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Africa’s iconic raptors are soaring into oblivion

Seeing a charismatic secretary bird in the wild, with its long legs and eyelashes and crest of feathers, sparked Dr Melissa Howes-Whitecross’s love for birds, birdwatching and, ultimately, her conservation career. She is the landscape conservation programme manager for BirdLife South Africa.

“I’m yet to meet someone lucky enough to encounter these incredible birds and not walk away in awe,” says Howes-Whitecross, of the iconic secretary birds, which stride and strike at dangerous snakes with precision accuracy and extreme force. 

But secretary birds are in serious trouble. 

They are among three of Africa’s iconic African savanna raptors, including the martial eagle and the bateleur, that have been uplisted to globally endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, as announced by BirdLife International today.

Numbers of these once common, wide-ranging species have plummeted, as detected by the monitoring work of BirdLife Partners, other ornithologists and citizen scientists across Africa, and analysed by the BirdLife science team for the IUCN Red List.

For Howes, the upgrading of these species’ listing to endangered “should be taken as a serious warning sign that the fragmentation and mismanagement of open grassland and savanna ecosystems is having disastrous effects”.

The natural world, or what little remains of it, is struggling to support these wide-ranging predatory birds, says BirdLife South Africa. “Urgent conservation action is needed if we are to protect the legacy of African skies filled with large raptors soaring overhead.”

For the three endangered species, habitat loss and degradation are the prime culprits. The raptors require vast open habitat to seek out prey and trees to nest in.

The development and alteration of natural environments into agricultural fields, plantations, mines and buildings make the areas unsuitable and leaves them vulnerable to collisions with infrastructure.

BirdLife South Africa’s spatial planning and data manager, Ernst Retief, who started its secretary bird project several years ago, says even raptors that nest in protected areas are not safe. 

For many years, he has followed secretary birds he fitted with tracking devices. A recent analysis of the tracking data by Retief and Howes-Whitecross identified juvenile mortality rates of 46% within the first three years.

They also found a lack of support offered by the protected area network: only 4% of tracked points fell within formally protected areas. 

“These wide-ranging birds are often forced to forage beyond the protective boundaries of the reserves, exposing them to greater threats,” Retief says.

Since the 1980s, South Africa is estimated to have lost more than 75% of its secretary bird population.

BirdLife South Africa’s 2018 State of South Africa’s Birds report highlighted that more than a quarter of the country’s raptors are threatened by poisoning and persecution, mortalities linked to human infrastructure (powerlines, fences and roads), loss of intact habitat, and the destruction or disturbance of suitable nesting habitat.

Working with landowners outside formally protected areas is crucial to safeguard the continent’s raptors. 

“BirdLife South Africa’s extensive biodiversity stewardship in the grasslands of South Africa relies on the secretary bird as one of the flagship species for this conservation project and has enabled the team to declare over 100 000ha of pristine grassland so far,” it says.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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