I have been doing my seasonal Co-ordinated Avifaunal Roadcounts (CAR) without fail for the past ten years. To me it gives a good indication as to the “state of the birds” for my local area. But since 2018 the CAR project has been in a state of limbo, when the ADU decided to cut the funding for the project. A project once considered one of the largest in Africa, with over 750 participants covering 19 000km on 350 fixed routes twice a year. Just like that 25 years of collecting data, handing out pamphlets and questionnaires, workshops, presentations and a major 200 page report, was all deemed irrelevant? A recent spate of trip reports from diehard CAR participants and the uplisting of the Secretarybird from vulnerable to endangered, made me think that CAR still has a role to play in conserving our endangered species.
Imagine…. CAR 2! Presented in the Birding Big Day format on Birdlasser, with a leader board displaying team names and a live species count for some of our most endangered birds. Imagine Birdlife SA supporting the project, after all they only encourage us to go out once a year for BBD, a day that is all about chasing the numbers but add little or no analytical value. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy BBD as much as the next guy, but why would you not want to add two more days to the calendar where the data collected can be used to conserve our endangered species. In 2011 the Secretarybird was uplisted from Near-threated to Vulnerable, fast forward ten year to 2021, and it has been uplisted to Endangered (facing a very high risk of extinction) by the IUCN. An alarming update published on 15 December 2020 listing the Secretarybird, Martial Eagle and Bateleur, but it has somehow gone by unreported by local institutions. And it will not stop there, the 2015 Eskom Red Data Book of Birds, list 132 species as threatened, including all of our large terrestrial birds, which is the focus of the CAR project. In 2019 Birdlife SA launched an initiative to monitor the Secretarybird on Birdlasser for a year. For an iconic species in rapid decline, why would you not want a dedicated project consisting of regular counts?
In a recent re-survey in Botswana, roadcounts showed that in just 20 years the counts for the Secretarybird had reduced by 78% (Garbett et al. 2018). We have the same dataset we just need to do the re-surveys (CAR 2). The roadcount might not be perfect but it is better than no count. At the very least awareness will be raised and participants can put more focus on educating the landowners and farm workers. It is estimated that 80% of land in SA is privately owned, it stands to reason that if conservation does not happen on 80% of the land, it cannot succeed in the country as a whole. Recent studies by Birdlife SA included tracking the movements of Secretarybirds using GPS, this indicated that only 4% of tracked points fell within formally protected areas. To me this indicates that we need to change our mindset, our point of view, there has to be more purpose to our birding efforts. We need to shift our focus to the privately owned land, because protected areas alone is not going to stop our endangered species going extinct. In fact we need to change the view of the 80% landowners, on how they manage their land and their interactions with endangered species. It will not be easy, but what other way than sending out an army of citizen scientist to monitor population trends, changes in land use and to help educate?
Bob Dylan asked the question - how many times can a man turn his head, and pretend that he just doesn't see? Doing roadcounts for the past ten years, has made me see the decline in sightings, habitat loss and degredation. And I cannot pretend any longer that by some miracle or by someone else’s doing, that this is going to change in the future. Can we afford letting a project such as CAR with almost 30 year’s worth of data fall to the wayside? I shudder to think what the next ten year is going to bring, what will we tell future generations if the Secretarybird, arguably Africa’s most iconic bird, went extinct on our watch? We as the birding community of South Africa have to collectively stand up and actively do something right now, before it is too late!