Saving Africa’s Most Elusive Waterbird from the Brink of Extinction

Contributed article by Dr Melissa Lewis and Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson, BirdLife South Africa, Coordination Unit of the AEWA International Species Working Groups for the White-winged Flufftail, the Lesser Flamingo, and the Benguela Coastal Seabirds.

In recognition of its valuable contributions for the conservation of the White-winged Flufftail, BirdLife South Africa received the 2022 AEWA Waterbird Conservation Award in the Institutional Category during the 8th Session of the Meeting of Parties to AEWA in Budapest (MOP8).

Through the development and implementation of novel and innovative research and monitoring methods, BirdLife South Africa’s scientists have made numerous breakthroughs that have contributed to our knowledge and understanding of this species. The greatest of these have been the identification and recording of the species’ call for the first time, together with the discovery of its breeding in South Africa. These findings have reshaped our understanding of, and ability to conserve, the White-winged Flufftail.


Budapest, 30 September 2022 - We at BirdLife South Africa have a long history of engaging with AEWA and supporting the Agreement’s implementation. From coastal seabirds, to waders, to flufftails and flamingos, AEWA species feature prominently in our organisation’s efforts to better understand and protect birds and their habitats. We view these activities as important not only for birds themselves, but for biodiversity more broadly and, indeed, for people, whose health and livelihoods depend on the services delivered by healthy ecosystems.

Relevant examples of BirdLife South Africa’s recent activities include our support of the declaration of almost 150,000 hectares of protected areas across South Africa’s high-altitude and mistbelt grasslands and estuaries (with another 50,000 in the process of being declared); our endeavour to establish a new colony of African Penguins; our research on the use of drone and satellite imagery to count Lesser Flamingos; and our efforts to address various threats to AEWA species – ranging from energy infrastructure, to lead poisoning, to resource competition with fisheries and marine noise pollution. However, an especially rewarding aspect of our AEWA-involvement to date has been our role as coordinator of the AEWA International Working Group for the White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi) that was established in for the implementation of the International Single Species Action Plan adopted by the 4th Meeting of the Parties to AEWA and the 9th Meeting of the Parties to CMS in 2008.

This small and elusive bird is only known to occur with any regularity in the high-altitude wetlands of South Africa and Ethiopia. Listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered and it is sadly considered to be on the brink of extinction. The White-winged Flufftail is one of South Africa’s rarest bird species, with estimates of only 50 birds left in the country. Perhaps as few as 250 individuals remain throughout the bird’s global range, because its preferred habitat is severely threatened by habitat degradation and destruction.

Much has been achieved since we stepped into this role in 2015 – including the first confirmation that this species breeds in the southern hemisphere; the confirmation of its call (making it considerably easier to survey sites for this species’ presence across its range); and the declaration of large portions of its habitat as protected areas. Importantly, the White-winged Flufftail’s reliance on peatlands means that its habitat has a role to play in efforts to combat climate change. This habitat also provides a myriad of ecosystem services to surrounding communities. BirdLife South Africa considers it important to work with communities to enhance and maintain their benefits from conservation and, to this end, we are currently working to initiate a community conservation project for the conservation of the White-winged Flufftail at Ntsikeni Nature Reserve in southern KwaZulu-Natal. We and our partners also view the White-winged Flufftail as a flagship for the conservation of wetlands, water, waterbirds, and other biodiversity, and use the annual Flufftail Festival to educate learners and young adults about these pursuits.   

Despite the measures that we, and countless other actors, take to support the conservation of AEWA species, the success of these efforts ultimately hinges upon collaboration and coordination – both within and between countries. AEWA plays an important role in fostering such collaboration and in establishing platforms for the coordination of conservation action. For instance, the AEWA White-winged Flufftail International Working Group, and the ancillary South African National Working Group for this species, have strengthened collaboration and engagement between a variety of governmental and non-governmental stakeholders. We at BirdLife South Africa are grateful to South Africa’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment for establishing the national working group for this species and for the department’s enthusiasm and support for strengthening our country’s implementation of AEWA, to the benefit of White-winged Flufftails and other species. As also illustrated by the White-winged Flufftail example, even though AEWA is a species-focused treaty, its implementation offers a broad array of additional benefits. Implementation of AEWA thereby contributes to satisfying states’ commitments under a variety of environmental treaties and to achieving global goals for sustainable development. As environmental challenges escalate and the need for ambitious responses becomes all the more urgent, the value of this very directed, implementation-focused Agreement should not be underestimated.


Last updated on 16 December 2022

News item
Climate Change
Habitat loss and degradation
Phoeniconaias minor
Sarothrura ayresi
Spheniscus demersus
Species group: