Africa I sometimes wonder, what is the prognosis? Are we making progress in conserving our natural resources? If publications and the media are anything to go by, it is all going terribly awry. For birds, the outlook is ominous. Whilst Africa boasts close to 2320 bird species – with two endemic orders, 10 endemic families and about 1400 endemic species, about 230 of them are threatened with extinction. Combined with Near-Threatened species, this gives a total of 340 species in trouble (IUCN, 2006). The conservation agenda for ornithologists is stark.

On a related vein, Africa accounts for more than 12% of the world’s human population, which is projected to grow to more than a billion by 2025. It is the poorest region in the world with over 40% of the people living below the poverty line (UNEP, 2003). Africa is typically characterized by two intertwined features: rising poverty levels and a deepening environmental crisis. Generally, human issues, such as poverty, health, education take precedence over environmental issues which are thought of as neither vital nor pressing. The odds are resoundingly cast against conservation. How can we reconcile conservation with human development in this context, to ensure conservation remains relevant or practicable? Can research findings be translated into action and positive outcomes?

We are making good progress on compiling data for bird conservation, but the challenge is for effective implementation (Brooks & Thompson, 2001). Implementation is preceded by three prerequisites – evidence gathering, dissemination and solution-seeking (Githiru & Lens, 2007). Obviously, not everyone can be involved in all the four steps. However, there ought to be more deliberate effort to ensure that the link is not broken. Thus, if you collect data, the onus is on you to ensure that your findings reach the people who can apply the knowledge, not merely hoping they will locate your paper in some remote journal they do not even know exists. To me, that is the absolute minimum we can do; it would be better if we could follow it up, even much better if we can get directly involved. Perhaps unsurprisingly this is seldom done because it is not easy.

Ideally, when all implementation is complete, the 340 endangered species will be out of trouble. Even for the most optimistic, that is a far-fetched thought. However, it is encouraging that there have been a few successful conservation stories in Africa that provide some basis for optimism. The Seychelles Fody was recently downlisted after effective conservation measures were undertaken (IUCN, 2006). Similarly, the Mauritius parakeet has seen a rapid increase in population since 1995 due to intensive management of the wild population amongst other efforts. At the ecosystem level, Madagascar’s President committed to triple the island’s protected area coverage, adding a further 5 million ha, and placing more than two-thirds of the country’s remaining forest under formal protection. This demonstrates environmental leadership, crucial for executing policy. In an equally important triumph for conservation, plans for a road that would have devastated part of the forest heartland of the Mauritius Kestrel were shelved following Mauritius national elections where the Prime Minister was elected with promises to change the country within 100 days. This conservation feat was enabled by a willing society voting a leader willing to listen and act in an environmentally sensible manner. Other success stories – such as Arabuko Sokoke forest in Kenya, Musambwa Islands, Sango Bay in Lake Victoria, Uganda, Miombo woodlands of Tanzania, and the Gola rainforest in Sierra Leone (see – are based upon active participation and collaboration with the local communities, as well as devolution of tenure.

Yet, because most African Governments cannot fully fund their conservation needs, they must turn to external sources of funds. By and large, conservation in Africa is almost entirely dependent upon funding from private sources, international conservation organizations, NGOs and individual philanthropists. While most can be thought as magnanimous, whether they enter as equal partners is a very touchy subject (Mavhunga, 2007; Vermeulen & Sheil, 2007). I believe that if conservation funding fails to transcend such isolated, sporadic, philanthropic actions, to more consistent and dependable sources leveraged via governments, it will always be destined to fail, however passionate they are. Though there is perhaps a valid outcry for developed countries to fund conservation activities in Africa, I also think that African Governments themselves must do much more to show that they recognize the value of the wildlife-rich sites in their own countries. We must meet halfway.

At this juncture, the role of specialized science becomes increasingly blurred and welfare of birds metamorphoses into general concerns about biodiversity and the environment. Most of the recommendations for a safer, better future state of the environment and human well-being call for social transformation, breaking strong barriers, making tough lifestyle choices, with far-reaching consequences. Yet, without strong backing from civil society, long-term environmental and biodiversity conservation remains a tall order (Western, 2000).

We are starting to understand what it will take for conservation and sustainable living to work; achieving it is extremely difficult in terms of choices we have to make. As we outline the desirable lifestyle changes for environmental and biodiversity conservation, we must become trailblazers. We, conservationists, need to take the initial steps. I always find it duplicitous asking various local communities to sacrifice anything, whereas we hardly ever give up anything ourselves. For instance, I often ask myself: if every 6.3 billion of us lived like I do, would it be sustainable? I have to say, well, maybe not. Yet, if we all lived like most rural folk I pontificate conservation to, it seems more likely that it would be. If, in our own small ways, we can show that it can be done, there will be more merit to our cause and perhaps, just perhaps, the conservation ‘movement’ will stem its worrying slide to irrelevance.