Blog by Simon Wotton, Senior Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science. 

The Liben Plain in southern Ethiopia is important for agriculture and biodiversity, it is home to around 50 different grass species and the unique Boran cattle, and it hosts around 10,000 pastoralists with property rights. The Plain is designated an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, is part of the South Ethiopian Highlands Endemic Bird Area, and holds one of only two known populations of Liben Lark Heteromirafra archeri; the other population being near Jijiga, c600km to the north-east and in an area with significant security issues.

Photo: The Liben Lark is listed as Critically Endangered. By Paul Donald 

Poverty and drought have led to overgrazing, soil erosion, scrub encroachment, conversion of grassland to crops and severe degradation, with just 7,500 ha of degraded grassland remaining in the plain (30% of its extent 20 years ago). Consequently, the Liben Lark is listed as Critically Endangered.

Photo: The current known Liben Lark range – the Liben Plain in the south and Jijiga in the east.

Photo: The 11 Liben Larks recorded in 2018 (red dots) compared 67 in 2007 (yellow dots). The areas converted to cropland since 2007 can clearly be seen.

An ambitious Darwin project ‘Sustainable management of an Ethiopian rangeland for biodiversity and pastoralists’, was established on the Liben Plains, from 2015 to 2018. Using participatory rangeland management, this innovative project worked to build capacity of the local pastoralists to create more sustainable livelihoods, while restoring grasslands and improving the habitat for the Liben Lark through the creation of five communally managed grassland reserves (known locally as kallos). The kallos are managed by pastoralist communities to provide fodder for cattle during the dry seasons, so they can produce milk during their hunger gap.


Photo: The amount of vegetation growth in the kallos in 2018 is shown clearly from this view along the northern edge of the Wachu-Biltal kallo. By Simon Wotton, RSPB.

Photo: From the centre of the Plain, scrub encroachment from the eastern edge is clear to see. By Simon Wotton, RSPB.

The project finished in October 2018, but its operation was affected by a combination of political instability and the impacts of unusually severe drought in southern Ethiopia over two years. There was drought in 2015/16 due to an extremely severe El Niño weather pattern and the rains failed in southern Ethiopia in 2016/17, leading to a severe humanitarian crisis. After this, there was very little grass left on the Liben Plain and many livestock perished.

One of the requirements of the Darwin project was to monitor the Liben Larks and the kallos that were created on the Plain to provide additional fodder for livestock during the dry seasons and more suitable habitat for the larks. Monitoring had to be postponed several times during the Darwin project due to the political instability and drought conditions, but it was finally possible to carry out a survey in June 2018.

The field trip found that the established kallos were full of lush grass following the best Ganna (main spring rains, roughly from February to June) on the Plain for around 10 years. Unfortunately, we found far fewer Liben Larks than we hoped for on the established transect routes, with only 11 singing males or territories (as a comparison, the first organised survey here in 2007 recorded 67 on the same transects).

We were shocked to find so few larks in 2018 and it is likely that the two years of drought have had a severe impact on their population. So, we are returning again this May to find out if the Liben Larks have started to recover and if the kallos are working well. We are hopeful that the breeding season may have started early in 2018, as the rains started in February, and non-breeding birds may have been missed because Liben Larks are notoriously difficult to pick up if they are not singing or nesting. That could in part explain the lower numbers in 2018. In addition, a new kallo was established and an existing kallo was extended in summer 2018, in areas where we saw Liben Lark activity, so we remain hopeful as we set off.

The survey team for the 2019 field trip is comprised of staff from BirdLife International, RSPB, the Ethiopian Wildlife & Natural History Society (the Ethiopian BirdLife partner), SOS Sahel and Manchester Metropolitan University.

Photo: There is a very high density of Kori Bustards (the world’s heaviest flying bird) on the Liben Plain.  The local Boran cattle are grazing in the background. By Simon Wotton, RSPB.