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Between France and Africa, the challenge of protecting migratory waterbirds

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Black-crowned night herons in Djoudj National Park, Senegal, in 2005.

Green head, yellow eye, black flat beak: the northern shoveler is not just an ordinary cousin of the mallard. Behind its calm appearance as a subscriber to bodies of water, the bird is a great traveler. In his family, some take flight every year to the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Others push the journey across the Sahara to winter in the Sahel. And like him, some 90 species of migratory water birds circulate between Europe and this semi-arid strip punctuated by vast lakes and wetlands.

Their protection and that of these areas has been promoted since 1995 by an intergovernmental treaty, the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA), covering a wider spectrum of 255 species worldwide. It has been signed by 38 African countries.

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Ten years ago, an international cooperation tool, the Technical Support Unit (UST), was created by France to support them. Since 2017, his work has mainly focused on an expertise building program, called “Resource”, implemented in five countries: Senegal, Mali, Chad, Sudan and Egypt. Aiming to increase the knowledge of African professionals to better identify all the birds that migrate there, it expires in June.

So far, counts at nearly a hundred African sites have yielded sightings of more than 2 million birds. If the tiger nut is doing relatively well, some of its neighbors on the highway of the sky are less serene. A small, long-billed wading bird, the black-tailed godwit is classified as a near-threatened bird on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species. Its population has decreased by a third in twenty-five years in Europe.

“There is a lot of work to be done in common between countries of the North and Africa to best monitor this species whose European and Russian nesting sites are degraded, which is seriously detrimental to its reproduction”explains ornithologist Jean-Yves Mondain-Monval, of the French Office for Biodiversity (OFB), who is one of the three heads of the UST.

Observation missions

“If we just study what happens in the north during the nesting period, we can miss a major cause of population decline in Africa”recalls Clémence Deschamps, another linchpin of the project, specialist in data management at the Tour du Valat, a research institute for the conservation of Mediterranean wetlands based in Arles.

However, in Africa, data are still sorely lacking. Harvesting them requires time, resources and knowledge. The researchers therefore set about training their African colleagues in the observation and counting of migratory waterbirds. In all, some 200 professionals have already been initiated in the partner countries.

“Thanks to this project, we were able to follow the huge area of ​​Bahr Aouk and Salamat, in southern Chad, where we were able to reassess the bird population at 2.7 million individuals, while it was hitherto estimated at 20,000″, continues Clémence Deschamps. This new count will join this year the spreadsheets of the NGO Wetlands International, which is in charge of the world census of water birds. Without international cooperation, this work could not have been done, insists the specialist.

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“It was the first time that we learned observation techniques and the use of software, it was exciting”, rejoices Abakar Saleh Wachoum. A member of the Department of Wildlife and Protected Areas of the Chadian Ministry of the Environment, he spent ten days, three years in a row, identifying birds with six colleagues near lakes Fitri, Iro and in the national park of Zakouma. Since then, his team has been able to carry out other observation missions thanks to the two telescopes and six pairs of binoculars that have been provided to him.

Students and teachers from the three main African wildlife schools, in Tanzania, Kenya and Cameroon, also benefited from training workshops. Their curriculum had until then focused almost exclusively on large mammals, which were more popular and often easier to observe. A MOOC (online teaching module) will be made available to them, with the support of the François-Sommer foundation. These video supports are supposed to overcome the budgetary obstacles that too often prevent field practice.

Climate change

Because the wetlands of the Sahelian expanses are both vast and almost inaccessible. The only solution: fly over them by plane and, why not in the future, by drone. An expensive exercise which prevents the few Africans trained in these techniques from training. However, without regular data, it is impossible to measure the impacts of human activity on birds and their habitat.

Unlike most European wetlands, some regions of the Sahel are still spared from massive drainage (soil sanitation by water flow). “Nevertheless, there are degradations of certain areas linked to the development of an intensified agriculture or the installation of dams, emphasizes Jean-Yves Mondain-Monval. Changes in bird numbers can give an indication of the ecological status of these areas. »

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Climate change is also one of the identified threats, as well as other more direct predations. Ultimately, it will be a question of understanding, for example, whether subsistence hunting, which is widespread in the Sahel, contributes to the decline of certain species. “The subject has been touched upon, these efforts to acquire knowledge should still be continued to estimate the portion of birds collected in Africa and assess the sustainability of these traditional practices”concedes Pierre Defos du Rau, researcher at the OFB.

Financial commitments are expected in June to allow this cooperative work to continue. Because if the data collected in Africa are already useful, “the margins of error can be significant, in the absence of regular monitoring and long-term trends”recalls the researcher.

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