Last year (2009) Nature Kenya / the East Africa Natural History Society (EANHS) published its Checklist of the Birds of Dakatcha Woodland, an Important Bird Area (IBA) in the hinterland of Malindi on the Kenya coast. The woodland is home to a number of globally threatened and near-threatened bird species and is itself threatened by illegal commercial agricultural development. One of the birds under threat graces the checklist’s cover: the beautiful Fischer’s Turaco (Tauraco fischeri), known as kulukulu in the Giriama (= Giryama) language. This is the first checklist of its kind in Kenya to include the vernacular names of birds recorded and cross-checked by local community members. It was edited by Fleur Ng’weno, the Honorary Secretary of the EANHS, and I played a minor role by reviewing the Giriama names and advising on a consistent orthography.
I’d been keeping a file of bird names in Giriama and other Mijikenda languages since 1992, when I met ornithologist John Fanshawe in Mombasa and we discussed the possibility of working on my largely dictionary-derived list together with David Ngala, a colleague of John’s at the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Reserve. Unfortunately other work took us both away from the Kenya coast and nothing came of this planned collaboration, although we didn’t entirely give up on the idea and I continued adding to my list of Mijikenda names. I never did get to meet David, and so was delighted to see that he was one of the main contributors to the Dakatcha checklist. The matching of local names with reliable ornithological identifications transformed my untidy lexical collection, and I’ve typed up a working list of Giriama names incorporating the new information from Dakatcha. Linguistic and ethnobiological research like this won’t by itself save endangered flora and fauna, but experience suggests that it does have a part to play in combatting the ignorance of local knowledge and practice that all too often accompanies extractive development.
Afterword, 29 July 2010
Further information and up-to-date news on the land grab that is threatening Dakatcha woodland is available on the A Rocha Kenya website: see for example this recent post on the use of violence against conservation staff and a reporter. ActionAid is running an appeal for international support against the commercial cultivation of Jatropha curcas at Dakatcha, part of its wider campaign against biofuel production. Resources on the problem of land grabs in Africa can be dowloaded from the Oxfam pages on land rights in Africa maintained by Robin Palmer.