Avian Demography Unit
Department of Statistical Sciences
University of Cape Town
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Doug Harebottle Doug Harebottle
African Waterbird Ringing Coordinator


Waterbirds are probably the most conspicuous animals at wetlands and, by definition, depend on water or waterlogged areas for their survival, using these areas to feed, breed and/or roost in. Some, however, are able to adapt to non-aquatic habitats (e.g. Egyptian Goose feeding in agricultural lands) while others are totally dependent on wetlands (e.g. ducks, crakes, rails, snipes and terns).

In South Africa, numerous wetlands support large numbers of waterbirds, many providing ideal non-breeding grounds for migratory Palearctic waders, while others provide breeding opportunities for many resident species. Designation of 15 of the 16 Ramsar sites, or wetlands of international importance, have been based on, inter alia, the abundance and conservation status of waterbirds occurring at the sites. But how exactly do waterbirds use wetlands in South Africa, and how well are our wetlands – especially the Ramsar sites – conserving the 130 species that inhabit them? These two questions form the basic framework for my PhD.

In order to provide answers to these questions I will be using data gathered from three ADU datasets: CWAC (Coordinated Waterbird Counts), SABAP (Southern African Bird Atlas Project) and SAFRING (SA Bird Ringing Unit). Most of the quantitative infor-mation will be drawn from CWAC, the other two projects providing supplementary infor-mation. The primary aims of my study are:

  1. to review the theory and application of a coordinated waterbird monitoring programme in South Africa, and
  2. to investigate the programme's relevance and importance to waterbird conservation and wetland management in South Africa.

Key subsidiary questions and objectives are:

  • How are waterbird species distributed throughout South Africa, and in what numbers do they occur?
  • Are patterns of species abundance and seasonality similar in different parts of the country?
  • Is there evidence of long-term trends in the abundance of particular species of waterbirds?
  • Do population indices compare favourably with those obtained for the same species elsewhere in Africa and/or similar species in Europe or Asia?
  • What are the current threats to waterbird populations and wetlands, and how can these be mitigated?
  • Can specific sites be identified as being of special conservation significance for the conservation of waterbirds?
  • Do waterbirds respond to environmental conditions (e.g. water quality and water fluctuations) and does this have management implications?
  • Is there the potential for the data to monitor long-term environmental change resulting from land-use changes and/or climatic change?
  • Can a change in an index of abundance suggest a crisis in the environment which requires further investigation?
  • How does the data compare with the distributional and relative abundance information collected for the Southern African Bird Atlas Project?

Based on the information obtained from these analyses, I will then focus on formulating an Integrated Population Monitoring (IPM) programme for waterbirds in South Africa, with special emphasis on ducks and geese (Anatidae). This will entail defining a strategy to maintain and expand waterbird research in South Africa to ensure that populations are effectively conserved and managed. Such a strategy would involve related disciplines (e.g. ringing, hunting and wetland research), and would focus on the need to look at processes that affect changes in populations and distributions (e.g. productivity, mortality, immigration and emigration). Only through long-term monitoring of these processes will it be possible to identify the factors responsible for population changes, and to predict the effects of other factors (e.g. climate change, habitat loss, etc.) on populations.

A national waterbird IPM programme would make a valuable contribution to South Africa fulfilling its obligations to international conventions such as The Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar Convention) and the Convention for the Conservation of Migratory Species (Bonn Convention), the latter including the African–Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA).

I hope that, through my research, awareness of the importance and significance of waterbirds and wetlands will be raised, and that it will contribute significantly to national and international waterbird programmes.

Acknowledgements:
Aspects of this research are supported by the National Research Foundation and the Earthwatch Institute.

From Bird Numbers 10 (2) December 2001:33


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