Migratory and Endemic Birds: The Generosity of Nature and the Arrogance of Humans

Yemen is home to beautiful coastlines and islands rich in biodiversity, including a variety of bird species that pass through. The Gulf of Aden, Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Red Sea coastal strip on one side, and the coast of Abyan on the Arabian Sea on the other, provide refuge for many migratory birds. Along these coasts, one can see small wading birds such as sandpipers and falcons. Other rare species of resident birds, such as the flamingo, sacred to the ancient Spaniards, as well as migratory seagulls and penguins, can also be spotted. On one of the islands in the Ahwar district nature reserve, Muqatin, there are many more beautiful species of birds including rare migratory birds. Other coastal areas, such as the port of Belaid Fort and the village of Sheikh Salem, are also sanctuaries for migratory birds.

The island most attractive to birds is Socotra, also known for its beautiful landscapes and considered one of the most popular islands in Yemen. Its coasts, valleys and flora host various birds, distinguished by species, size and type. The Socotra archipelago alone has more than 200 species.

Studies indicate that the reason swarms of migratory birds pass through and settle in Yemeni territories is the biodiversity. The mountainous habitats, plains, deserts, plateaus and coasts provide perfect havens for these birds. Wetlands and dryland shallow waters, such as water pockets, riverbanks and lakeshores, also offer hospitable environments for these birds.

 photo courtsey of Ibrahim Manoeam

photo courtsey of Ibrahim Manoeam

Summer and Winter Migration from 2005-2006: An Exclusive Study of the Birds of Aden Governorate is a study that highlights this phenomenon. Written by Dr. Fadl Abdullah Nasser al-Balm, a researcher at the University of Aden, the book is a scientific study on the birds of Aden Governorate. The research was part of the ‘Sustainable Management for Natural Resources Project’, which held extensive activities and significant environmental projects in a number governorates including Aden. Overall the project involved 27 biodiverse sites across different areas. The study recorded 168 species of birds, 29 of which were non-migratory breeding birds, 16 migratory summer birds and 123 migratory winter birds. These birds belong to 41 families, 91 local and migratory species, 54 migratory birds in the summer of 2005 and 114 migratory birds during the winter.

The coast of Abyan and the three lakes of Aden, adjacent to the Sea Bridge and Al-Haswa reserve, are good sites to watch small wading birds such as sandpipers and falcons. Other birds including a large number of black ibis families and various large and small types of flamingos and moorhens can also be spotted in Al-Haswa. However, recently these birds are no longer seen in large numbers.

Warnings, agreements and recommendations

Recently the General Authority for the Protection of the Environment issued warnings on the extinction of 11 endemic and migratory bird species in Yemen: the northern bald ibis, white-eyed gull, lesser spotted eagle, imperial eagle, white-eyed ferruginous hawk, landrail, Socotra bunting, common kestrel, Socotra starling, Yemeni sylvioidea and Yemeni common blackbird.

According to local experts, some birds are already disappearing and have not been seen during recent seasons. The most important of these birds is the bald ibis, which is 75 centimeters long and is considered among the rarest birds in the world. Small swarms of these birds could be spotted in the green meadows around freshwater swamps near the city of Taiz in the central region.

 photo courtesy of Ibrahim Manoeam

photo courtesy of Ibrahim Manoeam

The report indicates that the most dangerous threat to the environment of Yemeni birds is wetland drought and the decline of agroforestry caused by a land use management system where the vegetation consumes most of the water and creates a barrier between rainwater and its flow through sewers and valleys. The disappearance of a number of bird environments so far is an indicator of the low level of environmental stability.

Ornithologists and researchers in the field have warned of threats against the natural environments of migratory and resident birds in Yemen due to negative human impact. These activities are responsible for wetland drought and the decline of agroforestry. Concerning these dangers, Dr. Omar al-Saghir, Secretary General of the Yemeni Society for the Protection of Wildlife, a non-governmental organization, pointed out that one of the most important causes of death among migratory birds is road construction projects. Making way for highways has had a direct effect on some of the nature reserves, causing a damaging and destructive drought in some of these habitats and environments. According to al-Saghir, “The use of gravel, concrete and stone to stabilize the wetlands along the coast of Aden, in order to construct urban projects, has also contributed to the migration of various birds that passed through these environments”. Al-Saghir also stressed that, “the logging and excessive cutting of trees in several protected areas in other parts of Yemen has also contributed to the destruction of other environments where the birds reside.”

Human practices are linked to a number of permanent threats to birdlife. First, tree logging, which is considered one of the main threats to birds living on diverse tree types, such as the acacia. These trees, often cut down, are home to various bird species, including the Arabian woodpecker, Yemeni thrush, Yemeni songbird, Arabian passerine, Socotra grosbeak and Yemeni grosbeak. Second, bird shooting in some areas, especially in Tihama. Third, oil pollution and non-ecological tourism along Yemeni ports. These activities do not take into consideration the preservation of the environment and negatively affect the habitat of sea birds. Among the most important threatened species are the red-tailed tropical bird, masked booby, brown booby, Swedish gulls, white-winged tern and white-eyed gulls.

 photo courtesy of Ibrahim Manoeam

photo courtesy of Ibrahim Manoeam

Many ornithologists consider Yemen to be the only country in the Arabian Peninsula where a group of Asian houbara are both endemic and pass through as migratory birds through the Red Sea. Researchers are concerned about the continuous illegal hunting of predatory birds, especially falcons. Birdlife experts say that illegal hunting is a threat to the migratory pathway of these types of birds passing through Bab al-Mandab. Efforts to prevent hunting migratory birds – around the world, and in Yemen in particular – have not succeeded. Currently, this practice is not in decline but is increasing. As a result they also issued a call for an urgent plan to control the numbers of crows, which have become destructive rivals of all other species.

This permanent threat has led environmentalists to pass hunting laws that they hope will serve as the International Standard Code for the Conservation of Birds. Hunters from several countries, including Yemen, signed a treaty to preserve the environment and adhere to responsible hunting standards. The law states that birds on the migratory path in the crater of the Red Sea must be fully protected. The signatories pledged to adopt the General Charter on the Best Practices of Hunting and Hunting Groups for sustainable hunting and sustainable protection of migratory birds.

However, the reality does not match the decisions of these conventions and the calls and warnings against hunting. In some of the most vital sites of birdlife, these practices have led to a decrease in the number and types of birds. This is clearly observed in areas including the coast of Abyan and the forest area of the al-Mumdara.

Since hunting is considered a traditional activity in a number of countries, including Yemen, certain conditions and guarantees for the protection of birds, and biodiversity in general, have to be met. First, the necessity of ensuring that hunting activities comply with national laws dealing with predatory bird hunting and other species. This means that these laws should be enforced both on the national level and comply with the Convention on Sustainable International Hunting Practices. Second, the need for a comprehensive database as the current threats have been exacerbated due to the lack of accurate information from the field. The concerned parties are invited to continue and complete the enumeration studies as well as in-depth research studies. This process can be carried out within specific geographic regions. In the coming years, the biodiversity of Abyan, Aden and Taiz can be studied, especially in areas that have been declared environmental reserves. Third, establishing a museum of natural history. And last, maintaining a continuous awareness of the importance of birdlife to environmental, biodiversity, tourism and economic areas. This would require the utilization of all types of media and education. Awareness raising activities could help disseminate information among the new generation of young Yemenis on the importance of retaining birds in their natural habitat, and not removing vegetation at sites that contain signs of birdlife.

 photo courtesy of Ibrahim Manoeam

photo courtesy of Ibrahim Manoeam

Efforts and prospects

So far, efforts by a number of Yemeni associations interested in the protection of birdlife aim to draw the attention of residents of these regions to the damage caused by excessive hunting. In October 2004, Yemen and the UAE signed an agreement on the artificial insemination and the resettlement of the houbara bustard in Yemen. The agreement includes preserving a number of Yemeni houbara at the National Bird Research Center of the Environmental and Wildlife Research and Development Authority in Abu Dhabi. The aim of the agreement is to prevent the extinction of this type of bird from the Yemeni wilderness. The draft also lists the collection and incubation of eggs and houbara chicks from Yemen during a period of five years starting from the date of the agreement.

Researchers called for targeted events to raise awareness on the path areas of migratory birds; mainly, to develop local awareness on the importance of protecting these birds and to minimize the threats they face during their annual journey from North to South.

However, it is noted that many local residents still consider these birds a gift from heaven, and therefore people hold the right to utilize this gift as they please. While this view persists, it is important to emphasize the duty of the state to adopt a practical plan. This must consist of an action package that would prevent the decline of these birds and minimize any existential threats against birdlife. Among these actions should be planned awareness programs along with strict laws and actual activity on the ground. Without this, these beautiful birds and our environmental diversity will disappear.

1, September 2017, CultureRaad al-Raimi