Research in the 1960s by CJ Skead (Percy FitzPatrick Institute) and the 1990s by Olaf Wirminghaus (University of Natal) demonstrated a close relationship and apparent dependency of Cape parrots on large Macrocarpus and Podocarpus yellowwoods as feeding and nesting sites. Cape parrots have even been recorded drinking dew drops caught in “wizard’s beard” or “Spanish moss” hanging from ancient, emergent branches that sit in the thick, silent mist. Emergent yellowwood trees are over 250 years old in old growth forests and continue growing for another 800-1,000 years. Their branches are laden with moss and lichen beds that are hundreds of years old and safely shelter generations of sunbirds, flycatchers, robins and much else. Broken branches provide nest cavities for Cape parrots, woodpeckers, barbets and many other cavity-nesters. Over hundreds of generations these ancient bastions of our Afromontane forests become culturally-important feeding and nesting sites for local forest specialists like Cape parrots, producing millions of offspring in its branches and cavities, feeding entire local populations, and providing safety from predators.
“Southern afromontane forests without old, emergent yellowwood trees are like oceans without coral reefs… less alive, less diverse, less colorful…”
Cape parrots evolved over millions of years by using these Afromontane “forest refugia” in the high mountain mistbelts of southern Africa to survive climatic oscillations from wet into dry cycles (e.g. Ice Ages), specializing their diet to focus on the highly-nutritious and historically super-abundant yellowwood fruits. Thousands upon thousands of Cape parrots used to frequent these ancient forests, busying themselves like honeybees, moving from tree to tree, dispersing thousands of yellowwood fruits to the ground to kickstart the next generation of forest giants. The fate of these charismatic parrots was linked to these grand forests forever or was it? Cape parrots are considered one of the most intelligent parrots in captivity and seem to be making a plan to accommodate the drastic changes that have occurred to their available habitat over the last 150 – 300 years. Our mission was to determine whether they need our help to sustainably persist in the Amathole region?
After three years of study it became clear that the approximately 400 Cape parrots resident in the Amathole region (representing up to 40% of the global population) had all but given up on the remaining Afromontane forest patches available to them. There are two possible reasons… Cape parrots have chosen to focus on the newly available, super-abundant exotic food resources, which were planted out by farmers over the last 100-150 years. Another reason is that Cape parrots have been forced to seek new food resources due to the historical and ongoing degradation of the remaining indigenous forest patches. When we find yellowwood trees covered in fruits we collect as many as possible from the ground and play recordings of large flocks feeding in a pecan orchard to attract Cape parrots to feed in these trees and disperse more fruit to the ground… We have successfully “called in” two pairs of Cape parrots to feed on yellowwood fruits. These pairs returned for three days each time and then never came back to the feeding site. Both times the parrots fed enthusiastically on the fruits, vocalizing excitedly, and jungle-gyming around the branches. They were clearly happy. The fact is they flew over these tree every day on their way to high altitude roost sites and never looked down to see the abundant yellowwood fruits in that single tree. Cape parrots seem to have given up on a food resource that once accounted for most of their dietary-intake…?!
Introducing the iziKhwenene Project…
In 2011, we launched the iziKhwenene Project in the Amathole Mountains of South Africa with funding from the Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust, Conservation International’s Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund, the National Geographic Conservation Trust, and numerous charitable donors. Media support was provided by Africa Geographic and bigFIG Digital Media. Our main goals were to plant our first 25,000 indigenous trees and erect 600 artificial nest boxes in partnership with local villages to stimulate positive change for the Endangered Cape parrot and other Afromontane specialists (e.g. Hogsback frog). We are proud to be working alongside regional collaborators like BirdLife South Africa, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the Border Rural Committee, BirdLife Border, the University of Fort Hare, and the Hogsback Inn. The Cape Parrot Project is a long-term research project that informs all conservation actions (e.g. tree-planting) with prescriptions and protocols derived from high-quality empirical research. We are committed to achieving significant population growth and range expansion by South Africa’s national parrot, and hope to reintroduce Cape parrots to forests where they appear to have gone locally extinct. Please join the Cape Parrot Project group on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/capeparrotproject/
Also see our previous National Geographic News Watch blog on the Cape Parrot Project for background: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2011/12/16/upholi-want-a-forest-rescuing-africas-most-endangered-parrot-from-extinction/
Ongoing research and conservation work…
Our research indicates that the destruction of South Africa’s yellowwood forests was so catastrophic, so immediate, that the Cape parrots that associate with these same forests today behave more like an introduced species, investigating new food items that they have not encountered as a species before and struggling to find a new, sustainable way of life in a significantly different landscape. Cherries from Mexico, plums from Japan, Jacaranda pods from South America, pecan nuts from North America, syringa fruits from India, pine seeds from Europe, and Eucalyptus flowers from Australia now account for the majority of their annual diet. All four remaining disjunct populations are dangerously small and isolated, have high Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD) virus infection rates, are still in conflict with humans as a crop pest (mainly in pecan orchards), and survive for months on exotic, potentially harmful food resources (e.g. Melia azerdarach fruits). We have proposed a “Population and Habitat Viability Assessment” for Cape parrots to compliment our recent review of their Red List Assessment with BirdLife South Africa. This species, however, needs more than meetings and assessments. Cape parrots need urgent community-based conservation action to ensure the remaining populations persist into the future. We are thus putting together a “Parrot Action Plan for Africa” and ask bird experts, guides and conservationists that work in Africa to contact us at: email@example.com to get a copy of the questionnaire.
Relationships between the forests, the people, and the parrots… Past and Present.
The Cape parrot or “isiKhwenene” is affectionately known as “uPholi” in local villages along the Amathole Mountains. These villages are frequented by Cape parrots each summer, entrenching these charismatic parrot in local folklore. Before the European settlers arrived on the “frontier” of the colony in the 1850s, these grand Afromontane forests had already been receding for over 40,000 years due to gradual climate change in the Amathole region. Before the Xhosa people arrived in the the Amatholes in the mid-1700s, the San people walked the wildlife paths in these forests, hunted the abundant wildlife, interacted with locals like elephants, lion, leopard and hippo, sheltered in the caves hidden in the lush evergreen, and marveled at the majesty of these ancient cathedral forests. Like the forests, they had been here forever and could not imagine this place any other way. Over thousands of years, these quiet, unassuming hunter-gatherers had witnessed these tall, evergreen hardwood forests slowly retreat into wet, misty mountain refugia like the Drakensberg, Soutpansberg and Amathole mountain ranges. These “forest refugia” were and are some of the oldest forests in southern Africa, home to numerous endemic species and the gigantic 1,000 year old yellowwoods that seeded the rivers and forested the valleys below. These were the “Forest Monarchs”, of which only three out of thousands remain today. We must KNOW that this forest wonderland will only ever exist again in our imaginations, we have all but lost this wilderness, these primordial forests, and the deep sense of awe that overcomes visitors to a place greater than themselves. In 10 to 15 years from now, we would have done this to the whole planet. We will be in charge and in control. Alone in a world without wilderness, without places that will take our breath away and inspire us to live better lives.
The ravages of the “Apartheid Era” and South Africa’s checkered history of exploiting or neglecting rural black communities left the local Xhosa villages in the Amathole region in a similar state of disrepair and ruin with no employment opportunities and forgotten promises from government to one of the poorest, remotest areas in South Africa. Democracy in the region is dysfunctional with voting decided by the tribal leadership’s endorsement of candidates and parties. The villages in the valleys below the Amathole Mountains are almost entirely dependent on the old migrant labour system established by the nationalist government during Apartheid. Their survival is dependent on cash coming in from relatives working in cities and towns far away. HIV/AIDS is spreading and alcoholism enslaving more young men everyday. We, the Percy FitzPatrick Institute and Wild Bird Trust, thus decided to work in partnership with local villages to stimulate positive change for local communities by providing employment and investing them in the future of the forests they effectively own and manage as communal land. Cape parrots are the perfect ambassador for these threatened African forests. All who live near Afromontane forest patches with Cape parrots agree that the day Cape parrots are no longer heard flying over each afternoon to their roosts would herald the beginning of the end. The end for us and for these forests. The beginning of a new age that is less beautiful, less diverse, less alive…
“We need to do everything we can to help the remaining Cape parrots without feeding them directly or making them dependent on us in any way. For long-term sustainability we need the buy-in of local communities, people that have known these parrots for generations and will miss them the most, even though they are too shy to admit it.”
Have we lost the magic forever?
JRR Tolkien’s son, Christopher, was stationed in a British barracks in the Amathole mountains and wrote to his father about these amazing forests in his letters to his family. The thousands of fireflies he saw became fairies, the strange foresters and settlers became “hobbits”, the ancient, tangled Hogsback forest became “Mirkwood”, and the powerful tornados that swept down the valleys and rivers became dragons. Local Xhosa people still speak of winged serpents that descend in the tornados to rip apart homes and steal people. Today, you will find impressive forests and a wonderful holiday destinations, but the awesome power of living, breathing wilderness is gone. We have killed the last buffalo, lion, leopard, elephant, warthog and forest hog. We have chopped down most of the irreplaceable trees to make way for development, plantation forestry, and smallholdings. We have introduced hundreds of exotic plants for their fruit, their colorful flowers or their useful timber. Windbreaks made from Australian Acacia species have spread like wild fire and clogged the water catchments, streams and rivers. The only paths that we can use in the forests are man-made trails, when in the past there would have been an established network of elephant paths and animal trails. We will never get this back, but we can work towards a more sustainable and diverse future in what remains of these forests.
Over millions of years Podocarpus and Macrocarpus yellowwood trees established themselves as the backbone of the Afromontane mist belt forest patches that found refuge in the wet, south-facing valleys of suitable mountain ranges in sub-Saharan Africa. The few remaining patches of intact yellowwood forests share a window into a recent past when these forests had a high canopy over 40m and massive emergent yellowwood trees climbing out of the canopy up to 60m. These ancient trees become important beacons above the high canopy, providing access to morning sun, a vantage point from which to see predators, and a cultural meeting place for forest species. Over thousands of years, female yellowwood trees that produce fruit aggregate into concentrated groves of smaller trees with much larger male trees interspersed between these female groves. For millions upon millions of years these massive trees had no threats until European settlers came with bow saws and heavy axes. This new technology was to change the relationship of the local Xhosa people and these tall forests they had been hunting in since the mid-1700s when they arrived. Within 100 years, commercial contractors, local Xhosa pit-sawyers, and government foresters removed almost all the large hardwoods from these forests to produce mining timber and railway sleepers for industrialization. Millions of trees were clear-felled with reckless abandon, leaving a wasteland vulnerable to the fires that seasonally move up from the dry, grassy valleys below. We have so much to put right and the iziKhwenene Project is the first step in long journey that we should ALL take very seriously.
Conservation action in the iziKhwenene Project
By December 2012, the iziKhwenene Project aims to have planted 18,000 indigenous trees in and around degraded Afromontane forest patches along the Amathole Mountains. We have already planted out 10,000th tree and have launched our first bi-annual tree audit, whereby we undertake to monitor the survival of the first 25,000 indigenous trees that we plant. We need to learn how to grow and plant indigenous trees with under-privileged local villages, ensuring that benefits are distributed as widely as possible and local community members are established as the active custodians of these forests. We are currently looking for corporate sponsors to support our Forest Custodians Program that invests local villages in the restoration of nearby Afromontane forest patches. We do this by establishing a fenced-off indigenous tree orchard on communally-owned land with up to 1,000 indigenous trees like yellowwoods, wild olives, wild plums, white stinkwood, and wild peach. We then appoint an orchard manager with the village council and undertake to pay the village $1-2 per tree that survives every 6 months for the first five years. These indigenous tree orchards are situated on the edge of degraded Afromontane forests patches to act as a buffer between fires and livestock originating from nearby villages and these forest patches, thus allowing them to recover. We are also establishing new feeding sites for Cape parrots in these valleys, where most of these trees were clear-felled. Once we have established a strong partnership with a village we are able to invest in the Community Nursery Project that sees the establishment of up to 10 micro-nurseries in each partnered village. We build these micro-nurseries from shade cloth and stakes from exotic trees, and then stock them with 100 indigenous seedlings that we have grown. If successful after 6-9 months, we double-up the number of seedlings in the nursery and continue doing so until a small business is established. Unsuccessful micro-nurseries are pulled down and building materials used to expand successful nurseries. We supply watering cans, growth medium, potting bags and fertilizer. We have now established 25 micro-nurseries and aim to have 100 up-and-running by the end of 2013, thus enabling us to plant 10,000-50,000 trees every year with local communities. The lessons we learn in our bi-annual audits of the first 25,000 indigenous trees that we plant will inform these future plants. Who knows how far we can take this? Carbon offset markets are an option, while large corporates and government must invest in sustainable resource management, protecting our natural heritage, and uplifting under-privileged rural communities.
Our Project Horticulturalist, Nic Armstrong, and Community Manager, Wongama Copisa, are in the villages most of the time, having meetings and visiting micro-nurseries and indigenous tree orchards. Over the last 12 months we have provided employed to over 50 local community members, restricting this to one person per household to spread benefit. We have planting teams, seed-collecting teams, brush-clearing teams, nursery managers, and orchard managers. Our t-shirts and posters are now visible in the communities and “uPholi” or “isiKhwenene” have an elevated status in these villages. Meet some of the villagers from Sompondo Village that are involved in the iziKhwenene Project… We are good for the journey and look forward to expanding this vision to other degraded Afromontane forests in Africa.
Setting up international funding mechanisms to support rural communities in the restoration of degraded forest habitat around the world has become essential. There are many success stories around the world, but none in the Amathole Mountains where local communities that have heritage rights to these forests and should be given the tools to manage these carbon sinks and havens for biodiversity. Everything we do in the iziKhwenene Project is geared at nurturing the idea in local communities that one of the things that makes them stand out, that makes them special, is the forests their ancestors walked in and hunted with respect and innate sustainability.
Please go to this informative article in Africa Birds & Birding magazine: http://www.fitzpatrick.uct.ac.za/africa_birds/ABB16(4)66-67.pdf
Please also have a look at this comprehensive interview with SafariTalk:
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