Part of the Ethiopian highlands in southern Ethiopia is the Liben plain Important bird and biodiversity area. These plains are home to one of only two known populations of the critically endangered Libenlark Heteromirafra archeri, one of the oldest species of lark in the world, with only 50 to 100 individuals surviving today. Over the years the Liben plain has experienced numerous human stresses. Population growth, overgrazing, drought and soil erosion, among other things, have left only a small portion of the grassland, much of which has been degraded. This, in turn, has fragmented the Liben Lark’s habitat, separating populations and putting additional pressure on this bird.
In 2015 Birdlife International, RSPB, Ethiopia Wildlife and Natural History Society (BirdLife Partner) and SOS Sahel Ethiopiastarted a three-year project to save the Liben Lark. The Darwin-funded project helped local communities create four jointly managed grassland reserves known as Kallos in the Plains. The Kallos, administered by the local pastoralist congregations, would be used as fodder during the dry season. Most importantly, the Kallos provide adequate breeding and foraging for the lark during the two rainy seasons known locally as Ganna and Hagaya.
Liben Lark, copyright Paul Donald, from the Surfbirds Galleries
In addition to supporting pastoralism activities, the project should also help vulnerable households to diversify their livelihood from comprehensive pastoralism and thus reduce their needs and their pressure on grassland. A savings and credit cooperative was founded with four Community Based Organizations (CBOs) at village level. The cooperative currently has over 100 members and training is offered.
The project started with mixed results. Between 2015 and 2017, severe droughts in southern Ethiopia and political instability had a negative impact on the Kallos. In 2018, when the project was due to end, the reserves experienced an upswing after good rainfall in the region. An excursion carried out by the project partners in the same year showed that although the Kallos were filled with lush grass, the number of Liben Lark areas was less than planned.
But there is still hope. The birds could have been wiped out due to the drought, but were held. In 2019, a second survey showed positive results and showed that the number of Libenlarks had increased from 11 to 21 areas, albeit in a declining area in the plain. The Kallos were also instrumental in helping local pastoralists, supplying more than 900 households with 70% of the fodder during the drought. After the good weather in 2018, two of the existing Kallo were expanded. “We are having a relatively good season for grasses and recommend continuing Kallo maintenance and new Kallo facilities,” said a ward elder.
Fortunately, the project continued beyond 2019, with funds for emergency response from RSPB and a grant from the IUCN Save Our Species, co-financed by the European Union. This means that the maintenance of these vital kallos, which protect both the bird and its livelihood, can continue. While sustainable land management on the Liben Plain has been initiated, the focus is now on long-term solutions that build on these conservation efforts to halt the deterioration of the Liben Plain and thereby save the first endangered bird on mainland Africa.