What's the latest on the Liben Lark? Simon Wootton, Senior Conservation Scientist, gives us an update on what's happening next on the plains.
In 2009, a BBC headline spoke of an “African lark soon to be extinct”. The bird in question, the Liben Lark, is one of the oldest species of lark in the world, but is now found in just two small areas of degraded grasslands in Ethiopia, over 600km apart. Without intervention, the article warned, the grassland might disappear - taking the lark with it.
Eleven years on and the Liben Lark is still with us. Its existence, however, teeters on a knife edge.
A disappearing world
The Liben Lark is a delightfully speckled brown bird, with long, gangly legs and a fast, excited song. It’s only found in two places, one of which is the Liben Plain, a grassland at c1600m altitude in southern Ethiopia, of which around 75km2 remains (about the same size as Nottingham).
Liben lark photo taken during one of our project visits (c) Simon Wotton
The Plain is also home to about 10,000 pastoralists who graze their cattle there, but times have been hard - poverty and drought has led to overgrazing, which, when combined with a decline in large herbivores to keep shrub down, has led to the gradual degrading and conversion of the grassland.
It was possible to organise a brief field visit to Jijiga, c600km to the NE of the Liben Plain, in October 2019 – the first visit here since 2013 (due to security issues). It was encouraging that four singing Liben Larks were found, although in patches of remaining native grassland.
A team assembles
There are now only about 50 to 100 Liben Larks left and the species is Critically Endangered. But there is hope for a resurgence – in 2015 a Darwin Initiative Project was established, which worked to build the capacity of local people to create, and support the creation of more sustainable livelihoods while restoring the Liben grasslands and improving the habitat for the Liben Lark, through the creation of four communally managed grassland reserves (‘kallos’) across the plain.
The project was led by RSPB and partners included BirdLife International, The Ethiopian Wildlife Natural History Society, SOS Sahel, Coventry University and Manchester Metropolitan University.
Liben lark song flight taken by Keith Blomerley on his sabbatical
The idea was that the ungrazed kallos would provide suitable breeding conditions for Liben Larks during the two annual rainy seasons, and during the dry seasons communities could cut the grass to provide fodder for their livestock, producing valuable milk during the dry season hunger gap.
One of the kallos on the Liben Plain (c) Simon Wotton
Weathering the storm
There was particularly severe drought in the area for two years during the Darwin project, during 2016 and 2017, as well as political instability, and many livestock were lost.
It was possible to organise a field trip again in June 2018, and following the best Ganna (main spring rains, roughly from February to June) on the Plain for c10 years, the four kallos were full of lush grass and invertebrates. However, the field team could only find 11 singing males along a set of transects established during the first field trip in 2007, when 67 were found.
A later field trip took place in in May and June 2019, three months after the Darwin project had ended. The Plain still looked badly degraded, with all four kallos in disrepair and cattle grazing in them. Lack of maintenance had caused the acacia fences to blow away, with some even being intentionally removed to allow for easy access for the cattle, or for firewood.
One of the pastoralist villages on the Liben Plain (c) Simon Wootton
The next phase…
Without a sustainable long-term plan for the Liben Plain that involves all local, regional and national stakeholders, there is a short-term need to ensure that there are suitable conditions for Liben Lark on the Plain. Emergency RSPB funding from July 2019 to June 2020 has ensured that the two kallos being used by Liben Larks are being maintained and there is some reduced grazing in the core Liben Lark breeding area identified in 2019. At the same time, there has been ongoing clearance of trees and shrubs on the eastern side of the Plain. This work is being led by SOS Sahel.
The great news is that with the support of IUCN Save Our Species, co-funded by the European Union, this work can continue for another year. There is a longer-term plan to secure funding to work with the communities to understand why the kallos fell into disrepair, repair the fence lines, and convey the value of Liben Larks to tourist boards.
This combination of short- and long-term action can create a truly harmonious future for the lark – one where they and the pastoralists can live side-by-side. There’s still very real hope that, in another eleven years’ time, we can look back at that BBC article and breathe a sigh of relief that the Liben Lark is still with us.
This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union through IUCN Save Our Species. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the RSPB and do not necessarily reflect the views of IUCN or the European Union.
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