24 Travel Zambia May 2007 Interview Chaplin’s Champion Dr. Lizanne Roxburgh is a research ornithologist affiliated with the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute at the University of Cape Town. She is currently working on a two-year study of Zambia’s only endemic bird, the rare Chaplin’s barbet. Lizanne took time out from her work to talk to Mike Unwin. Why birds? My interest started from an early age, when my parents regularly took me to wildlife reserves. It later became a natural choice to study zoology at university, and then on to a PhD in avian physiology. Had you worked in Zambia before? No. I had often looked over the Zambezi from the Zimbabwean bank, but had never ventured across. I was very ignorant about Zambia when I first arrived. Please tell us about your project My main aim is to reassess the status of Chaplin’s barbet and to learn more about its breeding biology, specifically its dependence on sycamore fig trees. What we knew about the species before I started was largely anecdotal. Now, to ensure its survival, we need to find out how it lives and what limits its distribution. But collecting the data is a slow process for such a rare species. What have you learned so far? At present Chaplin’s barbet is listed as ‘near threatened’ on the IUCN Red List. However, my preliminary results suggest that it is rarer than we previously thought and should be listed as ‘threatened’. This means we need to take active measures to prevent its extinction. Any surprises? Yes. I only found nesting holes of Chaplin’s barbets in trees that are at least 60 years old. This means that if we try to plant trees now as future habitat, it will take at least 60 years before they become suitable. This is rather worrying, and stresses the importance of having to protect habitat now rather than relying on rescue tactics later. What is so important about this bird? Chaplin’s barbet is about to be renamed ‘Zambian barbet’ by Birdlife International. It is Zambia’s only undisputed endemic bird, and highly sought after by birding tourists, who bring revenue to the areas where it is found. Its unique distribution pattern also holds clues to Zambia’s geological past. It would not look good for Zambian conservation if we allowed this charismatic species to become extinct. Its extinction is avoidable, but only if we put the right land management practices in place. What threats does it face? Mostly land clearing for agriculture and settlement. People need to eat, of course, but maintaining barbet populations is still compatible with certain types of agriculture – such as cattle and game ranching – where open savanna is retained. Barbet populations also survive in areas with small-scale cultivation, where large trees are left in fields. But dead branches must be left on trees, for them to excavate their nesting and roosting holes. What is being done to protect it? Nothing, formally. A few commercial farmers are taking measures to protect barbet populations on their land. But, to put this in perspective, one 5,000ha farm in Choma has no more than 20 barbets. If the neighbours cut down all their fig trees and converted the land to cropping, the population would soon decline and eventually disappear. Are you involved in any other research? I work with the Zambian Ornithological Society (www.wattledcrane.com) on several projects, with support from Birdlife Africa. These include monitoring wild birds for bird flu. There is a lot of ignorance about this topic, and wild birds often make an easy scapegoat. I am also involved in shoebill research in the Bangweulu Swamps, and helped conduct the first aerial survey of these birds last winter using a microlight. Is there much more to learn about Zambia’s birds? Definitely. Very little research has been VLADIS SERVAS LIZANNE ROXBURGH Lizanne’s assistant, Ruston Mukampola, measures the height of a barbet nest.
May 2007 Travel Zambia 25 Interview done so far. Zambia has the most miombo woodland of any African country and probably holds the most species endemic to this habitat, yet we know almost nothing about their biology – or the impacts that woodland clearance is having on them. What does the future hold for Zambia’s birds? I’m fairly optimistic, as Zambia has plenty of national parks. But charcoal production poses a serious threat to many woodland and forest species, and our precious wetlands are very poorly protected from threats such as over-fishing and irrigation. Also, global warming may cause tropical species to expand their range southwards, which could bring threats such as competition or disease to range-restricted species, such as Chaplin’s barbet. What do you enjoy about your work? I study a fascinating group of animals and, hopefully, contribute in some way to their conservation – and to the continued advancement of biological science. I also get to see some spectacular sunrises and sunsets. What challenges do you face in the field? The heat is probably my biggest challenge, as Chaplin’s barbets breed in October, in the peak hot dry season. Fortunately they are sensible creatures and are active in the cool morning and late afternoon, which allows me to escape the worst of the midday heat. Have you had time to explore Zambia? I do as much exploring as possible. Mutinondo Wilderness, near Mpika, ranks amongst my favourite spots. It is one of the few places in Zambia that is set up for hiking. Bangweulu is special too, with the wattled cranes and shoebills that are high on any birder’s wish list. This magnificent wetland deserves much greater protection. What have you most enjoyed about working here? The friendliness of the people, the relative safety of working in rural areas, and the fact that there are still vast areas of wilderness out there. Plus the sunrises, of course! What’s next for you, once this project is finished? More research on birds, hopefully in Zambia. Find out more about the work of the Zambian Ornithological Society, and how you can help, at www.wattledcrane.com. “It would not look good for Zambian conservation if we allowed this charismatic species to become extinct.” Derek Solomon is one of Zambia’s top bird guides. He has written and contributed to several books on birding in Africa and has a passion for recording wildlife sounds. Derek made his personal selection of the country’s five top twitching spots for Travel Zambia. 1. Bangweulu Swamps is home to the bizarre shoebill, best searched for between April and July. Large flocks of wattled cranes are another endangered highlight of this area. 2. Busanga Plain, in Kafue National Park, is a prime destination for both grassland and miombo specials, including the stunning rosy-breasted longclaw and its yellow-breasted cousin, Fuelleborn’s longclaw. 3. Mwinilunga in the northwest is off the tourist track, but this birder’s haven offers numerous forest specials, including Afep pigeon, red-bellied paradise flycatcher, Forbe’s plover, Bates’s sunbird and blue-breasted kingfisher. 4. South Luangwa National Park is Derek’s backyard and a top destination for the African pitta, one of Africa’s ‘most wanted’ birds. December is the best month for this elusive migrant. 5. Zambezi River above Livingstone is the place to search for African finfoot and half-collared kingfisher, both found in the quiet backwaters. LIZANNE ROXBURGH Chaplin’s barbet has a powerful bill. LIZANNE ROXBURGH Lizanne and colleague carrying ducks for bird flu research. BIRDER’S BIG FIVE MIKE UNWIN Fish eagle: one for beginners.