TaitaHills (03°25’S 38°20’E) forms the north most part of Eastern arc Mountains (EAMs) which are recognised worldwide as one of 34 global biodiversity hotspots. EAMs are known to have formed about 30 million years ago and have fascinated the world for their rich biodiversity that is packed with endemism. Having existed for millions of years in isolation from other mountains has been proposed as to have resulted to the birth of the observed unique biodiversity. Unfortunately, EAMs have lost about 98% of their forest to human settlements. The Taita Hills block is the smallest and most fragmented among the 13 EAMs blocks. Only 5% of its original forest exists as small forest patches on hill tops and steep valleys. Despite the loss, Taita Hills surprisingly continue to support a good number of endemic species though with a lot of strains. One of the Taita Hills’ endemic species of major concern is Taita Apalis (Apalis fuscigularis), a bird species that is on the brink of extinction
In 2011 one of our researcher, Lawrence Wagura together with Dr. Luca Borghesio and Dr. Mwangi Githiru embarked on research work on Taita Apalis and Taita Thrush (Turdus helleri), another critically endangered, endemic bird in the Taita Hills. The major research activities undertaken include:-
- Demographic studies of the two endemic birds species ( fuscigularis and T. helleri) using various methods such as extensive point count survey (by use of present grids using GPS coordinates), ringing, study on breeding ecology and habitat preferences
- Radio-tracking of fuscigularis to establish territory size and movement
- Detailed mapping of all areas covered with exotics plantation, mixed forest and degraded areas within forest fragments as well as assessment on possible restoration.
- Restoration pilot project to guide on exotic plantation eradication approach.
The results so far are frustrating. In the year 2011 the number of Taita Apalis was approximately 1000 individual existing in 6 forest fragments. However continued demographic surveys show that only about 200 individuals currently make the global population. This species have become locally extinct in most fragments that it existed before and currently confined to only two forest fragments.
It is devastating to witness the Taita Apalis drastic population drop and extinction in most of the forest fragments. Studies shows that habitat loss, human disturbance and climate change are the overarching courses of this alarming population decrease. In 2014, we embarked on a mission to saving the remaining population from possible extinction.
Our achievements and continued efforts include the following;-
- The discovery of a private forest that was unknown before which hosts about 15% of the entire Taita Apalis population leading to the leasing of the 7 Ha piece of land covered with the forest by Nature Kenya for the protection of this population. Efforts are ongoing in convincing the land owner and the neighbouring land owners to sell the land for a permanent protection.
- In collaboration with Kenya Forest Service (forest custodian) we are expanding the Taita Apalis habitats through conversion of exotic plantation patches into natural forest as well as restoration of highly degraded areas. Taita apalis prefers natural vegetation habitat and has been shown to completely avoid exotic vegetation. So far we have been able to convert about 9 Ha in two forest fragments. The two sites are located at the right altitude preferred by Taita Apalis. We continue to convert more areas to provide more habitats for this species which also has a spill over effect of benefiting other species.
- We are raising awareness among the local communities to cease or reduce the disturbances in the forests and also to have them assist in the protection of the Taita Apalis and its habitat. We realized that despite this species being an endemic, local people had no idea of its existence. The species breeds in low bushes and therefore its breeding success is highly affected by human disturbance. Awareness and involvement of the local community in this endeavour is therefore critical.
- We continue to conduct more research on Taita Apalis and its associated habitats to understand more on the species for better conservation approaches.