The Critically Endangered Liben Lark (formerly Sidamo Lark) is known only from the Liben Plain of southern Ethiopia, where rapid grassland deterioration is driving the species towards extinction. Fieldwork on the Liben Plain in May 2009 to assess changes in habitat and population since June 2007 recorded a significant deterioration in habitat and decline in numbers. In both 2007 and 2009, birds were associated with areas with greater than average grass cover, and in 2007 with areas of higher grass. However, between 2007 and 2009 there was a significant decline in grass cover and height, a 40% decline in number of birds recorded along repeated transects, and a contraction of 38% in the occupied area of the Liben Plain. Moreover, the cover of bare ground increased more in areas where the species was recorded in 2007 than at random points, suggesting a more rapid degradation of the best sites. There was also a loss to arable agriculture of 8% of the grassland present in 2007. Invading fennel plants increased in number and area on the plain but did not appear to influence the distribution of the lark. An analysis of NDVI showed that grassland deterioration could not be explained by drought, and the most likely explanation is that grassland quality is suffering from overgrazing. Predictive modelling suggests that, apart from a smaller and politically insecure area some 500 km to the north-east near Somalia, there is no suitable habitat for this species elsewhere in the Horn of Africa. As a matter of extreme urgency, cattle exclosures need to be established on the Liben Plain to allow grassland regeneration. This may require the ploughing of land to reduce soil compaction and re-sowing with local grass species. In the longer term, further degradation of the plain should be prevented by, for example, clearing encroaching scrub to increase grassland area and reduce grazing pressure, and by developing sustainable rangeland management practices. These actions have the full and active support of local pastoralists.
(Received September 02 2009)
(Accepted December 16 2009)
(Online publication January 27 2010)