Ecotourism and conservation work hand-in-hand in many countries to preserve native animals and habitats, but what happens with species that cross national boundaries? Niki Williamson, partner and co-founder of Inglorious Bustards Birding, Conservation & Wildlife Tours, reveals how a new not-for-profit organisation will address this avian need.
A migratory bird travels thousands of miles in its life, across many nations, seeking safe places to breed, rest and feed on its incredible journey. For the preservation of such an animal to be successful it’s important to recognise the complex nature of the threats it faces in traversing half the globe.
Photo Credit: Inglorious Bustards. The Iberian Yellow Wagtail, one of the many birds that perform long migrations throughout their lives.
The concept of saving species and habitats across flyways has gained traction in the conservation world. The recognition that there is an overlap between a bird’s necessity to travel and a human’s desire to do likewise is what has led to the concept of ‘flyway birding’. The not-for-profit Flyway Birding Association (FBA), initiated in southern Spain by nature tourism company Inglorious Bustards, is designed to drive forward, support, link and empower conservation initiatives right across the East Atlantic Flyway.
Setting Up an Ecotourism Conservation Initiative
The ethos behind Inglorious Bustards’ business has always been to use travel to bring positive outcomes for biodiversity. The idea of the Flyway Birding Association is that, through trips, people go on a migratory bird’s journey. They see the outstanding wildlife of the East Atlantic Flyway and the beauty of that immense voyage across all those different landscapes and cultures. It helps them to understand the challenges facing these birds and encourages support for their conservation.
Photo Credit: Inglorious Bustards. Short-toed Eagle is one of the compelling reasons to visit southern Spain.
A nature-watching tour can, and should, deliver exemplary, responsible wildlife-watching alongside insights into local and global conservation issues. It should link biodiversity with local sustainably produced food and natural, cultural and culinary heritage. After all, these things go indivisibly hand-in-hand.
The Flyway Birding Association is based in the epicentre of migration at The Straits of Gibraltar. It brings together experienced partners and individuals from across the East Atlantic Flyway to coordinate ecotourism and conservation efforts and projects. The idea is to provide habitats and measurable conservation benefits for long-distance migratory birds. This involves supporting, linking and advocating for existing projects, and also driving new ones where a gap exists.
Photo Credit: Inglorious Bustards. A Griffon Vulture in active migration, crossing from Africa to Europe.
The Association collaborates with research and conservation organisations and projects to investigate threats. It helps to establish the cause of population declines through scientific research. And it enables the design and implementation of practical conservation measures.
Conservation Projects Already Running
The FBA is working with Proyecto Marambay, restoring traditional salt pans in the Bay of Cádiz. Salt extraction in the area dates back to beyond Phoenician times. The age-old harvesting methods from these small traditional pans promote diverse aquatic fauna in the pans themselves. This in turn supports a wealth of larger fauna and provides havens for breeding and migrating coastal birds. This biodiversity is under threat from both intensification of management – leading to large pans managed with heavy machinery – and abandonment, leading to overgrowth and silting.
Restoration of an area of these clogged and neglected pans will create a nature reserve and allow the reintroduction of sustainable salt extraction. It will also preserve traditional local skillsets. It’s a wonderful win-win project that brings together environmentally sustainable management, ecotourism, conservation, and cultural heritage. The anticipated results will be thriving biodiversity and local socio-economic benefits.
Photo Credit: Inglorious Bustards. The Common Redstart is a passage migrant through southern Spain.
FBA is also working with nature-friendly farmers, alongside partners Salarte, to give Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robins and other species a home amongst the vines of Andalucía’s sherry vineyards. The traditionally farmed vineyards of Trebujena are some of the bird’s last strongholds in the Iberian Peninsula. Compared to the surrounding intensive agriculture, Trebujena is an island of both cultural and environmental richness. Time-honoured organic viticultural practices don’t use damaging chemicals or mechanical harvesting, making it a haven for plant, insect and bird species.
As well as helping the birds through practical means such as installing predator fencing and planting native hedges, the project is bringing added market value to the excellent conservation sherries produced here. This supports existing traditional vineyards and encourages others to value and return to these practices.
In northwest Morocco, the endemic subspecies of North African Marsh Owl (Asio capensis tingitanus), is Critically Endangered. Since the 1970s, its marshland habitat is being drained for production by non-Moroccan companies of high-value export crops such as strawberries and other soft fruits. This is worsened by the often illegal abstraction of water to service the irrigation of this industry.
Photo Credit: Inglorious Bustards. The Moroccan Marsh Owl keeping a low profile.
Previously just 50-140 pairs of Marsh Owls were recorded over three wetland sites, but no recent survey data exists. Here the FBA is seeking to fund urgent monitoring work to understand the range and size of the remaining population. This will enable the development of a species recovery plan and targeted conservation work. Advocacy amongst the local people and the fruit farming corporations will garner support for protection of the Owl’s remaining habitat.
After alarming population declines in recent years, Rüppell’s Vulture is considered Critically Endangered. Accidental and intentional poisoning, illegal trade for traditional medicine, and collisions with power infrastructure are all contributing threats to this bird’s increasingly desperate situation.
Photo Credit: Inglorious Bustards. Rüppell’s Vulture is increasingly appearing in The Straits of Gibraltar.
Since the early 90s, Rüppell’s Vultures have been encountered in the Iberian Peninsula, presumably getting caught up in the pre-nuptial migration of the area’s Eurasian Griffon Vultures. This raises the spectre of possible hybridisation and gene dilution as a further threat. Indeed there are already records of copulation between Rüppell’s and Griffon Vultures, so far without viable offspring.
In The Straits, Rüppell’s Vulture has been recorded frequently at existing conservation feeding stations. This provides a unique opportunity to tag and study the movements of these vagrants, both within the Iberian Peninsula and during their probable return to the Sahel.
Mangrove forests are one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems and are capable of sequestering up to five times more CO2 than a tropical forest. They are also among the world’s most threatened habitats. The Gambia has around 31,000ha of mangrove swamp, but is thought to have lost over half of its original area.
The mangroves at Kotu Creek – in which over 350 bird species have been recorded – were severely damaged by a dieback event some years ago. This was suspected to have been caused by a pollution incident exacerbated by coastal erosion. FBA is funding a project executed by the Gambia Bird-watchers Association, which is successfully re-establishing this area.
It is ideally located at a tourism and birdwatching hub and the next phase will be to develop the area’s potential as a ‘gateway’ to showcase the nation’s biodiversity. This will provide local employment and sustainable tourism.
If You Want to Visit an Ecotourism Conservation Project
Many of the tour operators on Blue Sky Wildlife, including Inglorious Bustards, are involved in local conservation projects alongside their ecotourism businesses. To find out more you can contact them directly using the enquiry form on their pages.
Niki Williamson is the co-owner of Inglorious Bustards Birding, Conservation & Wildlife Tours, and believes passionately in ecotourism and conservation working hand-in-hand. She says: “Back in 2019 we launched our #FlywayPromise, making a pledge to our guests, colleagues, and conservation partners that we would strive to meet the challenges of responsible ecotourism, putting conservation action and education at the very heart of what we do, to ensure our operations benefit rather than exploit wildlife. On our trips, ‘ecotourism’ is a promise, not an oxymoron.”