South Africa hosting AEWA white-winged flufftail species-specific meeting at Dullstroom, Mpumalanga

05 November 2019

The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) is chairing the 3rd meeting of the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) Single Species Working Group in the Verlorenkloof Estate outside Dullstroom in the Mpumalanga Province from 5 to 7 November 2019.

The meeting focuses on the protection of the critically endangered white-winged flufftail and other associated habitat matters. The protection of specific species is itself a combined effort of protecting habitats and managing detrimental activities to priority ecosystems. 

The meeting is being attended by representatives from the AEWA Secretariat, Ethiopia, the Department, Birdlife South Africa, researchers from the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa and representatives from academic institutions, private landowners and private sector.

AEWA published an International Single Species Action Plan (ISSAP) for the conservation of the white-winged flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi) – one of nine flufftail species found in Africa in December 2008.  This species, possibly the rarest of the flufftail species, is only known to occur in the highland marshes near Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and almost 4 000 km to the high altitude wetlands in the eastern parts of South Africa. These are specific areas in the Mpumalanga, Free State and Kwa-Zulu Natal Provinces. The White-winged Flufftail is listed on the Appendix 1 of the Convention of Migratory Species (CMS) and the AEWA, representing the highest level that necessitates protection. The listing on Appendix 1 means that the species is in danger of extinction throughout all, or a significant portion, of its range. Range States, like South Africa are therefore obliged or encouraged to do as much as possible to protect the species, and their habitats.

Research indicates that there are less than 250 adult white-winged flufftail in the wild and that the South African population is estimated at approximately 50 birds. The species is believed to be undergoing a continuous decline.

The preferred high altitude wetland habitat in South Africa which is mostly limited to Mpumalanga, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal Provinces, is threatened among others by habitat degradation and destruction, including pollution from industrial and mining effluents, domestic and commercial sewage, agricultural runoff and litter. The three Ethiopian wetlands where the birds are known to occur and breed are recorded to be threatened by overgrazing and grass-cutting.

Only 17% of all suitable habitats for white-winged flufftail in South Africa are protected. Among these are the following Nature Reserves (NR) and Stewardship sites in the form of Protected Environment (PE) namely, Ingula NR, Ntsikeni, Verloren Vallei and Seekoeivlei Nature Reserves which are also Ramsar sites, Sneeuwberg, Lakenvlei Protected Areas including Middelpunt Wetland in the Dullstroom area.   

South Africa will be showcasing relevant research conducted by our partners in the National Zoological Gardens of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and Birdlife South Africa on amongst others the genetic research and monitoring tools using camera traps, which has led to the first recordings of the breeding in South Africa

The meeting will also review and develop new plans going forward and resolving some of the challenges in conserving beneficial for the White-winged Flufftail and other species facing similar challenges. South Africa has a moral, legal and constitutional obligation to ensure conservation while promoting ecological sustainable development.

In September the Minister of DEEF released the National Biodiversity Assessment 2018, which underscored the importance of maintaining healthy ecosystems as these form important habitats for many of our threatened species. According to this Assessment, wetlands, a critical habitat for the White-Winged Flufftail remains one of our most threatened and least protected ecosystems. This is even more significant if one considers the important role of wetlands as ecological infrastructure for water security, food security, tourism and recreation as well as natural disaster risk in addition to being havens for many endemic species. Protecting species such as this one is equally an effort to protect wetlands thus securing key benefits including conservation of the White Whined Fluff tail. The role of avitourism (bird watching tourism) is significant in the tourism drive of South Africa.

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