Giving wings to a new generation of ecotourism guides in the ‘Galapagos of Africa’

A group of children and adults at a birdwatching class, some looking through binoculars, others referring to guidebooks
The Guardian Tanzania
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East Usambara Mountains, Tanzania

Giving wings to a new generation of ecotourism guides in the ‘Galapagos of Africa’

From the Amani flatwing dragonfly to the African violet and the Long-billed forest warbler, Tanzania’s East Usambara Mountains have so many species that exist nowhere else on Earth that they have been likened to Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, whose unique flora and fauna inspired Charles Darwin as he developed his theory of evolution.

These endemic species, many of which are rare or endangered, contribute to local livelihoods by attracting ecotourists, and in particular birdwatchers willing to pay to see species they have never seen before. And with more than 450 bird species overall, the East Usambara Mountains have much to offer. 

But according to local environmentalist Victor Mkongewa, there is a shortage of qualified birdwatching guides. Mkongewa and fellow ornithologist Martin Joho both work as guides on tours organized by Tanzanian companies and international operators from South Africa, Kenya and the UK. Now they are sharing their knowledge in a bid to enable more people to benefit from conserving local biodiversity.

A small colorful Green-backed Twinspot bird held up close to the camera
Green-backed Twinspot (Mandingoa nitidula) / Credit: Norbert Cordeiro.

Mkongewa is chairman of Amani Friends of Nature, an organization set up to help restore and conserve natural habitat in and around Amani Nature Reserve in Muheza district, Tanga region. The reserve is the largest block of forest in the East Usambara Mountains. Birdwatchers come from as far as Russia, China and the United States to see endemic and endangered species such as the Usambara eagle owl, Usambara weaver, Amani sunbird and the critically-endangered Long-billed forest warbler.

Training tomorrow’s guides

Although numbers of tourists visiting Amani Nature Reserve are relatively small — just 262 in 2018 and far fewer during the COVID-19 pandemic — their economic importance to local people is growing. According to figures provided by reserve’s chief conservator Fikiri Maiba, between 2017 and 2020 the average revenue per tourist increased from 140,467 shillings (US$60) to 395,457 shillings (US$170).

Foreseeing a growing demand for birdwatching guides, Amani Friends of Nature has begun training people from villages adjacent to the reserve. More than 50 adults and schoolchildren, attend the weekly sessions that take place in Amani Botanical Garden, which is part of the Amani Nature Reserve.

“This is a new program designed to help Amani residents benefit from what they have within their localities,” says Shaban Mwasoni of the East Usambara Mountains Eco-Cultural Tourism Group, who is one of the program’s birdwatching teachers. “Because once you give them knowledge, it is very easy for them to provide a variety of birdwatching tours depending on what birds tourists want to see.”

Participants learn how to identify different bird species and their calls. They learn about bird behavior, habitat and ecology, and gain an appreciation for the value of local biodiversity. In a typical training session participants identify as many as 42 different bird species.

“We talk to them about different bird survey techniques including mist-netting, timed counts and point counts,” says Mkongewa. “We give them binoculars, books and tape recordings of bird calls so they can understand birds properly.”

Two men outdoors; one standing holding a bird, the other is seated with a notebook
Victor Mkongewa (seated) and Martin Joho put identification rings on the legs of birds caught in mist nets before releasing them / Credit: Victor Mkongewa.

The program also sets out to dispel negative attitudes to certain bird species, such as the Usambara Eagle Owl, which some local people persecute in the belief that it is a harbinger of death.

“Amani Friends of Nature teaches that the Usambara Eagle owl is endemic to the Eastern Arc Mountains,” says Martin Joho. “And that, if you see it when you have birdwatchers, you will be rewarded. So don’t kill these birds.”

One of the students is Khadija Juma, an 18-year-old pupil at Misalai secondary school in Shambangenda ward. “I’m thankful for the bird watching sessions,” she says. “Right now, I can identify 50 bird species visually and by their sounds, and I can call them.”

Juma hopes she will soon be providing tours for birdwatchers. But she says one barrier to both learning about birds and providing tourism services is local people’s limited proficiency in spoken English, which she says is not adequately taught in government primary schools in the area. Recognizing this, Amani Friends of Nature has recruited a retired local teacher and birdwatcher to provide English lessons to primary school pupils on a voluntary basis.

A group of people pointing to a bird in a birdwatching class, referring to a guidebook and looking through binoculars
A small group observes birds in the buffer zone of Amani Nature Reserve / Credit: Victor Mkongewa.

Future hopes

Amani Friends of Nature is appealing for support to strengthen the training program. It needs more binoculars and bird books to share among the many people from local villages who are keen to learn about birds. The organization also needs a good quality camera, laptop and projector.

To raise funds to support this work, Amani Friends of Nature is planning a big Christmas birdwatching event for locals and international travelers. The four-day event will take place across the Usambara Mountains, from the highlands to the foothills close to the Indian Ocean.

“All species will be documented,” says Joho. “Amani Friends of Nature welcomes any kind of support for this big event, which has never happened before in the forests of the Usambara Mountains.”

“As a teacher, I’m very glad for what we have achieved,” says Mwasoni. “Some pupils have been able to identify 50 to 80 bird species. They know their English names and scientific names, and they know how to call them so the bird comes.”

Mkongewa expects that some of today’s students will be tomorrow’s environmentalists. “By teaching them, we will prepare the local bird guides and help them to understand the value of nature,” he says. “This will lead to effective conservation efforts in the near future.”

A small black and white bird, a white-eared barbet, perched on a person's hand
White-eared Barbet (Stactolaema leucotis) / Credit: Norbert Cordeiro. 

Beatrice Philemon produced this story with a grant from EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative. It was first published on 29 June 2021 by Tanzania’s The Guardian newspaper. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. The Biodiversity Media Initiative is supported by Arcadia — a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing.

Banner image: A birdwatching class taking place inside Amani Nature Reserve / Credit: Victor Mkongewa.

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