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Conserving one of our rarest waterbirds

A shy and elusive bird unlikely to be spotted by those not expressly looking for it, the White-winged Flufftail is a small ground-living bird that typically reveals its presence by its ghostly hooting call. It is, however, one the world’s most threatened and rarest waterbirds and as such BirdLife South Africa is involved in various wetland and waterbird conservation projects to play their part in protecting this and other waterbirds.

By DR KYLE LLOYD with contributions from MARLIZE MULLER

Photos by Dr Kyle Lloyd, Warwick Tarboton, Sergey Dereliev, and Philip Stapelberg

The Critically Endangered White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi) is considered to be one of Africa’s most threatened and rarest waterbirds. The total global population is estimated at no more than 250 breeding individuals. There are nine flufftail species, seven of which are distributed across sub-Saharan Africa (with the remaining two in Madagascar). The group’s name is derived from their short tail, which has degraded fluffy feathers. Other flufftail species include the Buff-spotted Flufftail, Red-chested Flufftail, Whitespotted Flufftail, Streaky-breasted Flufftail, Striped Flufftail, Slender-billed flufftail, Madagascar Flufftail and Chestnutheaded Flufftail.

White-winged Flufftails are streaked with brownish plumage, have a rust-coloured head, chest and tail, a wingspan of about 16cm, and weigh 30-35 grams. The diagnostic broad white secondary flight feathers are only visible in flight. Ethiopia and, more recently, South Africa are the only two countries where the bird is known to breed. The White-winged Flufftail is a habitat specialist preferring healthy, intact, sedge wetland habitat. Population abundances and distributions have likely decreased over the years due to wetland destruction and degradation by mining, mismanagement, water drainage, agriculture, pollution, and peat fires.

In fact, inland wetlands are identified as one of the most threatened and unprotected habitat types in South Africa. The destruction and degradation of the species’ high-altitude wetland habitat have resulted in a situation where its survival in the wild is uncertain, with a race against time to ensure that it does not become the first bird in mainland Africa to go extinct. Thus, there is an urgent need to safeguard and improve the conservation status of wetlands if the Whitewinged Flufftail is to survive. By protecting and promoting healthy wetlands for the White-winged Flufftail, water and wetland resources are conserved for a host of species and people who derive ecosystem services from these systems.

Greater Lakenvlei Protected Environment

Biodiversity stewardship is an agreement between provincial authorities and private or communal landowners to encourage sustainable management for the benefit of nature conservation alongside daily land use activities. It acknowledges landowners as the custodians of nature and creates a platform through which authorities can assist with managing their natural resources.

Biodiversity stewardship is voluntary, with a range of agreement types determining the degree to which conservation is prioritised. An example of a type of biodiversity stewardship agreement is a Protected Environment (as stated by the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act of 2003). There are numerous benefits to landowners of formally declaring a property or several properties in the same community as a protected environment, including coordinated management objectives across multiple landowners and protection from external threats that are not compatible with nature conservation. The Greater Lakenvlei Protected Environment (GLPE) was established in 2017 and expanded in 2023, with the main aim of safeguarding the extensive wetland system in the area.

BirdLife South Africa is an enabling entity in several protected environments, such as the GLPE, by communicating and implementing best practice guidelines for sustainable habitat management.

Verloren Valei Nature Reserve and Ramsar Site

Wetlands provide a host of ecosystem services to both local and global human communities that can be categorised as provisioning, regulating, supporting, and cultural. Some of the most important services involve the purification and gradual supply of water resources to downstream users.

Wetlands are not only important to human society but to biodiversity as well. Wetlands are high-productivity environments that supply abundant resources and microhabitats to various species. Birds, in particular, use wetlands for breeding, roosting, and as migration stop-over points.

The Convention on Wetlands is an intergovernmental treaty established in 1971 in the Iranian city of Ramsar that provides a framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. There are over 2 000 Ramsar sites listed by over 160 countries that form the Contracting Parties. South Africa was one of the first contracting parties to join the treaty and has since designated over 30 wetlands as Ramsar sites.

Verloren Valei Nature Reserve was designated as Mpumalanga Province’s first Ramsar Site in 2001. As the source of the Crocodile River, it hosts internationally important wetlands by providing a steady supply of water to downstream users in both South Africa and Mozambique and a habitat to several threatened plant, butterfly, bird, and mammal species. BirdLife South Africa is studying the rich biodiversity that inhabits the reserve’s wetlands to inform national guidelines for wetland management.

Middelpunt Nature Reserve and Ramsar site

The White-winged Flufftail was first seen at Middelpunt Wetland in 1992 after many years with no presence records in the country. Those who saw the bird were concerned about the condition of the wetland and so established the Middelpunt Wetland Trust in 1994. BirdLife South Africa was invited to administer the trust in 2012 and has since led national efforts to conserve the species. Middelpunt Wetland’s owners support BirdLife South Africa’s scientific studies at the site to better understand the bird’s biology.

From a monitoring survey in the summer of 2018, the first breeding record of the White-winged Flufftail was made in the southern hemisphere. With Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency, BirdLife South Africa and Middelpunt Wetland Trust pursued private nature reserve status for the site with two landowner groups and was officially declared on 14 October 2022. The wetland was later designated as a Ramsar Site on 15 March 2023.

BirdLife South Africa and Middelpunt Wetland Trust have entered into a co-management agreement with the landowners to help steward the site. The reserve is not only an important site for White-winged Flufftail but also provides habitat to diverse fauna and flora species. This nearly 10 000-year-old, peat-based wetland also provides ecosystem services to the surrounding farming community through water retention, purification, and flood attenuation. To the global community, the nearly 2m deep peat layer is an extensive carbon sink that continues to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Middelpunt Nature Reserve is an excellent example of how private landowners can significantly contribute to regional and global conservation.

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