The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Wednesday 18th January 2012

How hard can it be to save one small lark from extinction in a big place like Ethiopia?

Given by - Nigel Collar and Paul Donald

Reviewed by - Chris Mason

There are now probably fewer than 100 Liben Larks (Heteromirafra sidamoensis) remaining on the Liben Plain in southern Ethiopia, and there is a serious possibility that this could be the first bird to become extinct in Africa in modern times.

Paul Donald (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds - RSPB) and Nigel Collar (BirdLife International) are working with the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (EWNHS) to try to prevent such a disaster. Both attended the meeting and Paul gave us a fascinating lecture about the bird, the causes of its decline and efforts to try to save it, all of which gave us a real insight into the complexities of wildlife conservation.

For literally thousands of years, Liben Larks and Borena pastoralists and their cattle have co-existed on the grasslands of Southern Ethiopia near Negele. In fact 'thousands' is a massive understatement because it was in East Africa that larks first diverged from other song birds some 15 million years ago, and the Liben Lark is itself one of the most primitive lark species of all. So a bird that has lived in the region for millions of years is now in danger of being wiped out by radical environmental changes brought about by humans.

Liben Plain
Liben Plain.
Photo - © Paul Donald

Liben Larks prefer tall grassland for nesting. Recently, parts of the Liben Plain have been bought by 'outsiders' for conversion to arable farming; grazing land available for the remaining cattle is thereby greatly reduced and degraded as a result. Short overgrazed grass, bare in places, poses a much greater risk of predation for the larks. To make matters worse, pastoralists' income from cattle is so much reduced that some have even had to resort to arable farming themselves. A further problem is that the plain is being encroached by scrub from the lack of natural browsers, climate change and the fact that the burning of grassland to eliminate ticks has stopped. All this has recently brought about a dramatic decline in the Liben Lark population.

So can it be saved? Well, it will certainly be a huge challenge but there are just a few hopeful signs. For Borena pastoralists, the Liben Plain has great cultural significance. It is their ancestral home. They oppose land sales to crop growers. It is destroying their traditional way of life, a way of life that has enabled them to live in harmony with their environment for generations. They support attempts to restore the quality of their grazing land.

The EWNHS is working with the local community on plans to bring a clean water supply and sanitation, and make other improvements to the extremely basic facilities at the local school. After all, the future of the Liben Plain and their pastoralist lifestyle is in the hands of the schoolchildren. Trials have shown that cattle exclusion areas allow good grassland regeneration. Interestingly it has also been shown that grazing cattle avoid places where hyenas have left droppings, so perhaps hyena dung could be used more extensively? An Ethiopian postgraduate student has just been appointed and her research will focus on the work with the community, and developing some of these ideas to help conserve the Liben Lark population.

There has been one other development of potential significance. Using data modelling to find areas of similar habitat in lowland Ethiopia, larks have been discovered on grasslands near Jijiga some 500km north east of Negele. The measurements and song of the two birds captured using mist nets, closely resemble those of the Liben Lark, and DNA tests are now being carried out which could help decide whether indeed another small population of Liben Larks has been found in that distant location.

A family of Ethiopian Bush-crows
A family of Ethiopian Bush-crows.
Photo - © Paul Donald

Data modelling has also produced some remarkable information about another bird of southern Ethiopia - the Ethiopian Bush-crow (Zavattariornis stresemani).

This bird is only found in a confined area of about 100 x 150km east and south of Yabello. Its population is larger - some 10,000 breeding pairs - but it too has declined markedly in recent years, again because of loss of its preferred habitat (grassland with scattered tall trees for nesting). But why has this bird, which is not shy of people and is an opportunistic feeder, not spread to other parts of southern Ethiopia where there would appear to be suitable habitat? In this case data modelling based on climate indicators, has produced an almost exact match between the range of the Bush-crow and the unique climatic conditions which exist there. The cool and dry conditions around what is now the Yabello National Park are not found anywhere else in southern Ethiopia and almost certainly explain its confined range. Fortunately this highly intelligent bird which breeds cooperatively (with non-breeding birds helping to raise young) may benefit from the fact that its breeding area has recently been created into a national park. However, whether additional habitat protection alone will enable it to resist the effects of higher rainfall and higher temperatures predicted to result from climate change remains to be seen.

Ethiopia has many visitor attractions as Society members will know. Ethiopia's 17 endemic birds and 25 other species only found in the Horn of Africa are one of these; but as this talk illustrated so engagingly, several species are now at serious risk and will need both local action and external help if they are to avoid extinction.

You can keep up to date with developments on the EWNHS work to save the Liben Lark, and support its work to conserve the rare endemic birds of southern Ethiopia.
Please contact:
Nigel Collar, BirdLife International, Wellbrook Court, Girton Road, Cambridge CB3 ONA.

First Published in News File Spring 2012

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