Winged Refugees

About one-third of Africa’s most important bird habits will see a massive turnover of species over the next century due to climate change, predicts a new analysis of 863 sites spanning 42 sub-Saharan nations. It concludes that there are substantial gaps in the continent’s current network of reserves, and that international cooperation will be essential to protecting species as they flee to new homes.

“The bird map of Africa is set to change dramatically and we need conservation policies that see the bigger picture,” says Stephen Willis of Durham University in the United Kingdom, a co-author of the study, which was conducted by a multinational team. “There are large areas of Africa lacking protected status and many of these areas are predicted to be critically important for bird conservation in the future. We need to be ready to protect remnant populations of birds while also preparing for new colonists.”

A warming climate will prompt hundreds of bird species to leave one part of Africa for another in search of food and suitable habitat, concludes the study, which appears in Conservation Biology. It looked at 875 “priority” species of birds, and used a range of climate models to predict what their ranges might look like in 2025, 2055 and 2085. Then, it analyzed how these projected future ranges overlap with Africa’s current network of “important bird areas.”

Some areas, such as a swathe of southern African stretching from Namibia and Angola to Mozambique and Tanzania, are projected to have high turnover, with both emigrant and colonizing species. In other areas, such as the Kilombero Valley in Tanzania and Waza National Park in Cameroon, species are expected to be more “persistent.” But “many areas that are likely to become increasingly important are currently under-protected,” says Willis.

Setting up new reserves may not always be possible, the authors note. But other steps – from changing how farmlands are managed to enacting seasonal hunting restrictions – could help species survive climate shifts. But there is little time to lose, since solutions “are likely to be more cost-effective if made sooner rather than later.” David Malakoff | February 14, 2011

Source: HOLE, D., HUNTLEY, B., ARINAITWE, J., BUTCHART, S., COLLINGHAM, Y., FISHPOOL, L., PAIN, D., & WILLIS, S. (2011). Toward a Management Framework for Networks of Protected Areas in the Face of Climate Change. Conservation Biology DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01633.x

Image © Neal Cooper |