Meet and greet the bustards of the Sahara and Sahel

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Bustards are some of the largest and most spectacular birds that fly, and with twenty-two African species are, except for dense forests, found throughout the continent. Seven of these species can be found in the greater Sahelian and Saharan biomes. Bustards are large, ground-dwelling birds that prefer to walk rather than fly. When they do take to the air, however, they are strong and powerful fliers, with the Arabian and kori bustards among the world’s heaviest flying birds. Just like ostrich, where walking has superseded flying, resulting in a subsequent reduction in the number of toes, so the bustard has lost its hind toe to facilitate walking.

In the vast open plains and grasslands of the Sahara and Sahel, the bustards’ cryptic brown and sandy coloration aids them blend into their surroundings, helping them avoid detection and attack from both aerial and terrestrial predators. Bustards are omnivorous, eating a large range of items, from lizards and crickets to ants, and the ripe seedheads of panicum grass. Like many of the larger animals living in the desert, they also consume the bitter, water-rich fruits of the desert melon. In both Chad and Niger, the Arabian bustard is reputed to eat gum arabic exuded from the trunk and branches of acacia trees. As major consumers of grasshoppers and locusts, bustards play a critically important role in keeping potentially hazardous crop pests in check. In the sub-Saharan grasslands of Chad and Niger, both the Arabian and Nubian bustards breed during the summer months from July to September. As a prelude to finding a mate and breeding, the adult males undertake a spectacular parade along a prominent skyline ridge or dune. With head back, chest out and tail fanned, the male struts back and forth, occasionally throwing back its head and making a loud “popping” sound. Male bustards will, if undisturbed, parade for long periods but are especially active in the early morning and late afternoon.

The bustard’s nest is a simple scrape on the ground, partially screened amongst tussocks of grass or under low-branched shrubs and trees. Up to four eggs are laid. When chicks are threatened by a predator, adult bustards will employ diversionary tactics to draw them away from the nest. When they are older and fully fledged, the chicks leave the nest to forage in the company of the adult birds. If spooked by a predator, the animated group makes its way to dense vegetation and with heads down and necks out scramble and weave their way to safety. Predators include a host of small carnivores, including jackals, honey badgers and pale fox.
Brown-necked ravens almost certainly devour any eggs they find, and eagles will take even adult birds weighing over 5 kg. In the Chadian Manga, a golden eagle was seen to pursue and kill a flying adult Nubian bustard with ease.

In the Sahel, most if not all the bustards, migrate locally to some extent, moving north with the rains and south at the end of the wet season. During the hot season, the Nubian bustard will typically move south from its sub-Saharan range, occupying rangelands usually dominated by the Arabian bustard. Of the Sahel’s larger bustards, Denham’s undertakes the most significant migrations. During the Chadian summer, Denham’s bustards arrive in large numbers from the savannas of central Africa. These beautifully patterned birds, often seen in small groups, do not breed in Chad and by October have largely moved back south from the rapidly drying Sahelian grasslands. Where exactly the birds come from and when they breed are poorly known and should be resolved by using satellite tracking devices. In 2016, with cooperation from the Abu Dhabi-based International Fund for Houbara Conservation (IFHC), Sahara Conservation successfully captured and tagged nine adult Arabian bustards in Termit, Niger, to monitor their local movements and survivorship.

Although not yet considered to be endangered, i.e., falling into the higher threat categories of the IUCN Red Data List, bustard populations are under pressure and as such need to be considered conservation dependent species. Habitat loss and degradation are real issues, with many parts of the Sahel-Sahara grasslands subject to overgrazing, conversion to agriculture, and chronic bushfires. Hunting pressure on bustard populations has also evolved significantly over recent decades. Traditionally, the larger bustards were hunted for food. Throwing sticks, spears, and bows and arrows were used, as were foot-nooses made of plaited hair from the tails of horses laid on or near nests. An old Arab once told me how as a young boy he had been partially buried next to a bustard nest to grab a bird returning to incubate its eggs.

In recent decades, the bustards of the Sahel and Sahara, particularly the Arab and Nubian bustards in Sudan, Chad, Niger, and Mali, and the houbara bustard in North Africa, have been exposed to significant pressure from hunting parties from the Arabian Peninsula. Although only “armed” with falcons, and occasionally saluki hunting dogs, the size of the hunting parties, with their sophisticated transport and communications, can lead to significant and unsustainable off take in a very short time. The abusive hunting of bustards and gazelles in Mali, Niger and Chad was the focus of the very first campaign launched by the embryonic Sahara Conservation Fund in 2002. Thankfully, hunting like this in the Sahel has declined, but it remains to be seen if this is due to increased insecurity or a change of heart on the part of the hunters. On the flipside, however, the efforts undertaken by the International Fund for Houbara Conservation are to be warmly applauded. Since 1998, around 180,000 captive-bred houbara bustards have been released across North Africa.

With their large size and gorgeous plumage, bustards are truly iconic species of the grasslands of North Africa. To my mind, nothing is more evocative of the beauty and wildness of the Sahel than to see a bustard studiously walking through the tall grass looking for food while being followed by a bee-eater or two happy to snap up any insects the bustard has disturbed while feeding.

John Newby
Senior advisor – Sahara Conservation

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