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Taita Thrush Still on Decline, Despite Conservation Efforts

The population of Taita Thrush, Turdus helleri (T. helleri), continues to be at a decline despite various desperate measures taken by various organizations and government authorities to turn the tide of what is turning out to some to be an inevitable extinction.

Once classified as a subspecies of the olive thrush before being promoted to a full species on account of its independent appearance, the Taita thrush is listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the highest category of threat before a species disappears and gets regarded as extinct.

This secretive and ground-dwelling thrush is endemic to the highly fragmented Taita Hills forests in Kenya. Of the 12 forest fragments that comprise the Taita Hills forests, the species breeding population are only found in four fragments; Mbololo (200 ha), Ngangao (92 ha), Chawia (50 ha) as well as the smaller-sized Yale forest. At 5.3 birds per ha, Mbololo holds the highest density of the birds.

A report ‘Reassessment of the status of the Critically Endangered Taita thrush’ by Luca Borghesio, Mwangi Githiru, Lawrence Wagura and James Maina Gichia suggests that no improvement in the conservation status of Taita thrush has occurred in the last two decades, and that the sub-populations in two of the four forest fragments are hanging on the edge of extinction.

Densities in Mbololo are still good, says the report. The situation in the other forest fragments is more worrying. Only one pair persists in both Chawia and Yale. While breeding attempts were observed in each forest, the effective breeding success is unknown, but is anything close to optimistic given the fact that densities are low at both sites.

“Action is urgently needed in Chawia and Yale to avoid the impending extinction of the local sub-populations of these two forests,” added the report that was funded by the African Bird Club and the RSPB.

In 2008, a translocation of 10 individuals from Mbololo (the largest subpopulation of T. helleri) to Chawia (where the species was down to a few individuals) was attempted by Dr Mwangi Githiru. This is believed to have come from a recommendation from Edward Waiyaki Mangara in his Taita Hills Biodiversity project published in 2000.

Taita hills

It read: “Well genetically selected individuals (especially females) should be translocated to Chawia to boost variability and increase local population recruitment to save this population that is at the brink of extinction”.

The move, it seems, might have delayed impending local extinction but has not succeeded in reversing the negative trend in this forest.

“The situation in Chawia is still critical and the long term persistence of T. helleri in this forest is highly unlikely unless action is taken,” says the recent report.

For more than a decade now, ornithologists in conjunction with local and international conservationists, the government and bodies such as the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund (CEPF), Nature Kenya and BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme have thrown their weight behind efforts geared towards revival of the species.

Humans clearing vegetation for farming threaten the existence of Taita thrush. Rodents, monkeys and snakes also prey upon these rare birds.In 2015, Nature Kenya made a global appeal for funds to save Taita thrush and Taita apalis. The funds would be used to buy or lease parcels of land on the tops of the Taita Hills, to restore degraded areas and engage local people into protecting these rare species.

Other measures taken to curb the dwindling numbers include: intensively protecting the habitat where Taita thrush occurs, complete ban on all levels of logging and other forms of timber utilization to ensure high quality habitat, and a continuous strict monitoring programme for the species.

The population of this arguably Kenya’s rarest bird is estimated to be between 100 and 200 individuals. This is a far cry from the 2000 census estimated the population to be 1347 individuals, of these 930 being mature adults.

Taita thrush, the black and white bird with orange bill and eye ring, is a nostalgia waiting to happen. If various conservation efforts currently taking place fail to curb their declining numbers, it is only a matter of time before their presence is completely eliminated from earth. And when it happens, it will be a first for a country on the African mainland to witness the extinction of a land bird species.

Planning a visit

To chance upon this beautiful avian species, one has to travel to Taita Taveta, a county approximately 5-hour drive away southeast of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city. You will find comfort in knowing that the montane Ngangao Forest is home to yet another critically endangered bird;the Taita apalis (photographed below by Peter Steward). A Ranger located at the forest's entrance is the local bird guide and is the best aid for locating and identifying the birds.

Taita Apalis

An independent birding excursion may not appeal to everyone. Kenya has a number of professional bird guides and Tour Operators who can accompany you on safari and also provide additional guiding services that will broaden your birding experience. Some of the tour firms that offer tailor-made solutions for birders include:-
Bird Watching East Africa, Silent Fliers of Kenya and Acacia Africa Birding Safaris & Holidays.

Do remember to record your observation.

To learn more about the Taita thrush contact:

East African Wildlife Society

Nature Kenya