Friday, 1 June 2018

Chaona Phiri and the Black-cheeked Lovebird

Posted by Chaona Phiri

In June of 2017, my boss Trevor Robson returned from a visit to the BirdLife International Secretariat in Cambridge very excited about a chat he had with Nigel Collar. They apparently discussed me and the work I was doing on birds in Zambia. One of those species is the Black-cheeked Lovebird Agapornis nigrigenis a localized parrot restricted to the deciduous Mopane woodlands of South western Zambia.

The Vulnerable  Black-cheeked Lovebird Agapornis nigrigenis (Photo: Chao)
My name is Chaona Phiri and I work as an ecologist at BirdWatch Zambia (BWZ), BirdLife International’s partner in Zambia. I have been with BWZ for close to 10 years, having joined them as a student intern in 2008. So, Trevor mentioned that Nigel Collar was interested in having a student in Zambia to work on the Black-cheeked Lovebird (BCL); its now near endemic to Zambia as there have been some local extinctions in wild populations of Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. I was apparently the preferred student since I had already done some work on these species and working for the BirdLife partner in Zambia.

Chao and Birdwatch Zambia team counting birds
By the end of 2017, I had not only been talking to Nigel but had also been introduced to Stu Marsden and Christian Devenish who have since been helping with fundraising and designing what exactly we will do on the BCL project. With funding from the Loro Parque Fundacion, I will will undertake a part-time doctoral research programme over a projected five-year period at Manchester Metropolitan University. Part-time because I will be based in Zambia and still working for the BWZ.

Above: Zambia's Mopane woodland on which the lovebird seems to rely; Below: large Mopane tree turned into a canoe in situ (Photos: Chao)

 Presently, this Lovebird is thought to be Africa’s most localised parrot species with a restricted range of around 5500 sq. km. Within its restricted range, the species is clumped and localised to stands of mopane with large trees and permanent water sources. The naturally formed cavities in live mature Mopane trees are A. nigrigenis’ choice of roosting sites; these double as nesting sites during the breeding season. The roost site location is stable for as long as a site remains intact and undisturbed. This makes the bird extremely vulnerable to land-use/habitat change within its range, especially the with increased cutting of large mopane trees for firewood and timber, as well as agriculture expansion for Maize, Sorghum and Millet which have replaced a large section of the woodland habitats. 

Flooded Mopane - water sources may be key to the bird's survival especially in the dry season (Photo: Chao)
 However, perhaps the most important influence on the species has been the fall in surface-water availability over the last 25 years – as a result of both changing climate and patterns of water usage in the region. A significant reduction in surface water sources has been recorded in much of south western Zambia in light of several factors including but not limited to; low annual rainfall (shorter rain season), human population growth and increase in livestock farming. 
Above: An objective of the PhD is to find out how limiting drinking opportunities are for the lovebird; Below: Waterholes are clearly multi-use - a challenge is to find a way that people and lovebirds can co-habit (Photos: Chao)

The primary aim of this project is to improve significantly our level of knowledge of (and hence our capacity to counteract) the factors that currently limit the global population of the Black-cheeked Lovebird (BCL). At the same time, an important secondary aim of the project is to provide a strong ecological training for me, young bird conservationist in Zambia, as a long-term investment in both BWZ and the protection and survival of the lovebird. To achieve both aims, the project will take the following objectives:

1. To assess and establish the species range, abundance and population using point and transect count methods.

2. To document the state of the species habitat and its associations as well as possible local perceptions regarding the species and their impacts on its distribution and abundance.

3. To identify and monitor a series of waterbodies that are used and unused by BCL using citizen science and remote sensing.

4. To use historical and current presence records (e.g. from 1.) to build species distribution models (SDMs) for BCL to determine the influence of landscape features, habitat and waterbody location on its distribution.

5. To prescribe management strategies using SDMs of future scenarios regarding water availability and suitable habitat.

It's rare to see our three Loro Parque Fundación parrot PhDers in the same room. L>R Anna Reuleaux (Yellow-crested Cockatoo), Andrea Thomen (Hispaniolan parrots) & Chaona Phiri (Photo: Fraser Combe)

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Worrying news on Timneh Parrots from Gola

Posted by Simon Valle & Stuart Marsden

The Timneh Parrot (Psittacus timneh) together with the congeneric Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus) has recently been uplisted, to Endangered based on the suspected decline due to habitat loss and trapping for the pet trade (BirdLife International 2018). However, the hard truth is that we have hardly any data on the size and trends of the populations that dwell in the remaining forest patches across its range. As part of a project generously funded by the Parrot Wildlife Foundation, successfully launched inaugurated with a productive workshop at the Gola Rainforest National Park (GRNP), Dr Simon Valle (Bangor University) has spent four weeks surveying in and around GRNP to understand how abundant the species may be. 

Community guide Mohamed Nyallay (left) and porters Mustapha Kanneh (centre) and Keni Desmond on their way to set a base camp in the heart of Gola Rainforest National Park (Photo: S. Valle)

Preliminary results from the surveys have raised some serious concerns for the species in Gola, despite being probably one of the best preserved and managed protected areas in West Africa. Simon and his team often struggled to find any parrots even in the better-preserved forest at the core of the national park. Encounters were rare and far apart and judging from the extremely low encounter rates (0.3 parrots/hour), and, until the analysis is done, we can only assume that Timneh Parrots presumably persist at very low densities in the area as a whole. These figures are alarming if we compare them to those of healthy populations of the congeneric Grey Parrot such as the 30 ± 8 parrots per sq km in Lobéké National Park, Cameroun (Marsden et al. 2015), or the 59 ± 4 parrots  per sq km on the Island of Príncipe, São Tomé & Príncipe (Valle et al. 2017). 

A rare encounter in Gola forest. 
Community Guide Mohamed Mansare` listens to a 
group of Timneh Parrots feeding on a nearby tree.

Most encounters were from the 4-km buffer zone that surrounds the park, where the forest is under continuous threat from inhabitants of the surrounding settlements. The buffer zone holds pockets of reasonably intact forest and hosts some very successful wildlife -friendly cocoa farms managed in partnership with the park authorities. However, in some areas, the buffer zone still bears the clear signs of slash-and-burn farming, selective logging for valuable timber and mining for gold and diamonds. These are the areas where the work of the park authorities is the most difficult and the survival of the remaining forest most fragile.

A team surveys for Timneh Parrots in the 4-km buffer zone around the Gola Rainforest National Park, where large areas are cleared with fire to make space for subsistence farming (Photo: S. Valle)

The data collected in GRNP are an important alarm bell and shows us that a well-protected and carefully managed protected area may not be sufficient to guarantee the recovery of a population to a healthy state, or at least not before many years (Valle et al. 2018). Moreover, these results highlight the importance of performing similar surveys across the range to assess the true conservation status of this species and the need for consistent monitoring of the remaining populations. With this in mind, and following up on the successful training held in GRNP, Simon has delivered a further workshop at the HQ of the National Protected Areas Authority, the government agency which manages all protected areas across the country. Together with Prof Stuart Marsden (Manchester Metropolitan University), Simon will keep on working closely with the NPAA and GRNP to develop a long-term countrywide monitoring scheme for Timneh Parrot, probably the first of its kind in Africa.


BirdLife International (2018) Species factsheet: Psittacus timneh. Downloaded from on 12/05/2018
Marsden, S.J., Loqueh, E., Takuo, J.M., Hart, J.A., Abani, R., Ahon, D.B., Annorbah, N.N.D., Johnson, R., & Valle, S. (2015) Using encounter rates as surrogates for density estimates makes monitoring of the heavily-traded grey parrots achievable across Africa. Oryx 50(4):617-625
Valle, S., Collar, N.J., Harris, E., & Marsden, S.J. (2017) Spatial and seasonal variation in abundance within an insular grey parrot population. African Journal of Ecology 55(4):433-442
Valle, S., Collar, N.J., Harris, E., & Marsden, S.J. (2018) Effects of trapping method and capture rate variability on harvest sustainability in a heavily traded parrot. Biological Conservation 217:428–436

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Spotlight on Timneh Parrot

 Posted by Stu, Simon Valle & Amy Marsden

Ever since Simon Valle (now Bangor University) and Nat Annorbah finished their PhDs on Grey Parrots here at MMU, we’ve been itching to start more work on this stunning but troubled taxon. The opportunity arrived in the form of a grant from the newly formed Parrot Wildlife Foundation See their website, a French charity dedicated to parrot welfare and conservation run by Eric Vignot. Stu had spent a very pleasant week in early March with Eric and Irina in Dominican Republic, kicking off Andrea Thomen’s PhD on parrots on that island. Now it was time for something a little tougher.

Above - Simon talking about Timneh's range (Photo: Amy); Below - Stu introducing the science behind the simple encounter rate method (Photo: Simon)

There are two main components to the project – a workshop on Timneh Parrot monitoring and a survey of the parrot across the Gola Rainforest National Park (GRNP). This post describes the former and some thoughts on how Timneh Parrots can be monitored effectively but practically long term across their range. 

Relaxing after practicing fieldwork in Gola
The three-day course took place at GRNP’s research station/guest lodge in Lalehun. The attendees for the workshop represented a number of institutions and organisations working within conservation in Sierra Leone - the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone (CSSL), National Protected Area Authority (NPAA), students and lecturers from Njala University and Eastern Polytechnic, and staff from the Gola Rainforest itself. Mustapha Songe, a tour guide from a community on the border of the National Park, also attended. The aim was to introduce delegates to the ecology and plight of the Timneh, train them in a simple method to monitor parrots that can be done whilst conducting their usual duties, and to discuss ways in which a scheme to monitor Timnehs could possibly be rolled out across Sierra Leone.

Lovely t-shirts and other course materials - thanks to Bearprint Design, TinnedSnail, and Amy Marsden (Photos: Amy)
The method itself centres on a paper we published in Oryx in 2015 – we identified the relationship between grey parrot abundance as estimated using Distance sampling and an ‘on-the-hoof’ encounter rate method (simply the number of parrot groups seen or heard per hour of walking or sitting). The course included plenty of field practice and discussion, especially feedback on how the method could be tailored for the local situation. We were all delighted with both the level of interest and understanding (many participants had little or no biological training), and the enthusiasm for taking forward a countrywide parrot monitoring scheme. Certainly, Timneh Parrot monitoring is on the agenda for Gola, and we hope elsewhere too. Simon will be visiting NPAA in Freetown to discuss possibilities in other protected areas.

The course is only the beginning of our work at Gola. Simon is starting five weeks of fieldwork right across the National Park to estimate abundance and habitat needs of the species. The first step on this exciting journey was to check out reports of a large parrot roost in a community forest close to Gola with Patrick Dauda of the park’s Research & Monitoring Department. We were unable to see parrots at what seems to be a ‘flexible’ roosting area, but hope that Simon and Patrick will be able to return to the site to check on numbers of parrots in the area.

Checking potential roosting tree in one of the community forests on the border of the Nartional Park (Photo: Amy)

We thank: Alusine Kpara, Sheriff Mohamed V, Mustapha Dabenie, Ahmed M Swaray, Amara Aruma, Ibraihim J Kallon (GRNP); Momoh Bai Sesay, Mohamed Sama (CSSL); Osman Deen, Alhassan Khalli Kamara, Abdul Karim Sesay, Wuyatta Kallon (NPAA); Bobson Kobba (Njala University), James Feika (Eastern Polytechnic); and Mustapha Songe (Community tour guide) for interesting discussions during the course. Special thanks go to Benjamin Barca, Brima Sheku Turay, and Patrick Dauda of Gola Rainforest National Park for their amazing support and help with logistics. The project is funded by Parrot Wildlife Foundation.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

The trapping of adult grey parrots is ruinous

Posted by Simon Valle & Stu

In a paper just published in Biological Conservation, Simon Valle et al. investigated how different capture methods and other aspects of parrot trade, other than just the actual volume of birds taken from the wild, can affect sustainability of harvest. This is of course important as the ‘currency’ which is generally used by CITES and government agencies to assess the impact of bird trade is usually solely the total number taken from the wild. This paper shows how crucial it is to also consider other facets of the trade – if adults or nestlings are taken, how may fluctuations in annual harvest affect sustainability, and what role may habitat loss or augmentation have in influencing population stability. 

The study was grounded in the building of a population viability model (PVA), a tool often used in conservation biology to see how populations might grow or decline in the future. These models use demographic parameters such as birth rates, mortality of juveniles and adults, longevity, and other life history traits to predict future population trajectories and to identify those aspects of the animals’ lives that are most crucial to safeguard. PVAs are data-hungry, and the lack of real data from wild populations means that, often, parameters have to be taken from other species, from captive birds, or are simply guessed. Our models used some data (e.g. on mortality) from other large parrot species, but Simon’s months of fieldwork on the grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) population on Príncipe meant that we had a reasonable idea of most of the parameters needed for the running of the models.

Inquisitive subadult grey parrot kept as a pet on the island of Príncipe.This individual would have been originally caught as a chick from the nest, as is common  practice on the island .

Our first important finding was that there was a very fine line between a harvest being sustainable in the long term, and ruinous. A harvest of around 900 individuals per year allowed the population to thrive, but one of 1000 birds almost certainly resulted in extinction of grey parrots on the island. Hence, to keep trade sustainable, we would need to relying on a scientific balancing act, but this is the polar opposite of how grey parrot trade is currently managed – we have little or no confidence that quotas are strictly adhered to, mortality in trade is pitiful and unknown, and often we don’t even know from which country the parrots were even caught.     

Predicted population trajectories in response to no harvest (0% of the initial population); and annual harvests (SD) of 600 (100), i.e. 7.5% of the initial population, 900 (100), and 1200 (100) chicks, i.e. 15% of the initial population. Light grey lines =population trajectories resulting from each simulation; black solid lines = mean trajectory.

Even more disturbing is that the age of birds taken from the wild blows simple numbers of birds taken out of the water in terms of its importance. On Principe, there was a tradition of only taking chicks from nests, and leaving the adults to be. This is likely one of the keys to the species’ survival in large numbers on the island. The figure below shows how disastrous the taking of just a few adults can be. The taking of birds ‘randomly’ from the population, as might be done in places like Cameroon where birds are caught en mass at aggregations, is utterly ruinous.

Difference in predicted 50-year trends when the population is subject to a harvest of 900 ± 100 harvesting chicks only, nest raiding (i.e. one adult is collected with every two chicks) and indiscriminate trapping.

Another interesting finding of the study was that having a ‘steady’ (well-managed and well-policed) harvest of small numbers of birds every year is more likely to be sustainable in the long term than a harvest that is inconsistent across years. The message here is that booms and busts of parrot trapping are not a good thing.  

Predicted population trend and individual simulations in response to harvesting a fixed (left) or variable (right) quota of 900 (top) and of 1000 (bottom) chicks each year

But booms and busts, high and variable mortality and other real uncertainties are exactly the realities that have plagued the trade in grey parrots for the past decades. Effective trade management seems a million miles away from what is happening at present across the species’ range.

On Príncipe grey parrots are commonly raised together with other household pets.

The research on the Grey Parrots in Príncipe was funded by

and supported by