School of Life Sciences

SARChI Chair Drives Conservation of South Africa’s Only Endemic Parrot

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The work of South African Research (SARChI) Chair in Ecosystem health and biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape Professor Colleen Downs is a touchstone for efforts to conserve South Africa’s only endemic parrot species: the Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus).

Downs is Chair of the Cape Parrot Working Group (CPWG), initiated at the then University of Natal in 1998, which promotes conservation of the Cape Parrot. In 2019, BirdLife South Africa appointed the CPWG and the Wild Bird Trust’s Cape Parrot Project (CPP) in Hogsback as species guardians for the Cape Parrot.

The work of the CPWG and the CPP recently formed the content of a public webinar hosted by BirdLife South Africa, where the CPP’s Dr Kate Carstens joined Downs to discuss efforts to conserve the parrots that include the restoration of habitats, establishment of community projects and undertaking of key research projects.

Downs and Carstens, who are co-chairs of the Cape Parrot and Mistbelt Forest Conservation Action Plan, spoke about the habitats, feeding, breeding, behaviour, and major threats to the parrots, while also highlighting the success of initiatives to conserve these birds and their habitats.

The Cape Parrot, a habitat specialist, is listed as Endangered and is vulnerable to the impacts of habitat fragmentation and loss as it depends on Afromontane Yellowwood mistbelt forests for its diet and nesting areas. Only 4% of South Africa comprises natural forest and anthropogenic impacts threaten these. Fewer than 1 600 Cape Parrots remain in the wild. They are also threatened by illegal hunting and capture, and disease.

The CPWG has succeeded in hosting an annual Cape Parrot Big Birding Day for more than two decades to determine the population size and trends of this avian species, producing research supporting the classification of the bird as its own species, and has garnered commercial support from Woolworths in the production of a shopping bag to support conservation efforts.

A key component of the work of researchers in the CPWG and the CPP is the identification and protection of Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, as saving its forest habitat is key to saving the species.

‘We see the Cape Parrot as a flagships species for the conservation of these special mistbelt forests,’ said Downs of the southern mistbelt forests, one of South Africa’s smallest, non-continuous forest biomes that is dominated by yellowwoods.

The CPP aims to restore 10 hectares of mistbelt forest in the Amathole Mountains by planting 3 000 indigenous seedlings each year sourced from community projects established by the project. They are also working on filling key knowledge gaps by conducting research on the species’ nesting sites, demographics and health, identifying critical forest patches, and establishing whether the Cape Parrot is successfully adjusting to feeding on exotic species by examining their diet.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Colleen Downs