Counting birds in Elephant Marsh


To the untrained eyes of the three journalists covering the exercise, the sighting and counting of birds made no sense as the 15-seater boat powered upstream on the Shire River.

The spotting of birds either flying or foraging for food in the marsh would be greeted with joy among members of the survey team who could instantly point binoculars in their direction.

The counting of water birds understandably meant nothing to the journalists, but not to the wildlife experts who were involved in the exercise, with Tiwonge Mzumara-Gawa leading the team.


“This is a very important exercise,” Mzumara-Gawa said of the African Water Bird Census in an interview in Nsanje on the first day of the three-day survey in the Elephant Marsh.

She said the counting of birds in the marsh was part of an exercise that takes place annually on the African continent and that it starts in mid-January, ending mid-February or early March.

“Specifically, we are targeting birds that live in water,” Mzumara-Gawa, a lecturer at the Malawi University of Science and Technology in Thyolo, added.


At the time of writing the article, Mzumara-Gawa was Malawi’s only female ornithologist, a person who has studied ornithology, the branch of science that is devoted to birds.

MZUMARA-GAWA—We count birds in the water

An ornithologist studies every aspect of birds—their songs, flight and migration patterns and physical appearance, among other things.

“We count birds in the water. In Malawi at this time, we receive birds or migrants from other countries,” Mzumara-Gawa told reporters on January 28 this year.

The birds’ behaviour expert, who is also Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi (Wesm) national chairperson, said birds that visit Malawi return to where they came from around March.

She said the survey takes place to see the type of birds and their numbers and that the knowledge helps them to be alerted to the condition of the marsh.

“There are some birds that are specific in their needs,” Mzumara-Gawa said.

The Elephant Marsh bird survey was conducted with funding from the Shire Valley Transformation Programme (SVTP).

The team Mzumara-Gawa led comprised staff from Lengwe National Park in Chikwawa.

The non-profit Wetlands International, a global organisation that works to sustain and restore wetlands and their resources for people and biodiversity, coordinates the bird census worldwide.

Wesm is responsible for organising the bird count in Malawi.

The Elephant Marsh is an expanse of wetland in the Shire Valley in Chikwawa and Nsanje, covering an average area ranging from 500km2 in the dry season to 2,700km2 in the rainy season.

It provides habitat to a diverse wildlife species and was declared a Ramsar site in 2017, according to Wisely Kawaye, Department of Parks and Wildlife Division Manager for the Shire Valley.

A Ramsar site is a wetland site designated to be of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, also known as ‘The Convention on Wetlands’.

Kawaye said the recognition followed a comprehensive study in 2016 which revealed that the marsh supports a bird population of 20,238 and one per cent of the species population.

All wetlands globally that are registered as Ramsar Sites will have met a certain criterion such as availability of biological diversity.

The biological diversity should support more than 20,000 water birds and the area is supposed to have one percent or more of a delineated population of water birds.

“The Elephant Marsh is also important for agriculture, mostly for winter production when millet, sorghum, maize, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, okra and rice are grown.

“The marshes provide grazing land and watering points that are particularly important during the dry season,” Kawaye said.

He added that the bird census focuses on important bird areas across the country, which are mostly protected areas and wetlands where migratory species visit for breeding.

He said the participation in the bird census by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife demonstrated its commitment to promoting sustainable management of wetlands.

“It also fulfils requirements of the treaty on African-Eurasian Water Bird Agreement,” Kawaye said.

The Elephant Marsh got its name from the Scottish missionary and explorer, David Livingstone when he passed through the area during one of his expeditions.

As Livingstone was passing through the wetland in what today is geographically known as the Shire Valley, he reportedly encountered a multitude of elephants.

Seeing the world’s largest land animal in hundreds fascinated him so much that he was compelled to count the elephants.

Livingstone counted 800 elephants in total, much to his amazement and went on to name the wetland the Elephant Marsh.

Although the elephant population has dwindled for a number of reasons, the marsh remains important, just as it was when Livingstone first set foot there 164 years ago.

Different bird species swarm the marsh to create a spectacular sight that makes up for the torrid weather this lower part of the Shire River is infamous for.

During the three-day bird survey that took place in nine sites in Nsanje and Chikwawa, districts that share the Elephant Marsh, some 639 water birds comprising 42 species were spotted.

Mzumara-Gawa said when they see birds in the marsh that are specific in their needs, for instance, they know that there is fish there, or the water is clean.

“When we see some birds becoming scarce, we know that the condition of the water is not good, or something has happened that has made this type of bird not to be found here or to be in small numbers,” she said.

The Elephant Marsh is also home to a diverse fish species, comprising more than 60 types that provide livelihoods to more than 1,500 fishers and their families.

“When we see a lot of birds coming, we know that fish is there in abundance and it is good for fishers,” Mzumara-Gawa said.

She said most of the birds in the marsh are inter-African migrants— especially from North Africa—and African-Eurasian migrants from European countries.

She said some birds come from Germany, some from Czechoslovakia and that some birds come with rings and names of the country where they were placed.

Mzumara-Gawa said while it was summer in Malawi, it was winter in European countries and that there was snow “making it difficult for the birds to stay there.”

“So every year, we do this bird counting exercise and compare with the past year what we have seen. When we have done this for 10 years, we are able to tell a lot about our marsh,” she said.

She also spoke about the potential water bird tourism has to boost the country’s tourism sector.

ATTRACT TOURISTS—The birds in Elephant Marsh

A member of a Community Conservation Area (CCA) echoed such sentiments, saying locals were benefiting from water bird tourism.

“Birds are a big attraction in the marsh. Tourists flock here to watch them and when they come, they pay us [CCAs],” said Finias Faela, who is also a tour guide and participated in the bird count exercise.

SVTP has a component that covers natural resources management to ensure all impacts on the environment and wildlife are mitigated at all stages of the irrigation project.

SVTP will irrigate 43,370 hectares of land by abstracting water from the Shire River at Kapichira and conveying it by gravity to irrigable areas in Nsanje and Chikwawa districts through canals.

The programme’s main objective is to increase agricultural productivity and commercialisation for the targeted 223,000 beneficiaries in 48,400 households.

The Department of Irrigation in the Ministry of Agriculture is implementing the programme with funding from the Malawi Government and its development partners.

The other financiers are the World Bank, the African Development Fund, the Opec Fund for International Development and the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

Mzumara-Gawa said the SVTP was designed to transform the Shire Valley and that while intending to transform the area, the project does not want to destroy the environment.

She said before implementation, SVTP did a bird count in the Elephant Marsh to know the type of birds and their numbers.

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