6 Oct 2015

Alarming decrease of waterbird populations in West Africa

Waders on the shore in Guinea ©Barend Van Gemerden
By Frederick Tendeng

The East Atlantic flyway, an important route for migratory waterbirds, links the arctic breeding grounds that stretch from east Canada to central Siberia with wintering grounds in Western Europe, West Africa and South Africa. The western seaboard of Africa hosts several stopover and important wintering sites of this flyway that are used each year by millions of birds on their migratory journey. Likewise, Arctic passage migrants are joined by departing temperate breeders and mix with local African populations.

It is therefore vital to monitor such bird populations that link sites and ecosystems very far apart, but form a single functional unit. One specific reason is that migratory birds are especially vulnerable, as the loss of any site during their journey may jeopardise the long-term viability of the species. This is the reason behind the 2014 census report on migratory birds along the East Atlantic Flyway, conducted by BirdLife International, Wetlands International and the Wadden Sea Flyway Initiative, together with national organisations and government institutions. It was made possible through financial support from the Programme towards a Rich Wadden Sea (PRW) of the Netherlands and the MAVA Foundation, among others.

Key findings in the 2014 census report on migratory birds along the East Atlantic Flyway, the most comprehensive of its kind, proves very pedagogical and instructive for conservation and decision making, especially for  African  sites where there is a pressing need for up-to-date reliable information on bird numbers, threats and  distribution.

The census report reveals that the availability of trend data for largely estuarine East Atlantic flyway populations in 2009 were unavailable or very unreliable at the time. Additionally, counts from sites within the African wintering range were largely lacking. This situation has improved considerable with the publication of the present report which gives updates of trends in bird numbers, including all major African sites at the Atlantic coast until 2014. In the future , threat data from African sites, and also  from European sites  need to be collected in a consistent way to be able to better explain  the present patterns in bird numbers. The availability and consistency of that sort of data is still far from complete, hampering firm conclusions at this stage.

More importantly, the census report raises alarm as regards to key important birds and biodiversity areas; Banc d‘Arguin(World Heritage Site in Mauritania) and Bijagós Archipelago in Guinea-Bissau. These are the two most important wintering sites in Western Africa. In January 2014, the number of Palearctic waders counted in these two sites was over 1 million lower than in the year 2000. This worrying result suggests large declines for a group of birds for which these sites are especially important. Yet,  more counts may clarify whether  a steeper decline of their numbers is on course or whether 2014 marks a short-term fluctuation due to other unidentified factors. In contrast to the Palearctic waders, some African resident populations showed more stable, or even increasing trends.

Together with the monitoring of colonial waders and seabirds, being conducted by BirdLife International under the Alcyon project, the present census findings of non-breeding waders and other waterbirds as organised by Wetlands international, BirdLife International and the Wadden Sea Flyway Initiative, stresses the need to further implement the programme.

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MAVA Foundation is financially supporting  the second phase of CMB to encourage the effort of BirdLife International and its partners to continue the conservation of coastal migratory birds along the flyway.  The project concentrates on capacity development for the monitoring and conservation of shorebirds and other threatened migratory waterbirds along the Atlantic coast of Africa, with a focus on Mauritania, Senegal and Guinea Bissau.

Overall, the fact findings from the Status of coastal waterbird populations in the East Atlantic Flyway 2014,   confirms the importance of continued conservation actions as well as monitoring and capacity building in the future, especially in the western seaboard of Africa.