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Sad Saga of South Africa’s Flufftail

From Leon Marshall in Johannesburg

It is a relatively small bird, no bigger than a dove, and extraordinarily shy. It is merely a summer visitor to South Africa, but even so the white-winged flufftail carries enormous weight.

It has come to be known by the country’s conservation fraternity as “the little bird that stopped a multi-billion rand project” (rand being the South African currency). It is also at the centre of a remarkable trans-Africa conservation project whereby local environmentalists have teamed up with Ethiopian villagers to protect the wetlands where it goes to breed in the Northern Hemisphere summer.

It is pretty, with white wing patches, from which it takes its name, and greyish and lighter and darker chestnut colorings over most of the rest of its body. It is so secretive that even its muffled “woop-woop-woop”call is seldom heard by birders.

It is a mega-tick on a lifers’ list, as birdwatchers call their marking-off of species they have positively identified for the first time.

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This rare picture of a captured white-winged flufftail was taken by Warwick Tarboton, a trustee of the Middelpunt Wetland Trust.

I got to see for myself just what a novelty it is when I recently joined a crowd that went looking for it in an extensive wetland system called the Lakenvlei (which translates to Sheet Moor) that meanders through rolling hills in the high inland regions about 140 miles (225 kilometres) north-east of Johannesburg.

It was sighted there the week before in a reserved area called Middelpunt (Middle Point), which a trust by the same name leases from the local farmer to protect the bird’s habitat. The trust was set up in 1994 when the bird was seen there for the first time.

The birdwatchers paid a considerable sum for the off-chance of spotting it. They trooped for a long distance through thick grass and mud in the hot mid-morning sun, following a line of flushers armed with sticks who struggled through the waist-high foliage along the banks of the stream. They had two water spaniels assisting them whose heads every now and then bobbed up comically as they tried to get a fix on where they were.

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A flusher and his dogs prepare for the search for the white-winged flufftail.

Photo by Leon Marshall

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Flushers wade through the Middelpunt marshes as spectators wait for the white-winged flufftail to show itself.

Photo by Leon Marshall

The flushers were about to give up when the bird flew up from under the feet of one of them. It took but a few quick seconds before it dived for cover, but its white wing patches were clearly visible. A wild cheer followed by lengthy applause resounded across the marshland.

There were expert birders in the crowd with lifers’ lists of well over 800 southern African birds to their name, but none of them had seen the white-winged flufftail before. It was truly a day every one present would remember.

Sadly, it is not only the bird’s beauty and secretiveness that lend it its appeal. A major reason is its critically endangered state. It is from this, too, that it derives its remarkable clout.

It got known as “the bird that stopped a multi-billion rand project” when ten years ago it brought to a halt a pumped-storage scheme which South Africa’s electricity supply commission, Eskom, constructed on the eastern seaboard Drakensberg escarpment at a site named Ingula.

The project was intended to act as a giant nature-based battery for storing and releasing electricity. With one dam on top of the mountain and another below, the downward flow of water between them would drive four huge turbines that would feed power into the national grid at peak consumption times, while spare electricity would be used at low-usage times to pump water from the bottom dam back up into the top one, for the process to be repeated.

But because of conservationists’ concern for the bird, the national department of environmental affairs ordered the power utility to redraft its proposal, this time in close consultation with the environmentalists. The result was an agreement whereby Eskom bought an extra 19,768 acres (8,000 hectares) of land to be conserved as a protected area to compensate for the part of the wetland that would be taken up by its construction.

Eskom moreover appointed a conservation manager, an enthusiast named Peter Nelson, to take a leading role in rehabilitating the badly eroded habitat and getting conservationists and local communities to join in broader conservation initiatives.

It is similarly because of the bird’s fragile state that it is at the centre of the co-operation project between members of the Middelpunt Wetlands Trust in South Africa and the villagers who live in the catchment area of the Berga River on the central plateau of mountainous Ethiopia.

The valley along which they carry on their subsistence farming is ideal breeding ground for the bird, but it has been increasingly damaged by livestock and seasonal burning.

The agreement is simple: the villagers look after the wetlands by not cutting or burning the grass seasonally, by keeping their livestock out of the wetlands during the July-August breeding season, and by not disturbing the bird or destroying its nests; in return the Middelpunt Wetland Trust, in conjunction with the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (EWNHS), BirdLife International’s Ethiopian partner, helps with education such as by funding their school facilities.

Thus, a school got built with help from the trust for pre-primary children unable to walk the considerable distance to the nearest facility. And thus, the villagers showed their appreciation by naming their school after the white-winged flufftail and stepping up their efforts to protect the wetland by setting up a site-support group that patrols it during the breeding season.

It is with money collected from birder outings such as the recent one at Middelpunt that the trust has been able to fund the education program. The new funds, with hopefully more to come from donations, will go into extra desks and into materials for a few more classrooms the villagers want to build.

For all this, and for all his joy at the birding crowd getting their money’s worth at the Middelpunt outing, Malcolm Drummond, chairman of the Middelpunt Wetlands Trust, remains deeply worried about the bird’s future.

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Malcolm Drummond (left) and Deon Coetzee, two leading birders who founded the Middelpunt Wetland Trust to look after the white-winged flufftail.

Photo by Leon Marshall

Ethiopia’s population explosion and consequent livestock increases are turning more and more wetlands into dry and overgrazed veld which he says look like billiard tables instead of the moist grasslands that should be the bird’s breeding terrain. The converts among the local communities will need all the support they can get to keep up their protection of the bird’s remaining breeding grounds.

Back in South Africa, the situation is hardly better. For all its ecological worth, and its beauty and serenity, the Lakenvlei is one of the country’s most threatened biospheres. Its map is pockmarked with mining applications for everything from coal to diamonds.

The applications are being fought by the Middelpunt Wetland Trust, BirdLife South Africa (a partner of BirdLife International) and other environmental organizations.

But even as the Middelpunt birding crowd were celebrating their remarkable sighting, Drummond drew their attention to a red mound protruding from the crest of the hill behind them. It was the product of diamond prospecting by a company named Richmond Mining and Exploration.

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The mine dump on the horizon that is threatening the white-winged flufftail’s summer retreat in South Africa’s Middelpunt wetland.

Photo by Leon Marshall

The environmentalists fear that water contamination by mining could harm the wetland and its underlying layer of peat that is said to be five meters thick and 11,000 years old, and is still growing. They say there is something about peat and its biological processes that seem to make such marshlands particularly attractive to the white-winged flufftail.

A director of the mining company, Martiens van der Merwe, says they understand concerns in the light of what is happening with regard to unlawful coal mines and acid mine drainage.

He was referring to large-scale mining that has been damaging water systems in the northern regions of the country. The acidic drainage results from the chemical process that happens when water comes into contact with the broken rock. The damage happens when the mine tunnels and shafts fill with ground and rain water and the untreated effluent decants into streams and rivers.

The national government has just voted a considerable sum to pump out and treat such acidic water that is rising up the mesh of old gold-mine tunnels and shafts under Johannesburg.

In many cases the problem is aggravated by mining taking place without the required water licences and without adhering to the environmental protections prescribed by law. The result is that nothing is done to contain and treat water flowing from the mines.

Van der Merwe says he also agrees that the white-winged flufftail is “an enigma” and that nobody should endanger its habitat. But he insists that the type of mining envisaged will not produce acid mine drainage and will have no detrimental impact on the environment.

The environmentalists dispute this. Drummond says even if the mine owners are correct (about not endangering the wetland), which he doubts, the question remains whether mining of whatever sort should be allowed in an ecologically sensitive and important area like the Lakenvlei.

Another of the bird’s precious few habitats that is under threat is situated a few hundred miles away in the south-east of the country in a Drakensberg escarpment region known as East Griqualand. It is a 12,355-acre (5,000 hectare) wetland that is designated as an Important Bird Area. But Drummond says the death knell has already rung for it through illegal dam-building, uncontrolled extraction of water for irrigation, boreholes, irresponsible burning regimes, the uncontrolled spread of invasive plants and excessive forestation.

Furthermore, raw sewage is being discharged into the wetland, and a sawmill has persistently ignored provincial directives to remove an illegal sawdust dump that is leaching toxins into it.

All of this has combined to reduce one of the finest wetlands in KwaZulu-Natal to a mere shadow of its former glory, says Drummond. “It is no longer home to its previous plethora of wetland bird species, whether rare or common.”

The most depressing part, he says, is that every single one of the destructive factors is supposed to be subject to provincial and national government regulation. “The time has come for provincial departments to stand in the dock with individual and corporate transgressors to answer for their shameful dereliction of responsibility.”

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Nat Geo News Watch contributing editor Leon Marshall is an environmental writer in South Africa. A leading political journalist and executive editor for Africa’s largest newspaper group for years, he has won numerous awards, including a 2004 Reuters-IUCN Media Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Leon has covered climate change from a global and African perspective, having attended conferences on the issue in many parts of the world. He has written extensively on the ambitious transfrontier-parks program of the sub-continent and is now writing a book on the subject.

Leon Marshall’s blog posts >>

Comments

  1. Judy stuart
    Currys Post
    September 6, 6:53 am

    We seem to have a female Flufftail resident in our garden. She has been seen at least four times in the past month. She is dark in colour and we have not been able to distinguish which variety she is. We have not seen her in flight.

    It is important to conserve all of these species as each has a role to play in the environment.

  2. Erica Landry
    Vogelvlei, Franklin
    November 4, 2012, 3:12 am

    Thank you for this comprehensive article of the White Wing Fluff Tail. I live on the farm Vogelvlei, on the upper section of the Franklin Vlei. I believe that the White Wing Fluff Tail was first discovered on our farm, years after it was thought that it was extinct. Since then, it hasn’t been sighted on our farm again.
    However, after looking at the photo, I suspect that it is still here. I can’t be absolutely sure, but I thought I saw a bird very similar to that round about end Jan 2012, beginning Feb 2012 during one of my walks near our vlei. I’m not a ‘birder’ so I’m not trained to look for the finer details that is required to accurately identify birds, so, I could be mistaken.
    Another encouraging visitor on our farm spotted recently are a breeding pair of Secretary birds, also spotted near our vlei, as well as the blue swallow! I love seeing all the bird species making use of our vlei.

  3. Martiens vd Merwe
    Middelpunt
    May 24, 2011, 7:48 am

    I thank the writer of the article for addressing my comments from Richmond’s side correctly, it normally gets distorted. A point I want to raise is in this artcle it is mentioned that the villagers look after the wetlands by not cutting or burning the grass seasonally in Natal, however at Middlepunt the Middelpunt Wetland Trust and/or the adjacent land owner that is involved with the Trust pays alocal farmer to burn this specific wetland annually. I approached them to make fire burns on our side to protect the wetland but they assured me that they burn it annually, why the differance between the 2 habitats.