Monday, November 5, 2012

Key sites for birds in the Okavango

The Okavango Delta is internationally recognized as an Important Bird Area following BirdLife criteria. Yet within this site, there are some areas which are more important than others – VIBAs (Very Important Bird Areas)! Red Cliffs in the Okavango Panhandle is one such site.
The Southern Carmine Bee-eater is an intra-African migrant which flies all the way from Central Africa to the Okavango panhandle to breed at a few riverbank sites. By early summer, the Okavango River is at a low ebb, exposing steep banks where the bee-eaters excavate their nest tunnels. The breeding site behind the Brigades in Shakawe is well-known, but in recent years has become disturbed, and so the Carmine Bee-eaters moved to a borrow-pit near Mohembo – this turned out to be an even worse site with untenable disturbance from people in the area, and the birds have had a low breeding success here over the past few years. The largest and best site available to the bee-eaters is Red Cliffs, a considerable distance downstream from Shakawe, where hundreds of pairs nest annually. BirdLife Botswana has identified this site as warranting special protection, and has been working with the Tawana Land Board to make recommendations to this end. It is important that no incompatible land use is permitted in close proximity to the site, otherwise it too would no longer provide the birds with a safe haven for breeding.
It is a bit difficult to be specific when defining a core protected area and buffer zone around the breeding site. What size should these areas be, and is there any empirical research on which recommendations could be based? Any readers who know of any research done on disturbance at bee-eater colonies should please get in contact with Pete Hancock at at their earliest convenience.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

BirdLife Botswana's reflections on Rio + 20

Reflections on Rio – reaffirming and renewing rhetoric but has anything really changed? I was fortunate, courtesy of financial support from United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, to have been part of the Botswana delegation to Rio+20, and thought to share my and BirdLife’s reflection of the event. As the 50,000 participants are settling back in their respective countries after ten days of discussing The Future We Want, the outcome document from the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), it’s time to reflect on the substance of what was agreed. For the first few days in Rio it looked as though there was only a slim chance of agreement, with just 40% of the document achieving consensus. However as the host country (Brazil) took over the reins, the text was further distilled, miraculously agreed upon, and made ready for heads of state to rubber-stamp on their arrival. But many observers had grave concerns. Much of what was agreed in Rio merely reaffirms commitments that governments had already made, some dating back 20 years to the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Governments continue to operate in the shadows of the inconclusive and often acrimonious climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009. Worried that talks could break down completely, they appear content to settle for less, and to agree the lowest common denominator rather than compromise and reach consensus. One would have hoped that, given the substantial knowledge on the state of our planet, the unacceptable poverty of billions, the continued steep declines in biodiversity and the changing climate, governments would have approached Rio+20 with a renewed sense of urgency. Bold and decisive actions were needed to steer us along the pathway to sustainable development. This pathway should recognise the value of the three pillars of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental. But the necessary integration of these continues to be held hostage to economic fortune, perhaps more than ever given the financial uncertainty in the West. Finance to support sustainable development at the scale required was simply not on the table in Rio, as signalled through the weak statement on phasing out fossil fuel subsidies from the G20. Moreover, many great and inspiring words were spoken by over 100 Heads of State. New schemes supporting sustainable initiatives were announced and a lot of good ‘thinking’ outlined. But we need more than thinking – we need implementation and action. Positive points in the outcome text include the affirmation of the importance of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, agreed in 2010 by the 192 Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which encompass the Aichi Biodiversity Targets that integrate economic, social and environmental concerns. This reaffirmation of these targets as a part of The Future We Want is very welcome. Governments must now work with urgency to realise these targets, which if reached will make a significant contribution to sustainable development. Other positive points in the outcome text include GDP+, which recognises that we need broader measures of progress to complement GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and asks UN statisticians to begin work on this. Steps were also taken towards developing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to replace the Millennium Development Goals which expire in 2015. The contribution of the green economy to sustainable development and poverty eradication was recognised. But for all these initiatives, the outcomes do not give nature the recognition it deserves. Further methods of accounting for natural wealth and social well-being must be incorporated within any new measure of GDP. The SDGs must re-address the balance between development and environment, and clearly recognise the underpinning role of nature and biodiversity; and the green economy must operate in harmony with nature, and respect environmental limits. Governments could and should have been braver, and listened to the voices of civil society, who have contributed considerably to the process. More ambitious decisions were needed on critical issues, such as subsidies in much of the developed world. There was not strong enough redirection of the perverse incentives that act to undermine sustainable development, such as subsidies that stimulate overfishing, destructive agricultural practices and the use of fossil fuels. Such key decisions have been pushed down the line to potential future processes – one can only hope they don’t get lost and further diluted along the way. There is no shying away from the fact that these are the most difficult and complex issues today’s society faces. It was heartening to hear of many great examples of local scale and community-led sustainable development. This is the future, but in order for local actions to lead to global change, we need a fair and just society that lives within environmental limits. Our leaders must stand ready to make bolder and more ambitious commitments, and do everything in their power to work with civil society, businesses and individuals to implement them. Civil society agencies, such as BirdLife Botswana, are willing and ready to engage with government and other partners that want all of us to realise The Future We want. Now, let’s talk less and get on with the action! Dr. Kabelo Senyatso Director, BirdLife Botswana

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

First catch your vulture!

Preparations are underway to catch five Lappet-faced Vultures in Botswana, to fit them with satellite transmitters to track their movements throughout the country. There are many ways to catch a vulture, but apparently they are all difficult! But catching the bird is the first unavoidable step in this project being undertaken by BirdLife Botswana in conjunction with the Denver Zoo and CKGR Research team. Traditionally, vultures in Africa have been caught successfully using a cannon-net – a cannon which fires a large net over a group of vultures. However, the conventional cannon-net is not a viable option any longer due to restrictions on the possession and movement of the explosives used to power the device. However, colleagues at the Denver Zoo have managed to find a similar device, called a Net-Blaster, which works on compressed air to fire the net. This item is shown below.
The vultures will need to be attracted to a bait within range of the Net Blaster, which can then be triggered remotely to fire the net over the birds. It all sounds very simple! We don’t want to rely on a single method, so we have a back-up option too. Colleagues in the region have done a review of vulture capture methods, excluding those utilising explosives. Top of the list is a walk-in cage trap which has been used successfully in South Africa and Namibia. We are in the process of constructing a portable version which we intend to deploy during June. The photo below shows what it will look like when complete:
In theory, the vultures enter the cage to feed on the bait; the curtain is then closed from a remote, concealed site, and the birds are trapped inside. While not wanting to tempt fate, there is a high possibility that one or both of these methods will be successful! Both however need two additional ingredients – patience and perseverance! The next post on this site will report on our experience with actually catching our target species, and fitting the satellite transmitters. Pete Hancock

Friday, April 6, 2012

Monday, January 30, 2012

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Lake Xau comes up to expectations

Thousands of Ruffs have now discovered Lake Xau.

Lake Xau has been a dry dustbowl for the past three decades. However the exceptional 2011 floods from the Okavango coursed down the Boteti River for over 250 kilometres beyond Maun to reach Lake Xau late last year. Birds have been rather slower than expected in finding this huge, shallow waterbody, but waterbird counts conducted by BirdLife Botswana member, Chris Brewster, over the Christmas period, show that it is well on its way to achieving recognition as an Important Bird Area (IBA).

One of the criteria for an area to achieve IBA status is that it should harbour significant numbers of globally threatened birds. In this regard, the key dryland bird species such as Bateleur and Martial Eagle, and Lappet-faced and White-backed Vultures (long resident in the area) are now being joined by globally threatened waterbirds such as Wattled Crane and Black-winged Pratincole. Congregatory waterbirds have not yet built up to numbers which exceed the critical threshold (0,5% of the global or regional population) but numbers of Ruffs and Great White Pelicans are already notable.

At present, it is the number of Black-winged Pratincoles at the lake (2,000) which is of special interest. In a recent article in Africa Birds and Birding magazine, Phil Hockey (Director of the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology) suggested that this species might be in serious trouble. Very few pratincoles relative to 20 years ago are now being seen (cf the sighting of 10,000 by Penry and Tarboton at Lake Ngami during the 1980s). Phil Hockey suggested that the pratincoles may have shifted their non-breeding range northwards into northern Botswana but this is unlikely to be the case given the few sightings we have. Chris Brewster's count of 2,000 at Lake Xau is the best news we have had for this species in recent years, and highlights the importance of this 'new' wetland.

Apart from the pratincoles, there is much of interest to be seen at Lake Xau - it is certainly a spot worth watching!