Where has the Taita falcon of the Zambezi gone?

By Rumbidzayi Zinyuke

Not so long ago, the Taita falcon used to perch high up in the gorges of the Zambezi River during breeding season.

It would leave its perch in search of food, soaring to pursue small birds with fast, precise wingbeats. Prey would be captured on the wing and carried back to the perch to be eaten.

Less than a decade later, such sightings have become infrequent and far between, raising questions whether the rare and little known species has disappeared from these parts.

Named after the Taita hills in Kenya, from where it was first seen, the Taita falcon is one of the rarest breeding birds in Africa and is listed as a critically endangered species in some areas.

The Batoka Gorge, downstream of the Victoria Falls, has for a long time been recognised as hosting the single largest population in existence.

But according to excerpts from an environmental and social impact assessment report carried out on the Batoka Gorge, there has been a marked decline in the population of the raptors in this area.

And human activities are listed as the main cause of their depletion.

“Recent studies have, however, observed a decline in this population which is attributed to excessive helicopter activity along the Batoka Gorge associated with Victoria Falls tourism and an increase in other falcon species, particularly Lanner falcons that tend to displace the lesser Taita falcons,” the report said.

Information available shows that the Taitas may struggle to co-habit with other larger falcons like the Peregrine falcon and Lanner falcon.

A 2013 survey of the Batoka Gorges located numerous pairs of Peregrine falcon, Lanner falcon, Augur buzzard and Verreaux’s eagle, but not a single Taita falcon was observed.

Experts said it was still too early to base a conclusion on those results alone, but all indications were that Batoka was no longer a stronghold for this species.

The problem is not just being witnessed in Zimbabwe only.

South African Taita falcons are also in just as much danger of extinction as the ones in Zimbabwe.

A survey carried out in South Africa around the same time revealed that of the eight known Taita falcon pairs located in the country, over half are either missing one member of the pair or have disappeared entirely.

Experts say the very sparse nature of the Taita’s distribution, it’s very particular habitat requirements and its small aggregate global population, make it vulnerable to a wide variety of factors on a localised basis.

It is against this background that the proposed development of the Batoka Gorge Hydro-Electric Scheme seems to have renewed concerns that such activity is contributing to the disappearance of the Taita from the area.

The project will see the construction of a dam wall which will be shared by two power plants to be situated on either side of the gorge to generate electricity for Zambia and Zimbabwe.

And wildlife experts believe the power project could cause harm to not only the Taita falcon but other raptor species found within the Batoka gorge including the Verreaux’s eagle, Crowned eagle, bat hawks, white-headed vulture and Augur buzzards which are prone to electrocution and collision risks on transmission lines

Zambezi River Authority chief executive officer Engineer Munyaradzi Munodawafa told Zimpapers Syndication that the uncertainty on the future of the Taita falcon was among the sticking points that had delayed the release of an environmental and social impact assessment report for the Batoka project.

“So far, what we have seen is that the area will not be affected much by the hydro-power plants but there is need to be certain that there is no direct impact or else the report cannot be released,” he said.

So what can be done to ensure that whatever population of the Taita still exists in the gorge is protected?

Eng Munodawafa said Zimbabwe and Zambian governments should consider creating protected zones within the gorge to mitigate the effects of human activities on wildlife.

“Going forward, we are doing studies on how to mitigate this problem.

We believe that the Zambian and Zimbabwean governments can help us create protected zones along the lake shore. Once governments have instituted protected zones, we have areas that are left untouched for such wildlife to thrive without the disturbances of the activities along the river.” – Zimpapers Syndication.

April 2017
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