Monday, 10 February 2014

Can hyenas help save mainland Africa’s most imperiled bird?

Posted by Bruktawit Muhamued, Huw Lloyd & Stuart Marsden

Once famed for its highly productive breed of Boran cattle, the Liben Plains of southern Ethiopia are in deep trouble – they are seriously overgrazed by cattle, being encroached by aggressive scrub species, and lost due to conversion to cereal crops. These changes have grave consequences for the livelihoods of the local pastoralists and at the same time have pushed the endemic Liben Lark Heteromirafra archeri to the brink of extinction. The Lark may now represent mainland Africa’s most threatened bird species. 

Liben Lark Heteromirafra archeri. Photo: Paul Donald

The conservation of the Liben Plain rangelands and its fauna requires designing an appropriate habitat restoration strategy that incorporates the traditional Gadda system of grassland management, whilst also mitigating possible adverse effects on rural livelihoods. MMU PhD student Bruktawit Muhamued has been working on the Liben Plain collecting ecological data on this ‘Critically endangered’ bird along with socio-economic information on local livelihoods and lifestyles. Working with Huw Lloyd and Stu at MMU, along with Nigel Collar (BirdLife International), Paul Donald (RSPB), and rangeland ecologist James Bennett (Coventry University), Bruk is creating an important evidence base to find compromises good for both people and the lark. 

The Liben Plains with Boran cattle. Photo: Paul Donald

Since June 2013, we have been collecting data on the abundance, foraging behaviour, and habitat associations of the lark. These data will enable Bruktawit to estimate the Lark’s global population size, to determine whether it is restricted to areas of traditional Gadda managed grassland habitat and how the species responds to shifting land use practices brought about by changes to the economic realities faced by native pastoralists.

Bruk prepares artificial lark nests. Photo: Huw Lloyd
Perhaps the best hope for lark’s survival has come from an unlikely source. A few years ago we found small patches of longer grass on the overgrazed plain – areas where the cows seemed not to want to feed. Even stranger was that these areas were dotted with white hyena dungs – and it was this pooh that the cows were avoiding. We wondered whether we might be able to use hyena excrement to create small patches of nesting habitat in an otherwise overgrazed landscape. The scats would act as a biological control to reduce overgrazing – just as people use wolf urine or tiger faeces to deter deer and other ‘pests’ from entering gardens and fields.

Bruk is using artificial nest experimental plots demarcated with hyena dung, which will enable her to monitor the natural restoration of grassland vegetation, and determine the survival rates of the artificial nests. Hyena dung collection has been one of the most challenging aspects of her first fieldwork season! 
Spotted Hyena and the 'white gold' that is its dung. 
Photos: Bruk
Hyenas regularly come into contact with rural and small urban populations in Ethiopia, feeding in close proximity to rural houses and rubbish dumps. The challenge is to collect not only enough pooh but also dung of the right quality! There are several locations in the region where this is possible, although sometimes, the local hyenas can become a little puzzled or inquisitive at the unusual interest in their waste products!

Bruk's PhD is supported by Manchester Metropolitan University along with A.G. Leventis Foundation, RSPB and BirdLife International.


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