Mariam Hamzat: The Disappearance of Beauty, Biodiversity and a Bard: How Forest Degradation is Endangering Nigeria’s Ibadan Malimbe

In this new post, Mariam Hamzat—a 5th year student of Pure and Applied Biology at Ladoke Akintola University of Technology—discusses how forest degradation and increased agricultural activities have contributed to the disappearance of the Ibadan Malimbe—an endangered bird endemic to Nigeria. 

Endemic to Nigeria is a bird of critical ecosystem importance—the Ibadan malimbe (Malimbus ibadanensis). This rare species of bird belongs to the Ploceidae family and was first discovered in 1951. At the time, it was found exclusively around four of Nigeria’s southwestern cities: Ife, Iperu, Ilaro, and Ibadan—the origin of the bird’s species name ibadanensis. The Ibadan malimbe was found in forest patches, forest edges, secondary woodland, and, sometimes, in the highly degraded farmland and gardens of these cities. Around  February 2002, September 2004 and February 2005, there were reports of sightings at the Kakum National Park, Ghana; however, none of these sightings have been confirmed.

At the time of discovery, the bird was common in certain surveyed areas of Nigeria with quite a significant population. However, as time has passed, the population declined so much that it was not seen from 1980 to November 1987—only four birds were discovered in Ibadan after a ten-day intensive search. The bird was listed as ´Threatened (T)´ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1988, and it was listed as a critically endangered (CR) species between 1994 and 1996. In 2000, it was labelled ‘endangered (EN)’—a status it has maintained to date, even after the last IUCN assessment in 2016.

Ibadan Malimbe: A Beauty and a Bard

The Ibadan Malimbe perched on a branch with leaves (credit: Seth of Rabi)

The Ibadan malimbe is a songbird with bright red feathers on the top of its head and around its face. It is approximately 20 cm long and a known weaver. Because the majority of its plumage is black, the red spots stand out, making it easy to spot. Adult males have their scarlet spots extended to their belly, while females have this contrasting colour scheme limited to their crown and nape—a distinguishing factor.

Like other members of the order (Passeriformes), the malimbe are perching birds, with four toes (three directed forward and one backward). They are also insectivorous, feeding on insects, caterpillars, winged ants, alate termites, and the occasional palm nuts. When they perch on trees, they help to control the insect population, thereby assisting the ecosystems of trees. Interestingly, they are not flight birds; therefore, they tend to spend all of their lives within a particular range, making nests from climbing plants and palm leaves and tending to their young. Like most Ploceidae, they are found in pairs of up to five and lay around 2–8 eggs per clutch. Interestingly, they are often found in the company of Malimbe M. rubricollis—another species of  malimbe—which is quite large.

A typical Malimbe M. rubricollis (Credit: Peter W. Hills)

The Ibadan Malimbe make a high-pitched mix of swizzling and wheezing notes, of which the former has been described as ‘chup ee wurr’. As is common to other passerines, people have enjoyed watching and listening to this bird since prehistoric times. Their appearance, colour, and pattern make them aesthetically pleasing to watch.

A Contributor to Biodiversity

The Ibadan malimbe plays an important role in maintaining the biodiversity of its habitat. As an occasional seed feeder, it acts as a seed disperser. When it feeds on fruits and seeds, it helps to spread their seeds to other locations, allowing new plants to grow. This process is essential for the regeneration and maintenance of forests. In addition to its role as a seed disperser, the Ibadan malimbe also plays a role in the pollination of flowers. As the bird feeds on nectar (intentionally or inadvertently from the flower), it helps to transfer pollen from one plant to another, allowing for the reproduction of flowering plants. This process is essential for the survival and reproduction of many plant species, including those that are important for human use.

The Ibadan malimbe’s most significant contribution could be its feeding habit which—alongside other insectivorous birds—helps to keep insect populations in check. Although important, the abundance of insects easily make them pests for plants and animals, hence the need to keep their population in check in order to maintain balances in ecosystems. As a top-level predator, the health and population size of the Ibadan malimbe can provide insight into the overall health of the ecosystem. If the population of the Ibadan malimbe is declining, it is very likely that there are issues within the ecosystem that need to be addressed.

The Loss and Efforts to Revive Ibadan Malimbes

Unlike its population in the 1900s, the current population of the Ibadan Malimbe in Nigeria has reduced greatly and is suspected to continue declining. In 2005, their total population was estimated to be approximately 2500. One of the projects which examined the extent of their decline published their findings in 2015. The project assessed the conservation of the Ibadan Malimbe in Southwestern Nigeria and attempted to estimate species density. They did this in order to update the Ibadan malimbe’s current status and gather information on any habitat changes that may have an impact on its population.

From the report, the Ibadan malimbe was found in only 2 sites of the 15 surveyed in 30 days, and only 3 were sighted in total. Additionally, the assessment report estimated that the population of the Ibadan malimbe has decreased within its current range by 27%. The reason for this was attributed to the loss of sites within the species’ range and severe forest degradation. This is attributed to the fact that many of the forests and woodlands which used to house these birds have become residential homes, farmlands, and commercial buildings. Except for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA)—where conscious effort is being made to protect the forest and house these birds—only Kuku has been untouched by the aforementioned changes. All other known habitats have been destroyed by anthropogenic activities. Prior to this report, the last public record of the Ibadan malimbe was in 2008. This report noted the sighting of 6 birds in a ten-day survey at the Ifon forest reserve—a location 140 km from its closest previously known site—in 2006. In 2008, lone males were seen foraging in mixed flocks on two occasions.

An image of Ibadan Malimbe showing the chest region (credit: A.P Leventis)

Other possible causes for the decline in its population include: competition with other malimbe and weaver species; increased nest destruction by children; and unchecked captures for parasitology studies.  One of the main threats to the Ibadan malimbe is habitat destruction. The forests in which the bird is found are being rapidly logged and cleared for agriculture, leading to a decline in suitable habitat. To address this issue, conservationists are working to protect and restore these forests through the creation of protected areas and the implementation of sustainable forestry practices. One of their habitats—the IITA forest reserve—has been designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) and plans are in place to designate the same protections to the Ifon Forest Reserve.

Another threat to the Ibadan malimbe is illegal hunting and trapping. The bird is prized for its bright red plumage, which is often used in traditional tribal rituals. To combat this issue, conservationists are working with local communities to educate them about the importance of the Ibadan malimbe and the need to protect it. In addition to these efforts, conservationists are also working to improve the breeding success of the Ibadan malimbe. This includes observation and protection of breeding sites to help increase the number of young that survive to adulthood.

To support the conservation of the Ibadan malimbe, individuals are also being encouraged to “take up habitat restoration courses, reporting sightings, join nature clubs and IITA’s social media discussions and hubs, raise private forests, and protect and fund existing forests.” Sadly, in spite of these efforts, the Ibadan malimbe remains at risk of extinction. By protecting its habitat, combating illegal hunting, and improving breeding success, it is hoped that this unique and beautiful bird will be able to thrive once again in the forests of southwestern Nigeria.

About the author

Mariam Hamzat

I grew up in a rural community in Southwest Nigeria which means I had contact with the local environment and nature at an early age. I grew up learning about the importance of various plants and animals and developed a strong sense of duty to protect and preserve them. My interest became even more keen when my community ‘grew’ and we lost a vast number of plants to urbanization.

Currently, I am studying environmental biology with specific interest in the ecological and evolutionary biology of plants and animals. I believe we can protect plants and animals only when we really understand everything we possibly can about them. Building our research and knowledge capacity makes it easy to capitalize on useful traits that would ensure the sustainability of our ecosystems for generations to come. I am looking forward to commencing my postgraduate studies soon in the field of ecology to contribute my knowledge and skills.

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