Sustainable conservation through integration: Sharpe’s Longclaw

2008 December 17
by David J. Ringer

DUNCANVILLE, TEXAS — It’s easy to be discouraged by all the bad news we’re hearing about the environment and (lack of) conservation and protection for species and life communities around the world. But there are glimmers of hope, and I’ve been wanting to write about one of those glimmers for awhile now.

Ever heard of Sharpe’s Longclaw (Macronyx sharpei)? Eight longclaws (all in the genus Macronyx) live in Africa. Some of them bear striking plumage similarities to New World meadowlarks, but they are related to pipits and wagtails. Sharpe’s Longclaw is an endangered species native to a few montane grasslands in western Kenya. The following photo is property of Charlie Moores and is used with permission:


Sharpe’s Longclaw is a habitat specialist. It requires short tussock grasslands at high elevations. If it can’t find this habitat, it cannot reproduce, and it dies. And here’s the problem: tussock grasslands are getting scarcer as Kenya’s human population grows.

Kenyan farmers depend on the land to feed and provide for their families. When they alter tussock grasslands for agricultural purposes, Sharpe’s Longclaws are unable to adapt and disappear.

Most of us in the industrialized, urbanized West have no idea what it’s like to depend on the land for survival. I’ve had the very great privilege of spending time among subsistence agriculturalists in several parts of the world. I’ve eaten foods that they cultivated painstakingly by hand and then offered freely to a pale stranger. I’ve seen their backbreaking labor carrying stones, cutting trees, digging soil, moving water. I’ve seen their storage sheds that house the only food they’ll have for several months. I’ve seen them worry about their children, who won’t have enough land to sustain themselves.

And so, when I hear the story of the Sharpe’s Longclaw (and how many times is it repeated around the world!), I am sad to think of another species being squeezed off this fragile planet. But I also think of the people who share its environment — who for the most part are not acting out of greed or excess but are themselves just trying to survive, and are trying to offer something to their children. They have names: Pio, Domai, Clifford, Albert, Mis, Abraham, ….

Which is why (I promise the good news is coming) I’m so excited about the work that Charlie Moores and others are involved with. Nobody has given up on Sharpe’s Longclaw, least of all the Kenyans themselves, some of whom have started Friends of Kinangop Plateau to help preserve this bird and its habitat.

It turns out that if sheep graze the tussock grasslands, the longclaws can get along just fine — or perhaps even better, as the grazing keeps their habitat more open. Unfortunately, local agriculturalists don’t have much incentive to raise sheep; sheep aren’t profitable in their context.

But what if they could be? Friends of Kinangop Plateau and Nature Kenya have put together the Njabini wool-spinning workshop, which buys wool from farmers and turns it into salable goods. If farmers have incentive to raise sheep, the Sharpe’s Longclaw may have a better shot at survival. Photo by Charlie Moores, used with permission:


This approach treats people and the animals they depend on as part of the entire ecosystem, rather than trying to exclude them. In many cases, they (like the birds) really don’t have anywhere else to go. It seems to me that if we can help people to integrate more successfully with their environments, we stand a much better chance not only of improving lives in local communities but also of saving unique and special organisms like Sharpe’s Longclaw.

Does that excite you? It should. And now, here’s even better news. You can get involved in this project! Charlie and his cohorts at 10,000 birds are raising money to help fund the wool workshop, ongoing survey work, and education campaigns in local schools. They’re also looking for a slogan to promote the wool workshop and are offering a prize for the winning submission. Don’t just sit there reading; do something!

Related posts:

  1. Encountering Sharpe’s Longclaw on the Kinangop Plateau
2 Responses
  1. December 25, 2008

    That is a great project!!
    I believe there are a few interesting conservation projects over here too (Peru), that try to balance human and fauna needs.
    I really hope Charlie’s initiative grows fast!! And of course, many others like this one.

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