Africa urged to come together to protect migratory birds

By David Hewitt - 14 Feb 2011 14:20:0 GMT
Africa urged to come together to protect migratory birds

The Finnish ornithologist Johannes Leche is widely credited with undertaking the first proper study of the migratory patterns of birds, with his pioneering work in the mid-18th century based largely upon the technique of ringing individual animals and recording data on their comings and goings.

Since then, of course, ongoing advances in technology have enabled both scientists and amateur wildlife-watchers to gain an in-depth understanding of the behaviour of most of the 1,800 species bird that undertake long-distance journeys each year. Radar, satellite tracking technology and even special microphones have all been used over recent years to draw up comprehensive maps and timetables on the phenomenon, effectively bringing an end to any sense of mystery that may have surrounded such seasonal journeys.

However, such knowledge could soon be made redundant as climate change starts to affect the behaviour of a wide range of bird species. Indeed, according to a new report from the School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Durham University, England, shifting temperatures are already causing marked changes in migratory patterns of the African continent. More specifically, the latest research carried out by a team of scientists at the institution has shown that, should climate change continue as predicted, the species found in the continent's 802 Important Bird Areas (IABs) will change dramatically over the coming years.

For example, making use of a computer modelling system, the team have predicted that, while the likes of the secretary bird and the cape vulture will start to disappear from the southern African tropical zone – a region that covers nations such as Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and Tanzania – dozens of different species will arrive in their stead.

Notably, the Durham scientists have pointed out that many of the areas where the greatest changes are likely to take place are currently unprotected, leading them to call on individual African nations to come together to protect birds and other wildlife from the threats posed by a shifting climate.

''The bird map of Africa is set to change dramatically and we need conservation policies that see the bigger picture,'' explains the university's Dr Stephen Wills, who co-authored the paper the team published in the journal Conservation Biology. ''We need to improve monitoring, communication and co-operation to make protected areas work across borders. Conservationists and policy makers will have to work together in new ways as networks become increasingly important in protecting species.''

Significantly, just as birds can serve as key indicators for conservationists due to the speed at which they respond to changes in climate, so too can protecting them have wider benefits. According to Conservation International, which lent its support to the Durham study, protecting birds that are forced to alter their migratory patterns won't simply be a matter of ruffling a few feathers at governmental level. Instead, what needs to happen is that farmers and foresters are encouraged to adopt eco-friendly practices that ensure that new arrivals are able to thrive. Going down this road, the organisation's research partner Dr David Hole, says, could offer a ''win-win situation''.

''There's a real opportunity here since these types of measures, together with adaptive management of existing Important Bird Areas could not only aid conservation but also help to mitigate climate change by conserving or restoring natural habitats, as well as guiding us to preferred localities for climate mitigation schemes,'' he says.

Such comments come in the same week that it was announced that Namibia has designated its entire coastline as a National Park, offering numerous species of bids and other animals protection from dangers such as hunting and polluting. Given that the 976-mile stretch of coastline joins up with South Africa's Richetersveld National Park in the south and Iona National Park in Angola in the north, such calls for pan-African conservation cooperation may not be too unrealistic, though whether or not sufficient action is taken before the migratory map of the continent changes for good remains to be seen.