2 May 2014

Alarming decline in Highland Grasslands in Kenya

Kenya's highland grasslands are being lost at fast rate, causing problems for the endemic Sharpe's Longclaw
By Martin Fowlie

There has been a decline of 90% in Kenya's high altitude grasslands over the 20 years due to change of land use, development and conversion of grassland into agricultural land, as well as population growth, This has lead to a serious decrease in habitat specialists like Sharpe’s Longclaw Macronyx sharpei. Only about 16% of the current range of highland grassland from Mt. Kenya in the east to Mt. Elgon in the west is still suitable for Sharpe’s Longclaw. The decline of highland grassland during the last 10 years is especially dramatic.

A Kenyan/ Italian/ German team of conservationists recently carried out Sharpe’s Longclaw monitoring in the central Kenya highlands. The team consisting of experts from Nature Kenya, National Museums of Kenya, Kenya Wildlife Service, BirdLife International and NABU monitored the birdsin the Kinangop Highlands, in the Lake OlBolosat area and around Timau at the northern slopes of Mt. Kenya.

Besides conservative population monitoring, blood samples were collected for DNA research. This will be used to look at the genetic relatedness and degree of isolation of the longclaws occurring in different parts of Kenya highlands. 

The team was able to reconfirm Sharpe's Longclaw in Mt. Kenya National Park in high altitude grasslands for the first time in 70 years.

As these might be the only legally protected populations of the species, it is important to collect more detailed information on the population size and trend. Furthermore research is needed if these birds breed in the protected areas or only spend part of their annual life circle at this altitude.  

Despite a lot of research on Sharpe’s Longclaw, many aspects of its distribution, ecology and breeding biology is still unknown. A recent one-day workshop has resulted in a species action plan to deal with the decline of the Afro-alpine populations. It has become clear that within the remaining range of Sharpe’s Longclaw in Mt Elgon, the Aberdare’s and Mt Kenya National Park there are the areas which need most attention. More research is needed to answer questions about the breeding biology to confirm whether birds are seasonal migrants. Long-term grassland management schemes with Kenya Wildlife Service in protected areas and in cooperation with local sheep and cattle farmers on private land can provide hope to safeguard the remaining highland grasslands in Kenya. A Sharpe’s Longclaw Working Group has been formed which will meet once a year to update research and conservation outcomes on this threatened species. 

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!

This work has been funded by NABU (BirdLife in Germany).