A dedicated aerial survey of the flooded swamp wetland habitat of the Akagera National Park aims to assess for the first time the status, distribution and population size of this threatened large bird species in Rwanda.
Researcher: Derek McPherson
The shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) is an iconic species, both in terms of its status as a lifer for birders, and more importantly, as a bellwether species for the health of the wetland habitats it survives on. These habitats are becoming fragmented and threatened by human exploitation and encroachment, meaning that protected swamps (such as in Akagera National Park in Rwanda) are increasingly important for the survival of this species.
The shoebill is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, but its conservation status may be even more tenuous than this as the species is heavily dependent on the Sudd in Southern Sudan – some 80% of the population of 5 000–8 000 individuals – with many other smaller populations in decline due to habitat loss in countries like Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.
The only suitable protected habitat in Rwanda is within Akagera National Park where the numbers are unknown; establishing the numbers of shoebill living there will add weight to the arguments in favour of protecting the entire Akagera River basin.
To determine and map the population of shoebill (believed to be around fifty birds) within Akagera National Park. At the same time, to count and map populations of other species such as hippo, crocodile and sitatunga, and to assess the threat from human activities as evidenced by boats, fish-drying racks etc.
Detailed objectives include:
- Understanding dry-season distribution of shoebill in middle Akagera wetlands
- Understanding dry-season habitat preference of shoebill in middle Akagera wetlands
- Assessing the minimum population of the shoebill in Rwanda
- Determining the viability (or otherwise) of Rwanda’s shoebill population
- Understanding potential future conservation actions for shoebills in Rwanda
- Identifying possible human threats to both shoebills and sitatunga in the middle Akagera wetlands
A fine-scale aerial survey of previously-identified potential habitat (marshland with Akagera), conducted by helicopter. Shoebill bird and nest sightings will be recorded and overlaid on a large-scale habitat map of the area. A detailed report will be prepared by an independent consultant with the information shared with both the park management authority, as well as relevant parties within Rwanda and further afield.
This project sought to conduct a dedicated aerial survey of the flooded swamp wetland habitat of the Akagera National Park to assess for the first time the status, distribution and population size of this species within the only protected habitat in the country. A fine-scale survey of this marshland habitat was conducted during August 2017. The results from the survey included a minimum count of 55 sitatunga, as well as more than 20 active poacher camps and 77 associated small boats of various descriptions. Shoebills, as is the case with sitatunga, are difficult to detect from the air and such surveys typically result in significant undercounts. Nonetheless, the results of this survey were disappointing with only three birds recorded. Distribution and habitat preference were as anticipated.