23 Feb 2016

Learning about the birds and the bees in West Africa

Flowers of the shea tree Vitellaria paradoxa © Jane Stout
Flowers of the shea tree Vitellaria paradoxa © Jane Stout
By Cath Tayleur & Francois Kamano

Embarking on a new research project to uncover the secrets of bird declines and loss of habitat diversity in the shea zone of Africa, where shea pollination, biodiversity and livelihoods are linked. 

Loss of diversity in the shea parklands

Shea trees, not only the source of the famous moisturising butter, also provide vital food and income for around 80 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. Once a part of a diverse parkland habitat, shea is now one of the few species retained in these agricultural landscapes as other trees are removed for fuelwood and charcoal and to make way for crops and livestock.

Cattle grazing amongst the shea parklands © Jane Stout

Many species of bird that migrate through the shea zone in Africa are showing dramatic population declines in their European breeding ranges (e.g the Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus, Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca and Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis). Research commissioned by a partnership of BirdLife International, VBN (BirdLife in the Netherlands) and RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) has found a potential link between these migrant declines and the lack of suitable habitat in shea-growing regions.  

Unravelling the mysteries of shea pollinators

Worldwide, the loss of habitat diversity has also been linked to declines in insect pollinators. Very little is known about shea pollination, but experts have a hunch that the parkland monocultures may not be “bee-friendly”, contributing to lower shea yields.

BirdLife has commissioned a research project to discover the role insects play in shea production, led by Jane Stout (Trinity College Dublin), Peter Kwapong (International Stingless Bee Centre) and Issa Nombré (University of Ouagadougou), and supported by its partners Ghana Wildlife Society (BirdLife in Ghana) and Naturama (BirdLife in Burkina Faso). Recently the team spent two weeks in the parklands of northern Ghana and southern Burkina Faso setting up experiments to find out whether production of shea is being limited by the number of insect pollinators.

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The team of researchers investigating the role of pollinators in the shea parklands. (L-R: Thomas Gyimah (GWS), Latif Nasare (MSc student), Jane Stout , Prudence Tankoano (Naturama), Peter Kwapong) Issa Nombré and Francois Kamano not pictured. © Jane Stout

The pollination team successfully dealt with high temperatures, the infamous ‘Harmattan’ winds and shea flowers in hard-to-reach places.  The experiments will now be monitored by in-country teams for the next five months until the shea fruit develops.  These results will help in the creation of a management strategy to restore tree, bird and bee diversity to the parkland system.

"These pollination experiments will help identify the role insects play in increasing fruit production for consumption and for shea butter as well."

Francois Phopho Kamano, BirdLife Africa Project Officer.

Dual benefits for livelihoods and biodiversity

BirdLife and its Partners maintain strong links with the community in these regions, and permission to carry out the research was granted by local Using sweep nets to sample insect pollinators, and team members scaling great heights to set exclusion bags around shea flower buds. © Jane Stout

Chiefs, who expressed keen interest in the project.  To build on these relationships, farmers will be invited to the experimental pollination plots to learn about the role insects play in boosting shea yields and how they can help manage their farmland to benefit nature and people's livelihoods.  

Restoring insect pollinators will boost livelihoods by increasing productivity of shea and other crops. But BirdLife hopes to bring about further benefits by educating smallholders about uses for other tree species such as sustainable fuelwood.

As part of the project, BirdLife International with Ghana Wildlife Society and Naturama, has undertaken surveys of smallholders to identify strategies that will encourage the planting and retention of a greater number of trees in the parklands.

“Key to the success of this project will be demonstrating the livelihood benefits for the communities of more diverse parkland habitats.”

Cath Tayleur, BirdLife Project Officer: Agriculture, biodiversity & livelihoods.


Scaling up to the wider shea zone

The Global Shea Alliance (GSA) is a non-profit industry association that aims to drive a competitive and sustainable shea industry worldwide.  BirdLife International has recently joined the GSA as a sustainability partner. Our aim is that our recommendations for sustainable shea production will help shape industry best-practice going forward – to support the development of a sustainable production system that benefits both people and biodiversity.

Through its Local Engagement and Empowerment Programme BirdLife International is linking nature conservation to improvements in people's wellbeing and the development of sustainable local livelihoods.