Sea birds are fascinating not only because of their beauty, but also because of their biology. They are top predators in the food chain, and many of them spend several years at sea, only venturing out to the mainland to breed. As marine predators connected to the entire ecosystem, scientists can use their eggshells, feathers, and droppings to learn about the diversity of our oceans and demonstrate the presence of chemical pollutants in the sea. Hence, they are trusted indicators of the health of marine and coastal ecosystems.
In addition, seabirds are vital to terrestrial ecosystems, especially on remote oceanic islands where nutrient input may be scarce. Sea bird droppings (known as guano), eggs, and traces of food they pull from the ocean are essential nutrients for the soil, vegetation, and other animals. These nutrients are eventually washed into coastal waters by the rain, which in turn fertilizes the areas where schools of fish develop. Some of these fish feed seabirds, thus completing the cycle of life. Seabirds therefore play a key role in maintaining fish stocks. Also, in the past fishermen have sought the guidance of these birds to find places with an abundance of fish – the second reason this group of birds is so important to fishing communities.
Unfortunately, seabirds are among the most destroyed and threatened wildlife species in the world as they are exposed to increasing threats both at sea and on land.
About 600 kilometers off the Senegalese coast in the central Atlantic, thousands of seabirds find the mosaic of habitats they need to rest, feed, meet their partners and nest in the volcanic archipelago of Cabo Verde. Although seabird numbers have decreased significantly over the years, the archipelago is still considered a seabird hotspot, where eight species breed.
Red-billed Tropicbird, Copyright Dave Barnes, from the Surfbirds Galleries
Cabo Verde is of further importance as it is on the migratory route of several species, such as the red-footed booby sula sula, which remain on the islands for a long time, possibly to molt. The country is also home to three species and two subspecies of endemic seabirds, which means that they do not breed anywhere else in the world, such as the Cape Verdean shearwater Calonectris edwardsii and the Cape Verdean Petrel Pterodroma feae (both Near Threatened), as well as the Cape Verde petrel Hydrobates jabejabe.
Despite their value, seabirds are not an obvious part of Cabo Verde’s national fauna due to their secretive breeding behavior. Many nest in inaccessible steep cliffs and lonely islands and venture on long forays at sea. As a result, limited attention was paid to their study and management in the country.
Shed light on seabirds and their threats
Building on recent initiatives such as Baseline Seabirds and Threats, identified by the University of Barcelona’s Seabird Ecology Lab since 2009, BirdLife International launched the largest seabird conservation initiative ever in Cabo Verde in 2017. The initiative, funded by the MAVA Foundation, combined the efforts of thirteen local and international organizations coordinated by BirdLife International to improve knowledge of populations and threats and create sustainable management to enable the long-term conservation of seabirds in the archipelago .
So far, this project has enabled collaboration between various stakeholders from civil society, academia and government, and has built a national network between NGOs that previously focused exclusively on conservation measures on their own island. In addition, great achievements have been made in terms of research, threat prevention and awareness raising. “Bringing together all relevant seabird conservation partners across the country for the first time was a milestone,” said Ana Veiga, Coordinator of the Cabo Verde Seabird Project at BirdLife.
Nationwide studies revealed over 30 new seabird colonies of seven different species and many new nests of endemic or threatened species. In addition, some of the largest colonies in the country for some species have been discovered, such as the tropicbirds with red bills on the island of Sal, which were found by the Associação Projeto Biodiversidade (APB) in collaboration with the University of Barcelona (UB). According to Albert Taxonera, co-director of APB, the story of the discovery is “very special” for this Cape Verdean organization, which saw tropical birds during their morning census on the Serra Negra turtle nesting beach. “We had no idea how big the colony was, and only after talking to the University Library did we start counting nests. So far we have taken in over 1,200 tropical birds – adults and chicks – in different colonies: an offshore island, a steep cliff and a soft slope inland, ”explains Taxonera.
Almost 7,000 individuals from all breeding species were ringed and with the help of the latest tracking technology (consisting of 2,016 GPS and 418 geolocator devices) the movements of all seabird species breeding in Cabo Verde could be detected all year round. “This means that for the first time we know where these birds find their food and thus plan where birds interact with fishing vessels,” explains Herculano de Andrade Dinis, the executive director of Projecto Vitó, a local NGO that was key in the Research. “Worldwide, an estimated 700,000 seabirds are killed each year if they are accidentally caught in fishing gear. Therefore, building this knowledge is a first step towards mitigating the negative effects of fishing activities, ”added Ahmed Diame, Bycatch Project Manager at BirdLife Africa.
Unfortunately, the dangers to seabirds are not limited to bycatch. A key aspect of this project is the identification of threats and mortality factors for seabirds in Cabo Verde. “We have found that invasive alien species and illegal, regular and widespread landings on protected islands, where the main colonies of seabirds reside, are the main threats. The disruption it creates is already having a serious impact on the success of seabird farming and it is known that extraterrestrial invasive predators – especially fire ants, rats, mice, and even feral cats or dogs – can even cause local extinction. In addition, biodiversity loss also occurs through exposure to light and noise, waste and even direct poaching of eggs, adults and chicks, ”explains Pedro Geraldes, Senior Conservation Officer at SPEA.
Promote the Cabo Verdeans’ responsibility for their rich natural heritage
Research laid the groundwork for combating these threats and, in many cases, mitigation measures were taken, such as combating populations of invasive alien species. In fact, the first successes can already be celebrated: In the last two and a half years, no kills of sea birds have been recorded on important islands such as Raso, Branco and Rombo.
However, conservation efforts to effectively protect the breeding zones have been hampered by less community engagement. To address this challenge, the partnership has done extensive work to raise awareness among school children, local communities and the general public, and to promote sustainable practices among fishing communities. The concrete results include the new Seabird Interpretation Center: the heart of a far-reaching communication campaign that included a seabird exhibition with 5,000 visitors, over 100 radio broadcasts, a website for the Cabo Verde seabirds and the TV series ECOSTAR.
Six Cape Verdean personalities gave the seabirds their image for the ECOSTAR documentary films and accompanied the local NGO Biosfera during surveillance and observation activities on the islands of Raso and Fogo. “Cape Verde Television (TCV) aired the six prime-time episodes of ECOSTAR. This was a great opportunity to raise public awareness of the beauty of seabirds and their threats,” said Blandine Malis, director of Biosfera.
Reduced personnel and enforcement capacities also hindered the protection of critical locations. To address this problem, the Direção Nacional do Ambiente (the environmental agency of the national government and one of the project partners) has continuously trained judges, bailiffs and law enforcement officers on the protection of sea birds and protected areas. In addition, a new guideline to combat the effects of invasive alien species was developed throughout the project, which is currently being reviewed by the federal government.
Although the project in Cabo Verde has achieved great success, much remains to be done. “Our future priorities will focus on conservation measures such as managing invasive alien species, reducing seabird bycatch, better management of marine protected areas, combating the impact of the energy industry, strengthening the national network to protect seabirds and promoting new collaboratively developed ones Environmental policies from local partners ”, explains Alfonso Hernández Ríos, coordinator of the marine program at BirdLife Africa.
BirdLife International also seeks to be in direct contact with communities in protected areas. “We believe that empowering local communities in nature conservation and [helping them to] Becoming a steward of their natural heritage is part of what drives long-term behavior change, ”said Thandiwe Chikomo, capacity development manager at BirdLife Africa.
Indeed, local NGOs such as Projecto Vitó and Biosfera have already benefited from the project, improving their technical skills, protective measures and engagement with fishing communities. In the same way, young Cape Verdean scientists, field technicians and conservationists are now being trained to study, manage and nurture the rich heritage of Cabo Verde in the future.