Researchers set out on an expedition to find an elusive bird species not seen in Malawi for 15 years and rare around the world. Its location in the invaded afromontane forest cover on the Mulanje Mountain reminds the country of how deforestation threatens biodiversity. Charles Mpaka writes
Home for the prized, endemic and red-listed Mulanje Cedar and a source of many rivers that water millions of lives below and beyond, the Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve has among the riches in its biodiversity a tiny treasure in its undergrowth: an enigmatic and elusive bird species known as Spotted Ground Thrush.
Researcher and operations manager at African Parks, Mathias D’haen, describes the bird as “the holy grail for birders” — an expression denoting its high value and, at the same time, the state of its being endangered.
According to the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (2015 –2025) developed by the Department of Environmental Affairs, Malawi has 630 bird species. Of these, 16 are threatened.
For the Spotted Ground Thrush, it is said scientists assumed in 1989 that there were only 40 pairs left in Malawi.
It is estimated that there are less than 2,500 species in the world with populations in Africa found in several countries including Tanzania, Kenya, South Sudan, Mozambique, South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo and Malawi.
And as forests fall in Malawi, the threat level on their existence in the country is rising.
Said not to have been seen in Malawi over the past 15 years, researchers set out on an expedition in 2020 to locate where the bird could be found in the country after the collapse of its other forest habitat on Soche and Thyolo.
The purpose of the research was to gather information and add to the little that is known about the bird – and, with it, possibly raise the alert levels about its threatened status.
One of the researchers in the project, Ruben Foquet, says it is common knowledge that there are multiple rare bird species that hide in the afromontane forests of Mulanje mountain.
“When reading more on the Spotted Ground Thrush, it became clear that little information (about the species) exists. Especially the fact that no observations were recorded in the last decade and half,” he tells Malawi News.
Foquet, Malawi country representative for WeForest, a conservation and nature restoration organisation, teamed up with Tiwonge Gawa, an authority in Malawian birdlife and Lecturer in Ecology at the Malawi University of Science and Technology (Must).
“We applied for funding to fill these knowledge gaps and were rewarded by the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Trust, the African Bird Club, VBI, Idea Wild and Birdlife International to conduct our expeditions,” Foquet discloses.
Led by Foquet, D’haen and Gawa, the team also comprised Humphrey Chapama from the Forest Research Institute of Malawi and Matthias De Beenhouwer of WeForest, among others.
According to the project’s brief by the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Trust, after the destruction of the forest on Soche and Thyolo mountains, Mulanje mountain was potentially “the last stronghold” of this subspecies, hence the choice as the cite for the research.
The project starts sometime in October 2020. Early every morning and just before darkness – which follows the pattern of the bird’s singing programme – the team scours the forest for the elusive bird that forages and breeds on the ground.
They deploy a combination of acoustic monitoring gadgets to pick birds’ sounds, camera traps to capture images and on-the-ground surveys.
The exercise goes on for a good five weeks without success and the researchers are now becoming frustrated – until on the morning of November 23, 2020 when, in an opportunistic walk which has been employed after wild-tech seems to have failed to produce the desired result, one bird flies out of an undergrowth in one part of the targeted forest which still has much of its 1,300 hectares of afromontane rainforest cover.
Triumph and relief at last!
Over the next few days, two more thrushes are located.
But among the findings of the research were lots of traps set by communities to catch rodents and birds.
The researchers also noticed the collapse of the eucalyptus plantations that served as a buffer to the these afromontane forest, now also being invaded.
The snares and the invasion of the outer forest by the communities are a reminder of the threat that exists for this rare bird species.
According to a Global Forest Watch 2019 report, Mulanje Mountain forest registered a decline estimated at 15 percent between 2010 and 2019 due to deforestation.
Foquet says Malawi, and Mulanje in particular, has the global responsibility to protect this rare bird species.
“In protecting this species, the habitat itself will need protection and ecosystem services to the Malawian and indirectly the global population will be safeguarded or even improved,” he says.
Foquet says the species can also be looked at as a biological indicator, because its needs are unique and its presence means something.
“But even more, its absence in places where it was known to occur tells us much more of the changes occurring and their impacts on biodiversity,” he says.
He recollects that Malawi used to be covered by endless miombo forests, dotted with afromontane evergreen forest cover where mountains rise and biodiversity peaks.
Today, he observes, forest groves can only be found in graveyards or cultural sites and on steep, inaccessible areas like Mulanje mountain.
“Population pressure and the increasing resource needs have wiped out entire green areas, which have major impacts on weather patterns and eventually on climate at large. This, at its turn, makes life in the rural area harder since rains become more unpredictable and dry spells tend to be longer,” Foquet says.
He further says the fall of biodiversity reduces the integrity of the whole system and every one will be a victim.
“The majority of Malawians live in rural areas with a large dependence on biodiversity for their livelihoods. Its loss has direct impacts on livelihoods, the impact that biodiversity loss has on ecosystem and ecosystem services impacts the country as a whole,” Foquet says.
Another of the researchers, Gawa, says bird conservation in Malawi does not feature highly in environmental protection discourse.
She suggests protecting birds in Malawi should also go beyond protecting forests.
“Often, the assumption is by protecting forests or trees, then the birds are also protected. However, this is not always the case,” she says.
Gawa says however that the situation has been improving over the years, as compared to 2005 when she first got involved in bird conservation in Malawi.
At that time, the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi (Wesm) was the only organisation doing something on bird conservation. Nowadays, alongside government, there are a few other organisations and individuals that are taking specific interest in bird conservation, she says.
According to the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, biodiversity, which the Spotted Ground Thrush is part of, contributes significantly to the economy and well-being of the people of Malawi.
A variety of activities that are necessary for daily life like farming, hunting, energy production, ecotourism, cultural activities depend heavily on biodiversity and the ecosystems services it provides, government says in the strategy.