A population of sooty bush-shrikes located in the forests of Central Africa was recently distinguished as a new species named Willard’s Sooty Boubou. However, an investigation has revealed that these birds are most likely already endangered due to pressure from agricultural development.
The birds were discovered in Africa’s Albertine Rift region, which consists of a system of highlands that spread across six countries.
Study lead author Fabio Berzaghi, who is now with the CEA Laboratory for Sciences of Climate and Environment in France, was with the Field Museum at the time of the study.
“The Albertine Rift is a crossroads of amazing biodiversity, dramatic and diverse landscapes, and heartbreaking social and political unrest. It goes from glaciers to volcanoes to plateaus to lakes, with a succession of vegetation types from high-elevation cloud forests to lowland tropical forests,” explained Berzaghi.
“It is home to gorillas and forest elephants as well as a high number of endemic animal and plant species. Unfortunately, much of the region has gone through never-ending conflicts, with very negative consequences for both humans and biodiversity, and conservation involving local populations is paramount.”
The survival of Willard’s Sooty Boubou is dependent on the region’s mid-elevation forests, which have been largely overlooked by conservation efforts.
The research team used museum records and bird survey records to compare the range of the Willard’s Sooty Boubou at approximately 1,200-1,900 meters to the Mountain Sooty Boubou at 1,800-3,800 meters.
The study revealed that there is very little overlap between the ranges of the two species. The experts found that 70 percent of the potential for Willard’s Sooty Boubou lies outside of protected areas and has been converted to agriculture across Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda. The numbers for the Democratic Republic of Congo are only slightly better.
Rauri Bowie is an expert on African birds at the University of California at Berkeley who was not involved in the study.
“This paper provides additional data in support of the recognition of Willard’s Sooty Boubou as a species distinct from Mountain Sooty Boubou,” said Bowie.”Clarification of the niche that Willard’s Sooty Boubou occupies, that of mid-elevation forests, distinct from the higher-elevation Mountain Sooty Boubou, is important, because these habitats are among the most heavily impacted in Africa from agriculture.”
“Conservation agencies have an opportunity to move beyond taxonomic debate and use the models derived from this species to improve conservation outcomes for not only this species, but also a broad set of mid-elevation Albertine Rift endemic vertebrates through protection of mid-elevation forests that have received relatively little protection in comparison to high-elevation montane habitats.”
The study is published in the journal The Condor: Ornithological Applications.
Image Credit: J. Engel