Wild about Blue Swallows



JULY 2015



As part of their Good Business Journey, Woolworths is proud to support initiatives to conserve Africa’s endangered species. Through partnerships with their customers, MyPlanet and conservation organisations, Woolworths is increasing awareness of threats to South Africa’s biodiversity, while actively supporting conservation projects in South Africa. Through the sale of each bag, Woolworths donates R10 to The Endangered Wildlife Trust to support the Threatened Grassland Species Programme in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal.

Blue Swallow © Michael Dryden


The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) is registered as a Trust, a Non-profit Organisation. We are dedicated to conserving threatened species and ecosystems in southern Africa to the benefit of all through filling the key niche of conservation action, through applied fieldwork, research and direct engagement with stakeholders.

Our mission:

With specialist programs and a large team of skilled field staff deployed throughout southern Africa, the EWT works on identifying key factors threatening biodiversity. Through a broad spectrum of partnerships and networks, the EWT responds to the key threats driving species and ecosystem loss, by developing innovative methodologies and best practice guidelines to support reduced impact, harmonious co-existence and sustainable living for all.


The Blue Swallow Grasslands Project  aims to provide the conservation authority, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, with essential information to that will lead to protection of the birds through either formal proclamation of protected areas, or through education of the communities on the land, to ensure optimal management and minimal disturbance of the birds and their nesting sites.

That flash of steely-blue as a Blue Swallow flies over our grasslands is a rare spectacle today – so much so that a sighting in high on the list of birding enthusiasts from across the world. That same rarity, however, also means that we need to focus considerable conservation attention on the species. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that without focussed conservation effort this species will likely go extinct in South Africa in the next five to ten years, well before any other bird species.

When it comes to finding them, you need look only within so-called mist belt grasslands. The swallows migrate between areas of this habitat. Breeding sites can be found in eight countries, namely: Zimbabwe, Malawi, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Africa. The birds arrive at these sites to breed in early September. They spend the rest of their year, from April onwards, in warmer climes spanning four countries: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and the DRC. As such they make short haul (relatively speaking) migrations within Africa.

Right now the Blue Swallow population in South Africa consists of fewer than 40 breeding pairs. There are about 35 pairs in KwaZulu-Natal and fewer than five pairs in Mpumalanga, making the Blue Swallow one of South Africa’s most threatened wildlife species. Not surprisingly then the South African population is considered Critically Endangered. So what went wrong? The problem lies, primarily, as a result of extensive plantation forestry within their very specific mist belt grassland home. Here major agricultural development, coupled with other disruptive land uses, has left less than 15% of their breeding grounds intact. The patches of grassland that remain are mostly so small that each one only supports a single breeding pair.

Not surprisingly, Blue Swallows are at risk of further decline if both their breeding and non-breeding habitats are not secured. In South Africa, the EWT (and partners) monitor the breeding population as part of a long-term project. Monitoring population trends like this is essential as it provides invaluable information to our conservation authorities, allowing them to make well-informed decisions about the management of these fragile grasslands. In fact, if we are to save the Blue Swallow as a species here in South Africa, we must focus our efforts on conserving their habitats and researching other possible causes of the species’ population decline.


Blue Swallow © Mike Myers


The funds will permit EWT to widen our search for Blue Swallows and their nesting sites in areas of KZN’s Grasslands that belong to local communities. This involves monitoring of the known breeding – pairs (approximately 35 pairs) and their success at nesting and rearing young. Nests sites are geotagged, adults counted and nesting success monitored.


This project started in the late 1990s when conservationists first realised the perilous situation that South Africa, and the world’s, Blue Swallows were in. Species numbers initially declined as a result of extensive planting of timber in the mistbelt grasslands, leaving very little remaining habitat for them to breed in. Since then a number of other threats (primarily linked to increasing human population in rural areas) have exacerbated the situation, making it critical for us to keep adapting our work to conserve this species and their remaining habitat.



Blue Swallow nest


This project will target those areas in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands that have intact mistbelt grasslands that are suitable breeding sites for Blue Swallows – specifically sites which have never been surveyed before due to both their inaccessibility and our limited resources. By intensively surveying this uncharted territory we hope to discover new, previously unknown, breeding populations. Doing so, we can develop a much better understanding of the current status of Blue Swallows, allowing us to make well-informed recommendations to the conservation authorities about the protection of these remote grassland areas. This work will require specialist expertise, human resources and considerable logistical support.

The EWT proposes to conserve Midlands Mist belt Grasslands and Blue Swallows in particular by:


  • co-ordinating a focussed and intensive survey of all potential breeding sites – these are typically remote and difficult to access – in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands;

  • assisting with the conservation of the remaining intact habitat in the form of nature reserves and protected environments in the mistbelt grasslands through the government-recognised Biodiversity Stewardship Programme;

  • digging artificial nesting holes in areas that are seemingly suitable as breeding sites. These artificial holes are needed as Blue Swallows nest in Aardvark holes, but where Aardvarks have been poached the birds can no longer nest;

  • ensuring the implementation of South Africa’s actions according to the 2012 International Blue Swallow Action Plan; and

  • continuing to oversee work progress of the Blue Swallow Working Group, made up of a variety of relevant role-players, of which the EWT is the current Chair.


  • using this species as a barometer for the health of this habitat – looking at factors such as the intactness and condition of these grasslands and their ability to provide important natural resources such as the provision of water for people;

  • collaborating with other NGOs and relevant role-players in mistbelt grassland and Blue Swallow conservation;

  • developing grassland management guidelines for Blue Swallow conservation and sustaining ecological processes;

  • collaborating with the relevant provincial authorities around grassland and Blue Swallow conservation; and

  • commenting on and advising all relevant development applications within the grasslands, within the bounds of our capacity.


Blue Swallow © Daniel Danckwerts


By purchasing the ‘Wild About Blue Swallows’ Woolworths bag, you have already recognised that we need to do all we can to protect our Blue Swallows.

We are always looking for support for our work. We would especially like to expand our conservation focus on this species to include important populations outside of South Africa. Blue Swallows are under threat in various parts of Africa including Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and the DRC. We would desperately like to assist our partners in some of these countries where resources for conservation work are extremely limited. We need funding to support field staff in these areas and their basic field costs in order to work with local communities to increase awareness about Blue Swallows and the impacts of livestock and crop agriculture on this species. We also need to do extensive education and awareness work in collaboration with our regional partners to make relevant local communities understand the importance of conserving their natural resources and to assist local governments with strategic conservation planning. All donations to assist us with our Africa wide Blue Swallow conservation work would be greatly appreciated. Locally our capacity requirements are centred on implementation costs (primarily fuel) and salary costs for field staff.


Dr Ian Little: Manager of the EWT’s Threatened Grassland Species Programme and Chair of the Blue Swallow Working Group;

Bradley Gibbons: EWT Senior Field Officer – Threatened Grassland Species Programme;

Jiba Magwaza: EWT Intern – Threatened Grassland Species Programme and Secretary of the Blue Swallow Working Group


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