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Current Research Programmes

Rarity & Conservation of African Birds


Prof. Peter Ryan

Research team

Dr Arjun Amar(PFIAO)
Dr Steve Boyes (Research Associate, PFIAO)
Kate Carstens(PhD student, PFIAO)
Dr Andrew Jenkins (Research Associate, PFIAO)
Prof. Andrew McKechnie (Department of Zoology and Entomology, University of Pretoria)
Dr Ralf Mullers (Research Associate, PFIAO)
John Pallett (MSc student, PFIAO)
Dr Lizanne Roxburgh (Research Associate, PFIAO)

Conservation biology of Ludwig’s Bustard

Research team: Jessica Shaw, John Pallett, Peter Ryan & Andrew Jenkins

Ludwig’s Bustard Neotis ludwigii is near-endemic to southern Africa, and thought to be in decline because of mortality caused by collisions with overhead power lines. Ludwig’s Bustards are particularly susceptible to collision because they are large and heavy, and lack sufficient manoeuvrability to avoid unexpected obstacles. The extent of power lines within the range of this species is vast and expanding, and there is an urgent need to quantify power line related mortality, and to assess the impacts that collisions are having at the population level. It is also critical to improve our understanding of movement patterns and visual perception of these birds in order to develop and implement effective mitigation measures.

Ground Hornbill Research and Conservation Programme

Research team: Rob Little & Kate Carstens

The Southern Ground-Hornbill Bucorvus leadbeateri is a conservation icon of South African savannas. During the 20th Century its range and population size in South Africa decreased by some two thirds, with the birds disappearing from much of their historical range. Such a rapid decrease in the population of a long-lived, slow-reproducing animal is of great conservation concern and, based on IUCN criteria, the official conservation status of Southern Ground-Hornbills in South Africa has been elevated from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered. In many cases, however, the drivers of local extinctions are known, and in some instances these are no longer operative. Because of the ground-hornbills’ complex social structure, self-reintroduction would, at best, be very slow. This means that reintroduction programmes are probably imperative to improve the species’ precarious conservation status.

Given this set of circumstances, the Fitztitute’s Southern Ground-Hornbill Research Programme aims to gain a scientific understanding of the environmental conditions which promote the survival and successful reproduction of these birds. We will use this knowledge to identify areas previously occupied by ground-hornbills that are now suitable for their reintroduction. We will then provide scientific information to guide reintroduction programmes such that their efficiency and efficacy are optimized. The ultimate aim of these studies of habitat use patterns by ground-hornbills with different lifetime reproductive outputs is therefore to optimise sites and protocols for reintroduction programmes.

In 2000, the Institute started monitoring groups of ground-hornbills in the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR), a 180 000 ha conservancy adjacent to Kruger National Park. The original rationale for this study was an exploration of social behaviour in the world’s largest cooperatively breeding bird. However, on the basis of this 8-year data set (from 23 groups) we were able to identify environmental and social correlates of breeding performance. This analysis allowed the project to enter a strongly conservation-orientated phase. An interesting finding was that habitat configuration strongly influenced breeding success, demanding that we investigate how the groups use their very large (up to 100 km2) home ranges. To do this we are using solar-powered satellite transmitters on groups in the APNR. We have also teamed up with the Ground-Hornbill Reintroduction Programme based to the west of the APNR at Mabula Game Reserve to study a habituated, but wild-living group of ground-hornbills with the aim of determining how much information is lost by having satellite fixes from the APNR at hourly, rather than shorter intervals.

Conservation of Shoebills Balaeniceps rex in the Bangweulu Wetlands

Research team: Ralf Mullers & Arjun Amar

The Shoebill Balaeniceps rex is a monotypic family endemic to large, well-vegetated wetlands in tropical eastern and central Africa. The Bangweulu Wetlands hold one of the largest populations of Shoebills in the world; (250-500 birds or 5-10% of the world population). Shoebills are listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN. They are the flagship species for these wetlands, sought after for bird tourism, but are believed to face threats from habitat degradation, disturbance, competition with artisanal fisheries, the bird trade and direct persecution. Knowledge of the population size and extent and use of suitable habitat by Shoebills is vital for their effective conservation, yet this is poorly known in most sites, including the Bangweulu Wetlands.

The goal of the study is to formulate strategies for the conservation of the Bangweulu Shoebill population through research on population size, ecology and threats, and to improve community perception and valuing of the species. Research questions include: 1) What is the current population size and seasonal distribution of Shoebills in Bangweulu? 2) Are reproduction and survival rates sufficient to ensure the conservation status of this population? 3) Do food resources or human disturbance limit Shoebill breeding performance? and 4) How can Shoebill conservation contribute to wetland conservation strategies? The project will be partnered with the Bangweulu Wetlands Management Board, the African Parks Network, the Kasanka Trust and WWF Netherlands/Zambia.

Conservation biology of the Critically Endangered Cape Parrot in the Amathole and Transkei regions of the Eastern Cape, South Africa

Research team: Steve Boyes

Cape Parrots (Poicephalus robustus) are endemic to South Africa and Critically Endangered by habitat loss, illegal capture, and avian diseases (e.g. Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD)). Based on 12 years of annual counts coordinated throughout their range, Cape Parrots now number between 1000 and 1500 individuals, over 800 of which occur in the Amathole and Transkei regions.

In KwaZulu-Natal, Cape Parrots are recognised as dietary specialists dependent on Podocarpus seed kernels in Afromontane mixed Podocarpus mistbelt forest patches. Similarly, Cape Parrots are also recognised as nest-tree specialists in KwaZulu-Natal, utilising Podocarpus snags (i.e. standing dead trees) almost exclusively for nesting. Cape Parrots are reported to have a bimodal flight activity pattern, whereby they embark on medium- to long-range foraging flights from roosts and nest cavities in high-altitude Afromontane forest patches to feeding sites in low-lying or coastal forests. Historical records and preliminary findings from this study challenge conclusions drawn by studies in KwaZulu-Natal, whereby in the Eastern Cape trophic niche breadth appears to be much wider and nest tree preferences more generalist. Therefore, we propose the ecological and natural history research components of this project.

Over 36 months, our study will gather high-quality empirical data on fruiting phenology and food resource abundance in Afromontane forest patches and nutritional value of food resources in the forest canopy, for correlation with the most in-depth study of the feeding ecology and breeding biology of Cape Parrots ever undertaken. We aim to capture more than100 Cape Parrots to take blood for disease testing, screening body condition, and DNA-archiving (for illegal trade prosecutions and taxonomy). Captured parrots will be individually-marked and photographed for identification in subsequent sightings, recaptures and nest observations. Up to 40 Cape Parrots will be mounted with radio telemetry backpacks, and subsequently tracked both from the ground and from the air. Low-altitude, high-resolution aerial photographs and 72 forest transects in targeted forest patches will be used to develop rapid, aerial, forest assessment techniques to monitor the impacts of climate change and human disturbance. Nest boxes, playback of vocalisations, and supplementary feeding will be tested as conservation tools.

In November 2008, we began receiving reports and photographs of Cape Parrots with advanced symptoms of PBFD infection, and thus have focused our current research on the dynamics that support this disease.

Oystercatcher Conservation Programme (OCP)

Research team: Dane Paijmans

The African Black Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini breeds only on the coasts of South Africa and Namibia. The species is globally rare, with a world population of approximately 5000, of which 75% are in South Africa. It breeds on the open coast during the height of the summer holiday season and, as a result, incurs substantial losses of eggs and young. The OCP is a national programme, co-ordinated by Phil Hockey, involving researchers, conservation organisations and the general public. Its aims are to produce a population dynamics model for the species (we have nearly 20 years of reproduction data), integrate this with observed population changes and produce a scientifically defensible strategy for the species’ future conservation.

Relationships between near threatened Chaplin’s barbets and fig trees in Zambia

Research Team: Lizanne Roxburgh

Chaplin’s Barbet is a Zambezian endemic and is currently listed as near threatened. However, little is known of the ecology of these birds and their habitat faces threats from commercial and small scale agriculture, urban sprawl and firewood collection. They appear to occur only in acacia savanna with high densities of fig trees, and are cooperative breeders. Lizanne will specifically be studying the impacts of agriculture and fuelwood harvesting on fig trees, and the conservation status of Chaplin’s within Zambia, its cooperative breeding system and its phylogenetic relationships to the morphologically similar white-headed and red-faced barbets of East Africa.

Conservation biology of the Blue Swallow

Research team: Andrew McKechnie

Collaborators: James Wakelin & Stephan Woodborne

The Blue Swallow (Hirundo atrocaerulea) is in imminent danger of extinction in South Africa, due to rampant transformation of its mistbelt grassland habitat, and the fact that very little of its local range is formally conserved. A complicating factor is that the swallow is an intra-African migrant, and spends part of the year in central Africa. Conservation efforts need to be coordinated across the areas that birds occupy at different times of the year, but we currently have very little knowledge of the migratory connections between non-breeding populations in central Africa and breeding populations in southern Africa. In collaboration with the late James Wakelin (Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife) and Stephan Woodborne (CSIR), we have been using biochemical signatures in the swallows’ feathers to infer links between birds on the breeding and non-breeding ranges. Early in 2009, we travelled to Nyika National Park in northern Malawi and collected feathers from the largest Blue Swallow breeding population. Analyses of these feathers have allowed us to identify a unique isotopic “featherprint” for each breeding population. We also analysed feathers from eight non-breeding birds caught on the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda, and were able to establish the origins of these individuals.