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.