27 June 2014

Kenya: Scientist Launches Bid to Save Endangered Taita Shrew

A scientist has launched a bid to save the Taita Shrews (Suncus aequatorius), a small, mole-like mammal which is almost being wiped out because of habitat destruction by local farmers.

The rare species is only found in two indigenous forests in Taita Taveta County: Chawia and Sagalla hill forest, in the world.

The Taita shrew joins other critically endangered wildlife in the region, threatened by expanding human populations, farming and logging.

Given the continuing decline in the quality of this habitat, and the limitations in its range, the International Union for Conservation of Nature recognises the shrew as a critically endangered species.

Locals refer to the shrews as Leleku.

The threat of extinction has pushed a local scientist, Daniel Mwamidi, to come up with conservation measures to save the insect-eating mammal.

Through the support of Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, Mwamidi's project is focusing on ecological awareness among the locals on Taita shrew and involving local farmers in habitat conservation.

Mwamidi, who is also the Principal Investigator of the project and an expert in biodiversity and ecology, says that increased human activities such as firewood, logging, replacement of indigenous tree species with the exotic tree species and encroachments have led to degradation of the shrews habitat.

"Indiscriminate and accidental fires from the neighbouring villages have been responsible for habitat loss for shrews while intentional fires directed towards minimising human-wildlife conflicts and food crops protection from monkeys, bush babies and other wildlife, have had negative consequences to shrews and their habitat," he says.

Mwamidi adds that indigenous tree species, which offer important shades through under-storey vegetation for underground roosting habitat, are often destroyed by farmers because they harbour many species which are considered as destructive.

According to Mwamidi, few residents are aware of the benefits they get from Taita shrew.

He says a major threat is the widespread belief among the community members that the shrews are a vermin, because of its resemblance to its cousin species - 'the vermin' bee shrew, which that enters the bee hives and destroys young brood of bees.

"Since both shrews belong to the same family (Soricidae), this might have negative impact to conservation efforts and campaign, since locals confuse the 'vermin' bee shrews to the critically endangered shrews," he adds.

Mwamidi is optimistic that the project will have long-term conservation benefits in Taita Hills in improving food security and restoring the already degraded forest ecosystem in the region.

Conservation of shrews in Taita hills will be beneficial both to the entire ecosystem and the community at large, he says.

"To the Ecosystem, shrews will assist in regulating the population of insects some of which are crop pests. A shrew can consume up to three times of its body size daily! It consumes aphids, moths, leaf hoppers, grasshoppers and other many insect species. They also consume ticks, which are vectors for many livestock diseases, thus saving cattle keepers from huge economic losses," says the scientist.

Mwamidi adds: "To humans, conservation of shrews will ensure that the cycle of zoonotic diseases (diseases transmitted from animals to humans by ticks as leading vector) is cut down because they consume many roaming ticks. These diseases include spotted fever, tularemia, Q-fever and lyme disease."

Due to its huge appetite on insects, the shrews reduces the use and the need of pesticides thus reducing ecological effects and promoting environmental integrity.

On food security, the community will have direct and indirect benefits such as boost to food security since the shrews also feeds on insects such as caterpillars and beetles, which destroy fruit produce, especially mangoes and pigeon peas, which are the major commercial and food crops in the region.

The conservation of shrew habitat will also benefit and conserve many other species sharing habitats such as owls, microbats, macrobats, endangered Taita white eye and Taita appalis birds which are also critically endangered.

Taita Hills are considered an Important Bird Area (IBA) internationally.

The IBA is an area recognised as being globally important habitat for the conservation of bird populations. Currently there are about 10,000 IBAs worldwide. The sites are identified by BirdLife International.

Mwamidi says: "Shrews, like other living animals, require food, water, roosting and maternity habitats for survival. Any effort to promote these would add to conservation and enhance their survival."

He says farmers in Taita Hills should avoid spraying their horticultural crops in the evening.

"Spraying early in the morning would give enough time for the insecticides to dry up, hence minimising exposure risks to these nocturnal rodents. Insects that are sprayed on late evening might carry with them 'fresh' pesticides which might put shrews at higher risks on feeding contaminated insects through secondary poisoning," he adds.

Mwamidi also warns the local community of destruction of forests saying the trees are roosting habitats of the shrews.

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