An eyewitness account of conservationists and their work to keep one of the rarest birds on Earth from going extinct
By Nathan Siegel | Published: 8/4/2017
James Maina, my tall and lanky guide, is on high alert. His eyes haven’t ceased scanning the canopy. He stops in his tracks, cocks his head, listens, waits. We’ve been trekking for hours in what seems like circles. There are no trails or markers here, in the Taita Hills of extreme southeastern Kenya, about 90 miles inland from the coast. The forest, still soaked from a downpour last night, hums and buzzes. It’s afternoon already, but a stubborn morning fog remains, giving the scene a surreal, eerie feeling. We keep moving.
So it goes for most of the day. Finally, with the light fading, it happens. “There,” Maina whispers, pointing into the bush.
Where? I see nothing.
Then there’s a flash of brown and a shaking branch, and the creature comes into focus. It’s a hand-size bird, a bundle of energy, flitting from branch to branch.
He’s shifty, and from time to time, I lose sight of it for long moments.
Only after it takes off does it strike me how extraordinary those few minutes were, and not just because we’ve spent the whole day searching for it. The bird rustling above us was Taita Apalis, one of the rarest species on Earth. While habitat loss and climate change could endanger almost half of U.S. birds this century, according to a report by Audubon, East African birds are facing a similarly dire future. In the last 10 years, the apalis population has taken a nosedive. Researchers are struggling to understand why, let alone stop the fall.
They estimate that only about 150 individuals remain, down from some 700 in 2009. That’s earned the apalis a rating of Critically Endangered from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which means there’s a 50-percent chance the species will be gone in 10 years if drastic changes aren’t made. And if the apalis does go extinct, a serious possibility, it would arguably be the first bird species to die off in mainland Africa.
We know preciously little about it. “Everything you observe is new information,” says biologist Luca Borghesio, an independent researcher whose work on the species is being funded by the Royal Society for Bird Protection and the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, among others. What we do know is that Taita Apalis belongs to the genus Apalis, which consists of at least 21 species living in sub-Saharan Africa. Traditionally, they were known as Old World warblers (Sylviidae), but the apalis is now assigned to Cisticolidae, a large family of small drab warblers that likely originated in Africa.
Taita Apalis is endemic to the Taita Hills, which is about 800 acres large, the size of New York’s Central Park. The apalis is one of three birds that are endemic to the region. (The others are the endangered Taita White-eye and critically endangered Taita Thrush. Both were once considered subspecies but appear as full species on the most recent IOC World Bird List.) A number of snakes, butterflies, and other animals, as well as plants, can be found only in the forest. The reason for so much endemism? Scientists believe the Taita Hills have been isolated from nearby mountain ranges for a few million years.
Rare good news
Borghesio works with about six graduate students and locals, including Maina. Armed with an MP3 player and a portable speaker that broadcasts the apalis’s call, Maina spends his days searching for the apalis and its nests, and recording progress. He can spend up to three days looking for a single nest.
When he finds one, rarely is it good news. During this breeding season (November 2015 to April 2016), the team has found about 50 nests, but only six have been successful. The others have fallen prey to rodents, snakes, bigger birds, monkeys, even cows, which accidentally knock over the low-lying nests while grazing.
Maina leads me to what could possibly be a seventh. Both apalis parents help build the nest, a ball-shaped structure with a roof and a hole in the side for access. The bird prefers thick vegetation about four feet off the ground (the height of a cow, unfortunately). The last time Maina came to check, two eggs were inside. Now, as he gently moves aside the bush, I see a few-days-old chick with a thin coat of wet black feathers. He says the other egg didn’t make it and dutifully jots its fate in his notepad.
A hundred feet away, the same parents had built another nest before it was predated. We know this because the apalis, like most tropical birds, is territorial. It lives and dies within a two-and-a-half-acre chunk of forest and rarely, if ever, leaves. Preliminary data suggest familiarity with this section of forest is one of the reasons the birds have lifespans so long — sometimes over 12 years. (Common garden birds have lifespans just a fourth as long.)
Given the species’ long life, Maina and the other researchers were surprised that the apalis seems to have a drastically higher rate of predation, which is when their offspring become food for animals farther up the food chain. Conservationists aren’t sure why that is. It could be because large mammals have completely disappeared from the Taita Hills. Almost-total deforestation over the last few centuries means the area lacks habitat for top-tier predators like leopards. This allows mid-level predators — those that eat the apalis — to abound.
Global Big Year hotspot
When birder and author Noah Strycker set the single-year birding world record of 6,042 species in 2015 (a record eclipsed in 2016 by Dutch birder Arjan Dwarshuis), he traveled to 41 countries famous for their rich birdlife, including several in Africa.
The Taita Hills was one of the hotspots Strycker birded in Kenya. He added nine species to his fast-growing list there on August 9: Augur Buzzard, Hartlaub’s Turaco, Stripe-cheeked Greenbul, Black-headed Apalis, Striped Pipit, Reichenow’s Seedeater, Yellow-bellied Waxbill, and the Taita Hills endemics Broad-ringed White-eye and Taita Thrush.
You can see Strycker’s photo of the white-eye on his Big Year blog here.
Approximately 95 percent of the forest in the Taita Hills has been logged, mostly for fuel and farmland. While cutting trees and foraging for wood is now illegal, it still happens. Late in the second day of tracking, Maina spots a manmade trail leading to a small clearing. There, piles of sawdust and tree debris indicate someone from the community has been breaking the rules.
But here’s the most mysterious part about the apalis’s abrupt descent: An abundance of habitat equal to the Taita Hills, as far as the researchers can tell, is just a few kilometers away. In theory, the apalis could easily fly there and colonize the new area — but it doesn’t. “It’s extremely puzzling,” Borghesio tells me, a hint of frustration in his voice.
He’s hesitant to speculate what could be that “very specific characteristic” of the Taita Hills that the apalis needs but says the team is looking into everything from microclimate to food availability. What they do know is that the bird lives at an elevation between 5,600 and 7,200 feet, thrives along forest edges and in canopy gaps, and doesn’t migrate.
No genetic testing has been done to determine whether Taita Apalis is indeed a different species from Bar-throated Apalis (Apalis thoracica), an East African species characterized by several endemic subspecies, but there are reasons to think the two are separate.
For one, the birds’ plumage differs. Taita Apalis has dark gray upperparts, a brownish black head and throat, and off-white underparts. Bar-throated Apalis has gray or green upperparts and light gray or pale yellow underparts, as well as a narrow black band across the breast and white outer tail feathers. Both birds have white eyes.
Taita Apalis’s call is also markedly different in tone and rhythm. Its song is a duet. The male starts, and the female follows. Together, they sound like one emphatic bird, an effect likely meant to better defend the little territory they have.
Solving the mystery of why the apalis won’t leave the Taita Hills and being custodians to a dying species are motivation enough for the conservationists, but they also face the challenge of getting the community on board. It’s not that the locals don’t care about wildlife, but their priorities are different. The handful of residents I asked hadn’t even heard of Taita Apalis.
Feeling the squeeze
One of the pitches conservationists make is that protecting the bird will bring in good money from tourism. Baringo County, in west-central Kenya, attracted about 5,000 foreign birdwatchers in the last migration season. But insecurity and relatively high prices have taken a toll on the industry. Arrivals dropped by 25 percent between 2007 and 2014, according to official figures. The Taita Hills has felt the squeeze, too. Peter Mwasi, 32, a tour guide in the area, says he hasn’t had someone to show around in over four months. “There are probably more researchers here than tourists,” he says.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Across the forest fragment where Maina shows me the newest apalis chicklet, another group of conservationists is making extra room for the bird to live. While cutting trees is illegal, clearing forest that was destroyed naturally isn’t a problem.
On the hillside overlooking scattered farmhouses, Lawrence Wagura stands on a fallen tree, an exotic species planted for export during the colonial era.
Behind him, 10 locals are hacking down what’s left of a 25-acre exotic plantation that a forest fire had leveled a few years back. “It’s our only chance to expand the apalis’s habitat,” says Paul Githeru, a species expert at Nature Kenya, the organization funding the project.
Wagura is the project’s lead manager. He and his team are clearing the exotic growth, so the indigenous forest can grow back on the plot. He shows me the coin-size blisters raised after just one day of wielding the machete. A number of international groups, including the Rainforest Trust and Birdlife International, are calling for donations to save the apalis. All the money is funneled through Nature Kenya, which is also educating local communities on sustainable farming and conservation.
But logging and exotic plantations aren’t the only problems for Taita Apalis. Kenya, and East Africa as a whole, is experiencing dangerous shifts in climate. Extreme events like droughts and floods are becoming fiercer and more commonplace. Currently, Ethiopia is suffering from the worst drought in 50 years, aid agencies say. That’s bad news for birds, since no rain means fewer insects for food.
Evidence suggests that climate change is already hurting Taita Apalis. Between 2011 and 2013, for example, the bird disappeared from three Taita Hills forest fragments located at lower elevations. The lowest was about 4,750 feet. Borghesio and his team have collected unpublished data that suggest the changing climate has made the lower elevations uninhabitable for the apalis. And it could get worse. Scientists are predicting a severe drought caused by La Niña during the upcoming breeding season.
The plight of Taita Apalis is alarmingly similar to that of species of all kinds. More species are dying off today than during any period since the dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago. According to scientists, about five species a year die off under natural circumstances, but we are losing them at 100 to 1,000 times that rate, according to the IUCN. And most of the species look more like the apalis and the insects it eats than Cecil the lion.
This is not lost on those fighting for Taita Apalis. After a long day, Maina and Wagura huddle over dinner and discuss their findings. We’re staying at a conservation center intended to host tourists, but the tents built for birdwatchers are empty.
Sleep comes early, as does the 6 a.m. wakeup. We eat a breakfast of milky tea and coconut rice before heading out. Wagura jumps into his massive four-wheel-drive vehicle and heads for the plantation. Maina walks out of his bedroom straight into the forest.
I’m reminded of something Githeru, of Nature Kenya, told me back in Nairobi. I had asked what would happen if the bird went extinct. “I don’t know what would happen,” he replied to me. “But I don’t intend on finding out.”
Nathan Siegel is a freelance journalist who writes about environmental issues and geopolitics. He is based in Nairobi, Kenya.
BirdLife International’s profile of the Taita Hills forests.
Big Year birder Noah Strycker’s account of the Taita Hills.
SAVE THE APALIS
Nature Kenya’s appeal to preserve and restore habitat for Taita Apalis.
An account of Taita Apalis from the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
A 2015 discussion of the taxonomy of Bar-throated Apalis, Taita Thrush, and other East African species (PDF).