Imagine walking through the hot, humid rainforests of Ghana. Droplets of sweat rolling down the sides of your face, your hair slicked against your forehead while you swat away a relentless onslaught of mosquitoes trying to get their fill.
You see a dark figure perched on a branch, two horn-like tufts poking out a dark silhouette. As an ecological scientist, you know it must be a species of owl but as you draw closer, you realise just how big this bird is.
That was the experience of Dr Joseph Tobias from Imperial College London’s Department of Life Sciences and Dr Robert Williams, an ecologist from Somerset England as they were working in the Atewa Forest, Ghana.
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The two scientists stumbled across a Shelley’s eagle-owl, a species not seen in the wild for over 150 years. According to a report by Lad Bible, “The last confirmed sighting of the Shelley's eagle-owl, which is native to Central and Western Africa, was in the 1870's. The giant owl is officially classified as at risk of extinction, with only a few thousand of them believed to exist in the wild.”
The Imperial College of London said that “the bird was first described in 1872 from a specimen obtained from a local hunter in Ghana by Richard Bowdler Sharpe, curator of the bird collection at the Natural History Museum in London and founder of the British Ornithologists’ Club.”
There have been no confirmed sightings from Ghana since the 1870s, and very few glimpses elsewhere.
The only photographs in existence were grainy images taken in 1975 of a captive individual behind bars at Antwerp zoo and a pixelated blob from Congo in 2005 that is not certainly the right species.
"When we lifted our binoculars our jaws dropped," said Dr Joseph Tobias told the UK Independent.
“There is no other owl in Africa's rainforests that big.”
The pair only saw the bird perched for 10-15 seconds, but in that time managed to take photographs that confirm the identification of the Shelley's eagle-owl due to its distinctive black eyes, yellow bill, and large size, which together rule out all other African forest owls.
"This is a sensational discovery. We've been searching for this mysterious bird for years in the western lowlands, so to find it here in ridgetop forests of Eastern Region is a huge surprise,“ said Dr Nathaniel Annorbah.
“We hope this sighting draws attention to Atewa forest and its importance for conserving local biodiversity,” added Dr Williams.
“Hopefully, the discovery of such a rare and magnificent owl will boost these efforts to save one of the last wild forests in Ghana.”
Shelley's eagle-owl is known for its distinct black eyes and eagle-like appearance. According to Birdlife International, “is listed as Vulnerable because it is suspected to have a moderately small population which is likely to be in decline owing to the clearance of its habitat for timber and agriculture.”