The Taita falcon is a small raptor found in isolated patches down the eastern side of Africa. It was first described in the Taita Hills of Kenya. The little birds are often found in the rocky gorges and cliffs where they nest. Often confused with other small birds, sightings are often difficult to verify. One of the few places where they have been known to breed is the Batoka Gorge below the fabulous Victoria Falls World Heritage Site on the Zambezi River. The new Batoka Gorge Hydro dam will threaten their future.

Dam construction to go ahead.

The dam construction has been projected to start later this year and is expected to be completed by 2018.

The dam will be the 3rd largest on the Zambezi River after Kariba and Caborra-Bassa further downstream. There are concerns that the proposed new border post at the dam wall and the narrow width of the gorge will allow more opportunity for poachers to cross between Zambia and Zimbabwe and the tourist industry which revolves around white water rafting is set to be hard hit, depending which dam levels are targeted by the Zambezi River Authority. Aside from the Taita Falcons, several species of near threatened bats could suffer an impact from the proposed new water levels.

EIA specifically mentions Taita Falcons.

Environmental Resource Management’s EIA draft scoping report mentions the Taita Falcon in particular as being vulnerable and likely to suffer from the impact of the dam.

According to the report, the Batoka Gorge is listed as an important bird area (IBA), because of the presence of the Taita Falcon. Apart from the Taita, there are other important species found in the gorge and the report states that all of them will suffer from the impact.

Few breeding pairs on the planet.

In 2011, African Raptors (AR) interviewed Andrew Jenkins, a “prominent raptor biologist” from South Africa.

He was the first to publish the confirmed sighting records of the Taita Falcon in South Africa, where they are listed as critically endangered. He told AR that whilst on paper it looks like the Taita Falcon has a vast range in Africa, in fact very specialised and localised populations have resulted in very small groups of birds, with some areas recording as few as one breeding pair.

His estimates are that there are only about 50 breeding pairs in the whole world, but as they are difficult to find and identification is often confused with other species, there may be as many as 500 to 1000 pairs. Even if there are 1000 pairs, which is doubtful, that is not a huge number for the sustainable future of the species.

Batoka no longer a stronghold.

In the Batoka Gorge, by 2011, it was reported that the birds were not breeding and only one breeding pair was left out of six previously recorded. There have been very sad reports that the Taita might not even be there anymore. In 2013, Birdlife Org. South Africa reported that the South African Taita Falcon Survey Team visited 50 old known sites where the Taita had been historically recorded, but they saw no Taita Falcons.

This does not mean there are none left at all, but it does indicate that the Gorge is probably no longer a stronghold for these charming little raptors.

Even one breeding pair lost, is a tragedy.

Even if there are any Taita Falcons left in the Batoka Gorge for now, they have a limited future, as the steep-sided cliffs will be flooded, water quality is expected to change and human development will impact on any existing wildlife. The dam will go ahead, and the Taita will lose out. Given the populations numbers of these birds, even the loss of a single breeding pair is a tragic loss to our environment.