Last Chance to Save the Taita Apalis from Extinction
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Taita Apalis. Photo by Peter Steward
Punctuating the semi-arid plains of southeastern Kenya, the Taita Hills hold exceptional concentrations of endemic species due to their unique location and climatic conditions. Despite their clear biological value, forests in the area have been devastated by decades of deforestation. With only two percent of its original vegetation remaining, negative impacts on the Taita Hills and its wildlife have been extreme. Among the most threatened of those species is the Taita Apalis, which ranks as one of the most endangered birds in the world.
To survive, the Taita Apalis needs urgent protection and Rainforest Trust is working with local partner Nature Kenya to safeguard 35 acres of critical habitat for the species through the creation of the Taita Apalis Forest Reserve. The new reserve will not only serve as a stronghold for the bird, but will protect a collection of other rare and endemic species in addition. Importantly, its establishment will lay the foundation for the long-term process of protecting the Taita Hills’ fragile ecosystem on a landscape level.
Taita Apalis. Photo by Peter Steward
The cool montane forests found in the Taita Hills provide unique habitat niches for a variety of species found nowhere else and hold some of the highest levels of endemic species in all of Africa. The most vulnerable of those species inhabiting the area is the Taita Apalis.
The small, passerine bird has been classified as a priority species by the Alliance for Zero Extinction and is considered Critically Endangered by the IUCN due to its extremely small range, and continuing decline of habitat and population size. The need for its protection is imperative as populations of the species have declined by more than 50 percent in the last 14 years and the global population is down to just 160 birds. By creating the Taita Apalis Forest Reserve, Rainforest Trust and its local partner will directly support 15 percent of the bird’s global population, and complementary restoration plans, once complete, will aid another ten percent of the population.
In addition to the Taita Apalis, forests in the Taita Hills provide habitat for a variety of other bird species such as the Endangered Taita White-eye. The Taita Hills also hold an impressive diversity of threatened flora, including the presence of three vulnerable trees and shrubs native to these hills.
Maize farmer. Photo by World Bank/Flickr
Almost 98% of the original forest in the Taita Hills has been destroyed over the course of the last 200 years. This destructive pattern of habitat loss and fragmentation poses serious and growing threats to the survival of wildlife in the Taita Hills. Forests surrounding the proposed reserve are being felled by local farmers forced up the slopes by the lack of available space at lower elevations. If destructive trends continue unabated, the Taita Hills’ last forests may soon be converted into corn fields.
Immediate difficulties for wildlife are increased by the fact that remaining forest habitat is continually degraded by human disturbances. The illegal collection of firewood and timber, poaching, and occasional grazing of domestic animals all contribute to this effect.
Kenyan Woman in the Taita Hills. Photo by Living Goods/Flickr
Rich soil and a relatively cool, wet climate make the Taita Hills extremely attractive for farmers and the local economy is primarily based on agricultural production. Small scale cultivation is intensive and, consequently, human population densities are high. In some areas, population concentrations exceed 540 people per square mile.
Rainforest Trust’s local partner Nature Kenya has formed close, collaborative partnerships with community groups, villages and stakeholders around the proposed reserve. These partnerships have highlighted the importance of forest and environmental services for the livelihoods and survival of local residents. As a result, community organizations and the villages they represent are increasingly supportive of conservation actions. These efforts are now viewed as opportunities to improve community well-being.
The Taita Hills. Photo by Peter Steward
Located in southeastern Kenya, the Taita Hills abruptly rise more than 4,000 feet above the semi-arid plains of Tsavo West National Park. These hills form the northernmost extreme of the Eastern Arc, a chain of forested mountains extending from southern Kenya to southern Tanzania. Forests within the Arc comprise part of the Eastern Afromontane Ecoregion. This ecoregion is recognized as one of earth’s 34 biodiversity hotspots due to the fact that it shelters some of the highest concentrations of endemic species in Africa.
Estimated at up to 30 million years old, the Eastern Arc Forests represent one of the oldest and most stable terrestrial ecosystems on the African continent. Due to their age, geologic origin, and proximity to the Indian Ocean, these distinctive forests support a diverse biota unlike those found in other East African highland regions.
Restoring the Taita Forests. Photo by CIFOR
Preventing the extinction of the Taita Apalis requires the urgent protection of its remaining habitat. Collaborating with local partner Nature Kenya, Rainforest Trust is working to purchase 35 acres of critical forest habitat to create the Taita Apalis Forest Reserve. Combined with restoration efforts, the reserve will help support 15 percent of the bird’s remaining population. The restoration of degraded forest plots along with the strict protection provided by the new reserve will help the Taita Apalis and other endemic species recover to sustainable population levels.
In the long-term, Rainforest Trust and Nature Kenya believe that creation of the Taita Apalis Forest Reserve will serve as a first step towards wider landscape level restoration and protection efforts in the Taita Hills and serve as a model for future conservation efforts in Africa’s Eastern Arc Mountains.