Waning waterbirds, declining raptors, seabirds under pressure and large terrestrial birds running out of space. This is the alarming new assessment of South Africa's birds, which warns how the country's bird populations have never been in a worse shape. "South Africa’s bird populations are in trouble," says Martin Taylor, the special projects programme manager at BirdLife South Africa. "The increase in extinction risk faced by our region’s bird species needs to be of concern to all South Africans."
Taylor compiled the State of South Africa's Birds 2018, a landmark report, scheduled to be released next week. He explains that the report, the first of its kind, draws on national survey and monitoring data to provide a highly visual snapshot of the conservation status of birds as well as the biomes they reside in.
The report shows how the conservation status of birds has declined drastically over the past 30 years with 132 species now classified as regionally threatened with the number of critically endangered and endangered bird species increasing significantly since the 2000 assessment.
Consider that a large portion of this species listed as vulnerable in the 2000 assessment have found their way into the endangered category. Two groups stand out. "Seabirds have deteriorated at a faster rate than any other group and now account for over third of the region’s threatened species while greater than 25% of the 80 raptor species occurring in South Africa are now considered threatened," says Taylor.
Some like the Southern Banded Snake Eagle, have managed to leapfrog categories all together. Loss of habitat from agriculture and tourist developments have pushed it from vulnerable straight to critically endangered.
The report shows how the Bearded vulture, together with the Hooded vulture, White-backed vulture and White-headed vulture, are "leading the headlong rush of the region's vultures towards extinction", with all four of these species classified as regionally critically endangered.
The report reveals how the Cape Vulture, whose breeding distribution once covered southern Africa, is now being pushed back into into its last remaining strongholds in Limpopo and Eastern Cape as is the Lappet-faced vulture, now largely confined to protected areas in the Northern Cape, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. "Palearctic migratory waders have deteriorated dramatically with some species declining by up to 90% while 30% of large terrestrial birds are now threatened.
Fish stocks upon which seabirds depend have been heavily exploited, and mortality from direct seabird-fishery interactions provides conditions to depress annual seabird survival rates," says Taylor. Of the sanctuaries meant to protect threatened bird species, Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), only 25% hold optimal habitat while unprotected and partially protected IBAs have an even higher degree of degraded habitat.
Habitat quality in protected IBAs has declined over the past decade, from threats such as invasive species, agriculture, aquaculture, pollution, climate change, development , mining and energy production. In many cases, says Taylor, the conservation status of the region’s birds is directly linked to human demands on resources that drive expanded agricultural programmes, afforestation, mining and urban growth. "Habitat loss is one of the most concerning threats while pollution from agriculture, mining and manufacturing centres are just as concerning.
"Although not as well publicised, the impacts of deliberate, as well as indiscriminate, poisoning are just as devastating, decimating the region’s vulture populations and pushing the majority of this group closer to extinction." "Sadly, it's evident that a large number of species are under pressure with the threats facing our birds being immense," writes Moshibudi Rampedi, the chief executive of the SA National Biodiversity Institute, in the report. "It is however encouraging to see the work being undertaken by a wide variety of stakeholders in the conservation sector to address these threats and reverse the downward trends seen in so many of the populations of our threatened bird species," she says.
Mark Anderson, the chief executive of BirdLife South Africa, says the report provides a snapshot of the current conservation status of birds. "The outlook is not good ... It's clear that our bird populations are in trouble and this should be of concern to all South Africans. As birds are indicators of the health of ecosystems, which are so essential to human well-being, inferences can be made about effects on humans, biodiversity and ecosystem processes. "The next decade will be critical if we are to halt population declines, address threats and thus improve the conservation status of our birds," says Anderson.
The challenge with bird conservation in a modern world is relevance, believes Taylor. "Much like a group of chicks desperately fighting for attention, bird conservation organisations face the challenge of competing with a range of (often pressing) social and alternative environmental issues for attention. "How do we ensure that the bird conservation narrative is presented in manner that will resonate with a wider audience other than conservationists and bird club members and that will grab the attention of political decision makers?" Technical publications such as the 2015 Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland are important but "certainly do not grab the attention of the greater public nor those in our society who have the ability to change policy or make decisions", he says. He calls for enforcement of environmental legislation and cooperation with a multitude of conservation stakeholders.
Birds are ideal subjects to measure environmental change. "Apart from being much more highly visible than small mammals and reptiles, bird taxa are the proverbial canaries in the coalmine." Healthy ecosystems are essential to human well-being as well as the well-being of birds. "Unfortunately we need to heed what is outlined very clearly in the report – our bird populations are in trouble. Action needs to be taken now to halt population declines, address threats and improve the conservation status of our birds. "This will take an extraordinary amount of cooperation between government and conservation NGOs to ensure that future generations will be able to benefit from our country’s spectacular diversity of birds."