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Stronghold for Africa’s rarest falcon discovered in reserve threatened by Mozambique insurgency

  • A team of biologists has discovered a new nesting stronghold for Africa’s rarest falcon in northern Mozambique.
  • Multiple active breeding sites of the Taita falcon were found in a survey of granite domes, or inselbergs, in Niassa Special Reserve.
  • The survey findings may shift scientific understanding of the typical habitat of the Taita falcon, with an estimated population of no more than 1,000 scattered across East and Southern Africa.
  • The Niassa reserve is threatened by poaching and illegal mining, as well as a new threat from an armed insurgency centered in nearby Cabo Delgado province.

A team of biologists has discovered a nesting stronghold for Africa’s rarest falcon in the granite domes that tower over Mozambique’s Niassa Special Reserve. The team surveyed more than 30 of these granite domes, or inselbergs, and spotted Taita falcon (Falco fasciinucha) nests at nearly half of them. Young falcons were found at half those breeding sites, meaning the parents had successfully raised chicks.

Niassa is one of the largest protected areas in Africa. Its 4.2 million hectares (10.4 million acres) include large areas of the open dryland forest known as miombo as well as patches of evergreen montane forest on the inselbergs. There are charismatic mammals including elephants, lions and wild dogs, as well as some 60,000 people in 40-odd villages within the reserve.

Taita falcons are small, stocky birds of prey, which dive from their clifftop perches in pursuit of smaller birds. Biologists estimate there are between 500 and 1,000 mature birds across the whole of their range, which stretches patchily from Ethiopia to South Africa.

To survey the inselbergs, Christiaan Brink, raptor and large terrestrial bird project manager for the conservation group BirdLife South Africa, and his colleagues rose each day before dawn to take a helicopter ride from their base camp at the headquarters of the Niassa reserve at Mbatamila to a chosen site.

Once they landed, the team would train spotting scopes and binoculars on cliff faces while doing their best to ignore the attentions of mopane flies, a small gnat-like species that seeks moisture from the eyes, and swat the odd tsetse fly, the insect that carries sleeping sickness.

Inselberg landscape in Niassa, Mozambique. Image courtesy of Christiaan Brink

“Once we had identified Taitas and their breeding status or determined that the cliff was inhabited by another falcon species, we would shift to the next inselberg,” Brink said.

“The most experienced members of the team were hoping that we would discover 10 new sites,” he told Mongabay. “We managed to exceed their expectations.”

The discovery of so many nesting Taita falcons is good news. Two previously identified Southern African strongholds have been hit by worrying declines.

Eight pairs of Taitas once nested in the wind holes and crevices of the Batoka Gorge below Victoria Falls, between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Recent surveys have turned up none.

In South Africa’s Blyde River Canyon, only four out of 11 Taita falcon territories are now active, and only one of them was recorded as having produced chicks during the last survey.

“Our [Niassa] survey has led us to rethink what we consider typical Taita falcon habitat,” Brink said, adding that “the inselberg-covered woodland of Niassa may be better habitat than the river gorge systems we previously thought to be typical.”

Similar landscapes to Niassa’s stretch across northern Mozambique and up into Tanzania, with multiple inselberg complexes creating the potential for further breeding sites in the region, he added.

“As these are tiny falcons with small territories around the high cliffs on which they breed, they may be easily overlooked if not specifically searched for.”

Although the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species doesn’t currently include northern Mozambique as part of the birds’ range, Niassa was for a long time suspected to harbor a significant population of Taita falcons. A few nesting sites had been recorded incidentally in places close to human activity, including the reserve headquarters at Mbatamila. The reserve’s remoteness and lack of a road network, however, had prevented researchers from conducting a more detailed survey until now. The survey was supported by a grant from the Peregrine Fund, with logistical support from the Wildlife Conservation Society Mozambique and the Niassa Carnivore Programme (NCP).

Taita falcons are small, stocky birds of prey, which dive from their clifftop perches in pursuit of smaller birds. Images courtesy of David Allan (left) and Ron Hartley (right).

But the birds’ long-term future in Niassa may not be secure.

Colleen Begg, director of the Niassa Carnivore Project, a conservation group, said Niassa is a vulnerable protected area, threatened by poaching, the bushmeat trade, and illegal gold mining.

An armed insurgency centered in neighboring Cabo Delgado province has added a dangerous new threat. In November, at the same time as Brink and his team were carrying out their survey, insurgents attacked villages inside the reserve.

Many of the organizations working to protect the reserve withdrew non-essential staff for two months. The NCP team is back at work, said Begg, but its ecotourism camp, the Mpopo Trails Camp, remains shut until they feel it is safe for visitors to return. The closure of the camp has deprived Mbamba village, an NCP partner, of much-needed income.

The attacks in November have raised fresh concerns for the future of the reserve, and the tourism dollars that it so desperately needs. Tourism was already hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and only partially recovered in 2021.

The reserve is home to much more besides the falcons, said Begg, who was not part of the survey team.

“Every time biodiversity surveys are done, from reptiles and amphibians, to plants to spiders and more, new species are found and important populations identified,” she said.

“The Taitas are a beautiful gift,” she added, “a symbol of the unknown in Niassa, and the need to protect this landscape.”

Surveying Niassa’s inselbergs: biologists estimate there are at most 1,000 mature Taita falcons across the whole of their range, which stretches patchily from Ethiopia to South Africa. Image courtesy of Christiaan Brink.

Banner image: A Taita falcon. Image courtesy of Alan Kemp.

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