By Mark Nicholson
Taita apalis Photo: Pete Steward
“θάλαττα, θάλαττα!!“(Thalassa, Thalassa!), cried my driver as we crested the Shimba Hills in south-east Kenya. Except he didn’t, because he is not Xenophon and, though he speaks several languages, classical Greek isn’t one of them. It was an old tradition in my father’s family that whoever first spotted the ocean on an annual outing and shouted the words, always got the best ice cream. My driver is 42 and had never seen the Indian, or indeed any, ocean; so his excitement was palpable when he got his first glimpse of the blue sea. He had asked me if we could nip down to the East African coast after our work. How many people have never or will never see the sea in their lives? Probably many millions, especially if they come from Chad, Paraguay, Mongolia or even Allen, South Dakota, which is over 1600km from the sea.
We had driven down from the Taita Hills where we had been doing field work for Nature Kenya (National Museums of Kenya), with two passionate Kenyan ornithologists. My team is sponsored by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which someone told me was the wealthiest charity in the UK. We were there to encourage the community to restore small patches of land for two species of birds on IUCN’s Red List, which categorizes species by threat level. Of the species that have been assessed, there are eight levels of threat ranging from Extinct (EX), Extinct in the Wild (EW), Critically Endangered (CR) all the way to Least Concern (LC). Homo sapiens has yet to be assessed but is probably the only species capable of hopping from LC to EX in one go, if the likes of unstable megalomaniacs like Trump or Putin are still around.
The Taita Hills are the northernmost extension of the Eastern Arc mountains that stretch south into Mozambique. They are one of the eight ‘Biodiversity hotspots’ in Africa, noted for high endemic biodiversity. They don’t have any of the ‘Big Five’ animals, so they tend to be ignored by ordinary tourists. They are so little known that new species are constantly being discovered.
In the Udzungwa mountains of Central Tanzania, one of my favourite haunts with a waterfall the shape of Africa, three new species of primates have been found in the past forty years. In one forest in the Taita hills are huge trees of the genus Cynometra that have yet to described.
Sanje Falls (right) - look at the rock-face rather than the water and you will see Africa. (Ed.)
The county capital of Taita-Taveta is Wundanyi (left), a sleepy little town nestled between hills that rise to 2000m (6600ft). We found a little hotel on a hillside overlooking a bare 300m (1000ft) rock outcrop on the other side. At night, one stares into the black silhouette of the large hill in front, dotted with the 55 lights from the town which I counted while enjoying my beer. They looked like stars in a black sky. Above it was the much less black night sky dotted with all my February favourites overhead: Orion the hunter and his dog, Sirius; the Gemini; Capella the goat, and Cassiopeia, Queen of Ethiopia.
The Taita Hills have never been protected properly. Over the last 100 years, 95 percent of the natural forest has gone, owing to high population growth rate and change of land use to agriculture and plantation forests (eucalyptus and pine etc.). Two endemic bird species, the Taita Apalis (Apalis fusciglaris) and the Taita Thrush (Turdus helleri - right) are Critically Endangered. The Taita Apalis used to be a sub-species of the Bar-Throated Apalis but is now recognized as a separate species. The population has fallen to around 200 individuals distributed over three or four tiny patches of forest. The Taita Thrush numbers around 2000, so it is in better shape. The Taita Apalis may or may not breed with the other ten species of Kenyan species of Apalis but that is not the point. In the wild, they will never meet. The Apalis group belongs to the warblers, most of which are rather drab in colour. Apalis in contrast are quite colourful, have long tails, long sharp bills, and are chirpy, monogamous, active and insectivorous. Their calls are mainly duets and mellifluous. They are related to another group of Kenyan warblers called the Cisticolas which are known as LBJs (Little Brown Jobs) as the 31 Kenyan species are dull brown and practically indistinguishable. But they are noisy and chatty, also duetting.
Most of upland Kenya is covered by very young (2-3 million years) volcanic flows, but the Eastern Arc mountains comprise older rocks (>100 million years, which is not all that old by geological standards). The unique biodiversity has evolved because the isolated hills are surrounded by dry savannah. When a group of organisms is cut off from others of its kind, e.g. on a remote island or a solitary mountain, genetic mutations occur which are confined to the population in that area. Given time, hours for bacteria, perhaps centuries or even thousands of years in the case of larger animals, the mutations become significant enough to create a new species that is no longer able to reproduce with its cousin or original ancestor. The problem is that evolution is a continuous process.
A species is a group of organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding. It is also the main natural taxonomic unit, ranking below the genus and denoted by a Latin binomial (e.g. Homo sapiens)devised by Linnaeus in the 18th century. The system is the best we have got but it is not perfect. Different species are not supposed to be interfertile but in reality, they can be. Homo sapiens bred with Homo neanderthalensis. Horses and donkeys were thought not to be able to produce fertile offspring but last year, a fertile hinny was produced. Ligers and tigons are able to reproduce successfully. Dogs are only a subspecies of wolves but eventually they may diverge. So, the concept of the species being set in stone is not accurate
As a country bumpkin at heart, I love nothing more than getting poor rural communities involved in nature conservation. Our job was to teach communities how to restore indigenous vegetation and create habitat for the birds. The first step is to establish tree nurseries, provide shade netting and water tanks and teach the communities basic botany and plant propagation techniques. The routine is fairly predictable: a Chairperson is appointed and his or her job is to round up around 30 or 40 farmers for a meeting scheduled to start at say, 8 a.m. But being Africa, everyone rocks up some time over the next two hours. Men and women sit in different places; the men, as they consider is their right, grab the shade or best seats, while women with half a dozen babies in tow fry under the sun. Islam and Christianity are well represented in the villages in the area so the meetings begin with prayers to Allah, Jesus or Yahweh, depending on the affiliation of the Chairperson. There always seem to be half a dozen (Christian) drunks in attendance, the Muslims being generally observant of what is considered haramu. It is the women, of course, who do most of the work.
It is difficult to convince poor farmers of the need to conserve some insignificant bird. The have enough problems in their lives, providing food, fetching water and firewood. So, who cares if a species becomes extinct? I know plenty of people in Kenya who wouldn’t mind seeing the last of African elephants or lions after their father has been killed trying to protect his one acre of maize or seeing three of their cows eaten by lions. Besides, species are constantly going extinct; it’s just that the rate of extinction is increasing daily owing to humanity’s obsession with growth and development. Yes, one could capture the birds and put them into aviaries or cages but most of us, I hope, prefer to see birds in the wild.
Two elderly gentlemen in identical camouflaged suits were also staying in the hotel. I was on my verandah on the upper floor and couldn’t help spying on my fellow guests fiddling with hundreds of packets on their verandah below. Curiosity got the better of me so I shouted down to one of them. “Excuse me, do you speak English?”. It turned out that they were Finnish brothers in their early eighties collecting moths; not just moths but actually micro-moths about which I had not heard but of which there are at least 60,000 species.
Ah well, it is good to know that there are people out there with interests even more arcane than mine.