Hope sometimes arrives in very small packages, like the 10 Taita thrushes that were recently released in
the tiny forest fragment known as Chawia Forest in the Taita Hills of Kenya.
That modest addition to the forest’s Taita thrush (Turdus helleri) population – which had been estimated at around 10 – represented a potential milestone for a species that is listed as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and whose total population is estimated at 1,350. It also marked the cumulative impact of years of conservation efforts in the Taita Hills.
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The Taita Hills have lost 98 percent of forest cover during the last 200 years, mainly due to clearance for agricultural purposes. The remaining 400 hectares (almost 1,000 acres) of indigenous moist tropical forest is scattered in 11 fragments throughout the district. What remains is under continuing pressure from the densely populated communities nearby.
But those fragments also support numerous rare and endemic plants and animals. “The biodiversity is still there, so it’s not too late,” said Professor Luc Lens, head of the University of Ghent Terrestrial Ecology Unit, who has been studying the Taita Hills area since 1996.
The Forest for the Birds
Three of the forest remnants support populations of the thrush, but the population of one of those forests, Chawia, has started to “crash,” Lens said.
In 2003, conservationists began hatching a three-pronged plan to come to the aid of the Taita thrush and other biodiversity in the region while supporting the livelihoods of the surrounding communities. The plan called for:
- Offering support to local groups for a reforestation effort that would provide a quick boost to priority forest fragments in the ecosystem.
- Developing a scientific model using the most up-to-date information on the region to determine a recovery plan for three bird species that are dependent on the forest fragments.
- Training local residents in developing nature-based products that generate livelihoods to replace income from activities that denude the forests.
Starting in 2004, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) supported the East African Wild Life Society (EAWLS) work with the Chawia Community Environment Committee to propagate and plant 68,200 indigenous tree seedlings in the Chawia Forest, where livestock grazing and timber extraction had taken a toll.
The project provided 9,800 indigenous and exotic trees for planting on farms, and gave 4,000 seedlings to local residents for use on farms, schools, churches and on communal plots to decrease the reliance on forest resources.
“When we began, there was quite some negative attitude toward the forest,” said James Mwang’ombe, East African Wild Life Society’s project coordinator for Taita Hills. But attitudes changed after a couple of years of working with the community.
Ultimately, residents played a crucial role in planting and maintaining the new trees in the forest and in other locations within the communities.
“Large-scale destruction of the forest has come to a stop,” Lens said. “Local communities are keeping these tiny bits of forest in place.”
Ten Irreplaceable Birds, One Community Revitalized
The progress already made in the protection and restoration of the forest and the Taita thrush’s desperate need for help led National Geographic to fund the project that recently released unpaired Taita thrushes from Mbololo Forest into the Chawia Forest to improve its thrushes’ chances for survival. If the current translocation project is successful, conservationists will work to move more birds.
All the Taita thrushes that made the transfer to Chawia in late September have survived so far, and breeding season has arrived in the forest. Local village forest associations continue to benefit as well, through new nature-based markets including honey production and silk farming.
It is the culmination of years of careful work, and an example of how scientific rigor and creative thinking can help people and birds at the same time.
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