Welcome to the ‘tradition, culture and conservation’ Darwin blog series!
In this series we feature the work achieved by Darwin projects that are preserving traditions whilst ensuring that biodiversity and local livelihoods are protected. Around the globe, many culturally important species are facing significant declines due to land use change and over exploitation. As a result, many communities are forced into unsustainable practices in an effort to make a living. This series highlights the importance and long-term sustainability that can be achieved when communities are involved in the conservation of the species and habitats that they deem important.
In our first blog we hear from a project led by RSPB in Kenya, that has encouraged the involvement of local people as bird watching guides to share information on the importance of protecting vulnerable species and their habitats within the wider community.
The Bird Custodians: tracking the conservation journey in Yala Swamp with birders
In January 2015, a team of novice birders from the local community initiated a monthly bird walk deep within Yala swamp, one of Kenya’s key Biodiversity Areas and a proposed Ramsar site. One year later, a total of 20 individuals have been trained in wildlife guiding and nine of them further trained in ornithology through Darwin Initiative funding. Equipped with the main birding essentials coupled with biodiversity survey techniques, identification, passion, dedication and a desire to learn – the birders have never looked back.
Joseph Wajina, Chairperson of the Yala Community Ecotourism Organisation, states, “as a predominantly fishing and farming community, birds have been of significance to us since time immemorial. We have quite a number of socio-cultural practices and beliefs associated with birds and the phenomenal bird migration.”
Ibrahim Onyango, one of the acclaimed tour guides chips in, “for instance, the fishermen use the hourly successive cries of the White-Winged Warblers to count the hours until it is time for them to go and cast nets in the lake. When waders move from the shorelines deeper into the lake in search of fish, it’s an indicator that water is polluted and fish have also moved deeper into the lake in search for dissolved oxygen”.
Martin Ouma, another talented birder picks up, “farmers predict the approach of rain with the arrival of flocks of African Open-billed Storks, Abdim’s Storks and Glossy Ibis and begin to cultivate the fields in preparation for the planting season. The sighting of Yellow-billed Oxpeckers among herds of livestock alerts the farmer that it’s time to take the cattle to a cattle dip for tick control. On a day to day basis, the repeated calls of the Red-eyed and Ring-necked Doves signify day break and time for children to go to school”.
Wajina continues, “Over time, we have cultivated interest in birding, acquiring information on birds, bird identification and best birding hot spots. Due to our vast experience with birds, we are involved in birds mapping through the Kenya Bird Map (an online site developed for mapping birds’ distribution in Kenya)”.
Alfred Ayiro, a tour guide who is passionate about formation of Wildlife Clubs in schools explains, “our school mentorship programme started with four primary schools and now we work with over 60 schools. Using binoculars just fascinates children, we used to organise birding once a month which we have since doubled. An increase in demand for birding from the school children, has meant that we may soon be doing birding every weekend.”
“We have established a community bird monitoring network contributing useful information for compiling the Key Biodiversity Areas Annual Status and Trends Report. Within the lower reaches of the swamp, we have the Busia Anti-poisoning Team who are strong advocates against bird poisoning. They are at the frontline in raising alarm when bird habitats are destroyed and taking action to safeguard birds and their habitats. For us birders, the conservation of birds and their habitat is a top priority”, concludes Wajina.
The guides continue to carry out lots of community sensitisation on the importance of birds for community members to embrace the protection of birds and their habitats. At times there is even hostility with members of the community thinking that their aim of advocating for conservation is to hedge them out of deriving their livelihoods from the swamp in favour of birds and wild animals.
Community perceptions are gradually changing when people see that the guides are able to take care of their young families through tour guide earnings. The project is on track, especially with the endorsement of the Yala swamp land use plan in July 2019 by Governors of Siaya and Busia Counties and in September by H.E. the Rt. Hon. Raila Odinga (Prime Minister, Republic of Kenya 2008-2013). The land use plan recommends creation of Indigenous and Community Conservation Areas to promote ecotourism and biodiversity protection. There is hope for birds in Yala Swamp.