In West Africa, musicians fly to the aid of endangered birds

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A crowned crane at the Los Angeles Zoo in 2016. Classified as

“Tuiiii-tuiii-tuiii-toulitou! » A series of plaintive hisses, followed by a bubbly chirp. Such is the song of the Liberian flycatcher, a small bird with inconspicuous plumage that lives in the wooded hills of West Africa. Alas, this chant could one day no longer resonate in the canopy: with an estimated population of between 6,000 and 15,000 individuals, the species is classified as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The main threat to it: deforestation, linked in particular to the timber trade and cocoa plantations.

This song, the Ivorian musician Ruth Tafébé, 46, was inspired by it to create a piece in the Tagwana language in which she wanted to restore “the beauty of its habitat, the mountains in a thousand shades of green, the cascading streams”. After many years in Europe and the United States, “Coming back to the country where I grew up, Côte d’Ivoire, and having the opportunity to go into the bush have awakened my desire to call for respect for our fauna and flora”, testifies the singer, whose heart swings between soul, highlife and afrobeat – she has notably collaborated with drummer Tony Allen.

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“The message I wanted to convey is that the Earth is beautiful, as naive as that may seem. Because I know that there are many humans who no longer find the time to appreciate nature and no longer realize what it brings them. continues the artist, who says he is “out of the blue” when his neighbor in Abidjan suggested that he cut his bougainvillea to prevent the leaves from falling down the driveway…

It is therefore quite natural that Ruth Tafébé answered the call of the Shika Shika label. Thursday, June 16, this one will release the album A Guide to the Birdsong of Western Africa (on digital, vinyl and CD), for which fifteen groups and artists from West Africa have composed pieces inspired by the songs of birds threatened by the loss of their habitat, hunting or illegal trade. Objectives: to draw attention to these species in decline, to raise awareness of the need to preserve the environment and, ultimately, finance nature conservation projects.

“Birds are a gateway”

Based in the suburbs of Paris – where he works for the NGO Greenpeace – Robin Perkins, 35, is the co-founder of Shika Shika alongside Argentinian luthier Agustin Rivaldo. Passionate about music and ornithology – like any good self-respecting Englishman – this is not his first attempt since this opus is the third in a series, after two volumes, one devoted to South America (2015), the other in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean (2020). “The idea was to make a collection with an album for each region of the world, he explains. For the third, we first thought of North America, but we weren’t really interested in that musically… So we turned to Africa, where cultures and nature are very diverse. . »

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With the help of Birdlife Africa, the African Bird Club and the AP Leventis Ornithological Research Institute (Aplori, based in Jos, Nigeria), the label first compiled a list of endangered birds. Like Razo’s lark, a species endemic to an islet in Cape Verde, whose population is limited to a few hundred individuals; or the Neospize of Sao Tomé, a passerine also “in critical danger of extinction”, according to the IUCN, and of which there remain between 50 and 250 representatives. “Birds are a gateway to talking about the effects of humanity on the environment, says Robin Perkins. When a bird starts to disappear, that’s when you realize things are going badly. »

Once ten bird songs for which quality recordings existed, the second stage consisted of finding musicians willing to participate – on a voluntary basis – in the project. Among them, artists from traditional and electronic music, such as the Malians Vieux Farka Touré and Luka Productions, who pleaded the cause of the crowned crane, or Les Mamans du Congo and Rrobin, who leaned at the bedside of the beaked weaver hail. Free to integrate the song of the bird in their own way, some have used it as a rhythm, others have changed its key or reproduced the melody on the keyboard.

It remained to identify the projects to which the sales of the album and its by-products (t-shirts and posters made by illustrator Scott Partridge) would be donated. The previous two volumes of Guide to the Birdsong raised nearly 50,000 euros for associations in Latin America and the Caribbean. For the African component, crowdfunding of more than 20,000 euros has already covered production costs and the profits will go to initiatives in three countries on the continent.

An ornithological atlas in Nigeria

First in Senegal, where the Nature Association Koussabel is dedicated to the preservation of the crowned crane in Casamance (south). “This includes raising awareness in local communities that a crane is more valuable in the wild than in captivity, as it can generate tourism, summarizes Robin Perkins. This species is trafficked because it is a symbol of prestige: if you are rich, you must have a crane at home. »

Then to Sao Tome and Principe, where the Gulf of Guinea Biodiversity Center is working on the study and conservation of the archipelago’s endemic flora and fauna. “It is one of the most important places in the world in terms of endemism,” specifies the founder of Shika Shika. Here, the fallout from Guide to the Birdsong of Western Africa will be used to train “guardians of the forest” responsible for monitoring species and enforcing nature protection laws.

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Finally, in Nigeria, the album will finance the training of volunteers, the purchase of equipment (binoculars, identification books, etc.) and the expeditions needed to carry out a large-scale project, the Nigerian Bird Atlas Project (Nibap ). Launched in 2015, this aims to map the country’s avifauna through an observation protocol already implemented in South Africa: observers prospect a square of about 9 km on each side and record all the birds encountered there. in order to feed a database (available online) which, in time, will cover the whole territory.

To do this, “more than 30 ornithological clubs have been created throughout the country, with nearly 300 volunteers who participate in the expeditions each month”, assures Talatu Tende, head of Nibap and director of research at Aplori, the first specialized institute in West Africa. “Before it opened in 2004, there were less than ten Nigerian ornithologists, so ornithological knowledge was almost non-existent, she recalls. Today, the institute trains more than 100 master’s students in conservation biology each year. »

Shika Shika chose the Ibadan malimbe, a black sparrow hooded in bright red, as the symbol of Nigeria. Threatened by logging and agriculture, the species is classified as “endangered”, with fewer than 3,000 specimens. While Nibap observers have confirmed its presence in the south-west of the country, Talatu Tende also reports a more surprising discovery: the appearance of the house sparrow, whose chirps, very common in Europe, had never before been heard in Nigeria.

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