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Rangeland loss and population decline of the critically endangered Liben Lark Heteromirafra archeri in southern Ethiopia

Mahamued, BA and Donald, PF and Collar, NJ and Marsden, SJ and Ndang'ang'a, PK and Wondafrash, M and Abebe, YD and Bennett, JAMES and Wotton, SR and Gornall, D and Lloyd, HUW (2021) Rangeland loss and population decline of the critically endangered Liben Lark Heteromirafra archeri in southern Ethiopia. Bird Conservation International. ISSN 0959-2709

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Abstract

© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of BirdLife International. Summary Liben Lark Heteromirafra archeri is a 'Critically Endangered' species threatened by the loss and degradation of grassland at the Liben Plain, southern Ethiopia, one of only two known sites for the species. We use field data from nine visits between 2007 and 2019 and satellite imagery to quantify changes over time in the species' abundance and in the extent and quality of its habitat. We estimate that the population fell from around 279 singing males (95% CL: 182-436) in 2007 to around 51 (14-144) in 2013, after which too few birds were recorded to estimate population size. Arable cultivation first appeared on the plain in the early 1990s and by 2019 more than a third of the plain had been converted to crops. Cultivation was initially confined to the fertile black soils but from 2008 began to spread into the less fertile red soils that cover most of the plain. Liben Larks strongly avoided areas with extensive bare ground or trees and bushes, but the extent of these did not change significantly over the survey period. A plausible explanation for the species' decline is that grassland degradation, caused before 2007 by continuous high-pressure grazing by livestock, reduced its rates of reproduction or survival to a level that could not support its previous population. Since 2015, communal kalos (grazing exclosures) have been established to generate forage and other resources in the hope of also providing breeding habitat for Liben Larks. Grass height and density within four grassland kalos in 2018 greatly exceeded that in the surrounding grassland, indicating that the plain retains the potential to recover rapidly if appropriately managed. Improvement of grassland structure through the restitution of traditional and sustainable rangeland management regimes and the reversion of cereal agriculture to grassland are urgently needed to avert the species' extinction.

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