A recent survey coordinated by WWF-World Wide Fund For Nature and Pro- Natura, an NGO, has identified the Boje-Enyi area as the European barn swallow’s (Hirundo rustica) most popular resting site on its winter migration route. The huge seasonal concentrations of the birds bring an economic boost to the local people each year and are an important food source.
Each winter the birds leave Europe, flying thousands of kilometres to Nigeria en route to South Africa. From 100,000 to one million birds swoop down each year on this small, southeastern village which lies on the border with Cameroon, a few kilometres from Cross River National Park’s Okwangwo Division.
The first scientific study of these migrant swallows was made in 1987. After this, John Barker, bird expert and WWF project manager of Cross River National Park (CRNP), confirmed the existence of large numbers of the birds in Boje-Enyi. Then in 1995, a more detailed survey was carried out by Dr. John Ash, Gerhard Nikolaus , and Dr. Karl-Heinz Loske.
It wasn’t an easy undertaking. “The location proved to be a very difficult one to work in,” says Ash. “We worked in very hot and humid conditions on an extremely steep hill covered with dense pennisetum grass five metres high.”
The European barn swallow is identified by its red throat and forehead, black breast band, and deeply forked tail. It makes a soft, high pitched twittering known in South Africa as “European Swael”. Its normal average body weight is 20 grammes, but by the time it reaches Nigeria it only weighs about half that.
The birds may be small, but their arrival is spectacular. “What are seen initially as almost invisible black spots high in the evening sky above Boje-Enyi’s grassy hill slopes, gradually increase in number until the horizon is black with hundreds of thousands of birds spiralling down into the grass to sleep,” explains Ash.
Over the years, large numbers of other migratory birds have also been reported in southeast Nigeria. During the survey, the researchers discovered 71 ringed birds from 14 countries in Africa and Europe, including a German-ringed great reed warbler and a Finnish osprey. As part of their research, the WWF and Pro-Natura surveyors ringed about 3,000 swallows.
Besides surveying the swallows, the researchers interviewed 23 bird catchers in Boje-Enyi. They also trained two villagers in collecting data. Among their findings were why people catch the birds and how many eat them.
The investigation revealed that the swallows’ visits have far-reaching socio-economic implications for the surrounding communities. From December to May, villagers catch birds using traditional methods which appear to be sustainable. This means people catch only as many birds as they need to inject their diets with much-needed protein, allowing bird populations to remain stable.
To catch the birds, young villagers make a special glue from the latex of the Strophantus hispidus vine, mixing in citrus juice and palm oil. They then coat raffia reeds with the glue and pierce these into pieces of yam or perforated wood. As the birds fly past, the youths wave the raffia reeds in the air. Swallows that brush against the reeds get stuck. Their cries attract other birds which also get caught.
Hunting expeditions are only undertaken on moonlit nights. It is estimated that a youth can catch up to 1,500 birds in one outing. About 50,000 birds are captured during the five-month hunting season.
“The village communities have their own management control devices by allowing only children to capture the birds,” Barker explains. “Also, the swallow hunters are only allowed to catch the birds once they have settled in large numbers. In addition, hunting is only allowed when there is a bright moon. This means 60 per cent of the time there is no hunting even though swallows are present in the area.”
Predictably, at the end of April, the survey showed there was no significant reduction in swallow numbers. This perhaps indicates that they are constantly being augmented by new arrivals from other wintering areas.
“Besides providing an important source of protein for the community, the swallows also eat harmful insects such as flies and mosquitoes,” says Richard Barnwell, WWF-UK Programme Officer. “This maintains a natural system of biological control.”
Environmentalists feel the roosts should be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “Because of its international importance, the swallow roosting site should be protected and designated a national monument,” Dr. Ash observes.
Barker agrees that efforts should be made to protect the area and swallows. “We are trying to discourage the villagers from selling the swallows to outsiders,” he says. “Eat them but don’t develop a business out of it. A survey of the protein requirements of the people may also be essential.”
If funds can be raised, the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF), a WWF associate, plans to set up an integrated conservation programme in the area which will ensure sustainable harvesting of the birds. Says NCF executive director Uzo Egbuche: “With the level of poverty in the country, we want to ensure that the community doesn’t lose the controlling mechanism.”
Meanwhile, the European barn swallows and their Nigerian roosts are arousing international interest. In February 1995, the BBC arrived in Boje-Enyi to film a documentary on swallow migration between Africa and Europe.
The roosting sites are also a potential tourist attraction and foreign exchange earner. Dr. Ash’s survey discovered a large concentration of the threatened grey-necked picathartes (Picathartes oreas) in the same area.
This confirms the importance of wise management of this species-rich region which is still not a recognized protected area. It could easily become a major source of pleasure and education for visitors, and provide a reasonable livelihood for the locals.
Nigeria Conservation Foundation
Reporting for WWF FEATURES