To save migratory species we must work across borders and continents, forging partnerships that help us to help birds right along their migratory journeys. Today, Ian Barber, Senior Flyway Officer in the RSPB’s Flyways Programme takes us to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe where hundreds of people recently attended the Pan-African Ornithological Congress – a fantastic opportunity to make those important connections that allow us to work collaboratively, and at scale, for nature. 

After a two-year delay due to the Coronavirus pandemic the 15th edition of the Pan-African Ornithological Congress (PAOC) took place last week in the beautiful surroundings of the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

The PAOC is held every four years and brings together researchers, scientists, conservationists and indeed anyone with a passion for African birds. It provides a chance to meet up with colleagues you may not have seen since the last PAOC and also to make new acquaintances.

The event was hosted by BirdLife Zimbabwe, the local BirdLife Partner, and they did a fantastic job of coordinating the 300 participants from 60 nations, 33 of them African countries. It was particularly pleasing to see so many students at the congress, as they are the future of bird conservation in Africa, with many of them giving talks and producing poster displays.

Victoria Falls - ‘The Smoke that Thunders’ © Ian Barber.

Sharing knowledge and experience
As an indication of how keen people were to have an in-person event there were a record number of over 200 talks during the four days which also included 26 symposia, six plenaries and 13 Round Table discussions! Each day had four themed sessions running parallel but with so many interesting topics being aired it was difficult to decide which ones to attend.

I and several RSPB staff gave presentations throughout the week with each talk lasting just 15 minutes, so like most people, I was rushing out as one talk ended to dive into an adjacent room for the next talk on a completely different topic.

With vultures suffering huge declines across Africa as they are in Asia, although for largely different reasons, it was no surprise that they had top billing with vulture sessions on three of the four days. Afro-Palearctic migratory species (species that migrate between Europe and Africa) also featured prominently and given my role in the East Atlantic Flyway (the migratory route that stretches from the Arctic, down through Europe all the way to the southern tip of Africa) team I tended to favour those talks where possible.

Alison Beresford (RSPB) talking about Remote Sensing. © Ian Barber.

Another focus was on ‘Wetlands and Waterbirds’ as well as single species conservation problems and solutions. Bird monitoring to support decision making and the latest technology and techniques to further bird conservation was also discussed. But it wasn’t just research topics that were aired, as there were sessions on how to integrate science, policy and development to address unsustainable land-use practices. However, the best titled talk for my money was one in the nature conservation and the arts theme entitled ‘Saving Picathartes with spraypaint.’

Delegates discussing waterbird monitoring. © Ian Barber.

Although the four main days were pretty intense, running from 8.30am to 6.30pm, there was a mid-week excursion day to relax a little and have those informal chats with colleagues that are often as important as the formal sessions themselves. There was a choice of a birding boat cruise, a safari drive, a walking safari and a visit to the natural wonder that are the Victoria Falls or ‘the smoke that thunders’ as they are known locally due to the plumes of mist that hover around the largest waterfall in the world as it roars over the edge. That evening was an enjoyable local ‘Boma’ supper followed by the less introverted delegates dancing to traditional music and all of us simultaneously attempting to follow the Zimbabwean drummer in playing the local drums….with varying degrees of success!

The final afternoon saw the congress draw to a close with awards for the best talks and the best poster displays. It also featured a very funny skit by the PAOC Committee Secretary who played the part of a bumbling scientist spouting preposterous evolutionary theories illustrated by some funny cartoons. Maybe a suggestion that scientists shouldn’t take themselves too seriously all the time!

Reflections on the past and exciting next steps
The next Chair of the PAOC Committee was elected whose role it will be to steer the next gathering in 2026 and I’m pleased to say it is our very own Wenceslas Gatarabirwa, the RSPB’s Head of Flyways Programme. There was a moving section remembering those who had given so much to bird conservation on the African continent but sadly have passed away since the last Congress in 2016. Then all that was left was to thank the many sponsors, including the RSPB, and those who put in all the hard work over the past four years to make the congress happen. BirdLife Zimbabwe can be rightly proud of putting on a wonderful event which everyone I spoke to said was the best organised yet.

The first PAOC was held just across the gorge in Livingstone, Zambia 65 years ago and has criss-crossed the continent 14 more times since. It has gone from strength-to-strength and still remains a must go to fixture in most African bird conservationists’ diaries. We’ll be building on the connections that we made to continue our vital work in improving the fortunes of species that need our help.

PAOC Programme © Ian Barber.

Continue reading
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Action for Nature – sharing our stories

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