The first thing to strike you about this hugely important work is its physical size. In fact it is one of the few review books I have meaningfully weighed on the bathroom scales! At over 3.5 kg in weight, and with its 1,144 pages representing the labours of hundreds of people over a nine year period, it is a monumental work in every sense.
It comprises an inventory of Important Bird Areas considered of global significance for their avifaunal and other wildlife populations. All of them are located in the African region and associated islands. The latter group includes not just the Comoros, Madagascar, the Seychelles and St Helena, with its neighbouring British-administered dependent territories, but also archipelagos lying beyond the 45°S meridian: the Norwegian dependency of Bouvetoya and the French-controlled Southern Territories (including Crozet, Kerguelen, St Paul and Amsterdam).
In all 58 geopolitical entities have been considered and a list of 1,228 sites has been drawn up. These represent a total land surface area of over 2 million km2, and equivalent to a territory greater than Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined. To put this in its true context, however, it represents just 7% of Africa's land surface. Yet the authors argue that if the biological riches of this site network were secured then it would safeguard the futures for a very high percentage of Africa's 2,300 bird species, as well as many other life forms.
The process behind the assembly of this critically important site inventory was both painstaking and sophisticated. Yet, as we have come to expect from BirdLife publications, the complex body of data is beautifully presented on high-quality paper, with easy-on-the-eye typefaces and dense blocks of text marshalled within a convenient system of headings and different-coloured fonts. All of this careful consideration by the editors and designers ensures that the information is as easy to assimilate as possible.
The first 50 pages of the book are broken down into four main chapters: 1 an overall introduction to the scope and importance of Africa's site network; 2 the methods by which sites were selected; 3 a consideration of the 15 biomes in Africa (in layman's terms, the vegetational building bricks from which Africa's natural environment is assembled); 4 an overview of the IBA book project and the recommendations which flow from its completion.
The philosophy behind the IBA system is now well established. The first book in a growing regional series, Important Bird Areas in Europe edited by Richard Grimmett and Tim Jones, was published in 1989 and has since come to play a central part both in the formulation of conservation policy in the continent and also in its implementation. Yet in the new book the authors address some of the shortcomings of the IBA system, which have become apparent since that initial volume. In particular a network of specific, and sometimes relatively small, sites cannot address the conservation of species that are threatened by environmental change, but have no significant population concentration in any one place. These widespread but often thinly distributed birds are now given more thorough consideration through the application of new criteria for site selection. These IBAs attempt to support what are called biome-restricted assemblages.
Fishpool and Evans give the example of the Sudan-Guinea Savanna biome, to which 54 species are confined, including spectacular and beautiful birds like Red-throated Bee-eater Merops bulocki and Long-tailed Paradise Whydah Vidua interjecta. A network of 105 sites across 22 countries has thus been drawn up which, as a whole, gives protection to all 54 species. Yet in addition each national site has been selected to support over 80% of the Guinea-Savanna-restricted birds found in that country. To aid a layperson's comprehension of this aspect of IBA selection, there is a large series of colour photographs illustrating the 15 biomes of Africa and Madagascar.
Following this detailed explanation of the mechanics of site selection comes almost 1,000 pages on the sites themselves, arranged by country on an alphabetical basis. Each national section is prefaced by a general introduction, an overview of the country's ornithological importance and its conservation infrastructure. Every site account then has a tripartite structure: a physical description, an essay on its avifauna and a brief snapshot of the conservation issues relating to the site. Sadly - and here I come to my one adverse criticism - the species are listed only by their scientific names (because, its authors, argue there is a substantial African francophone community for whom English names would be difficult).
Here, then, is a brief outline of the nuts and bolts of this huge tome, but the more critical issue to tackle is its significance, which I think it would be almost impossible to overstate. Important Bird Areas in Africa and Associated Islands ranks alongside Collar and Stuart's Threatened birds of Africa and Related Islands, the multi-volume The Birds of Africa and Dowsett and Dowsett-Lemaire's A Contribution to the Distribution and Taxonomy of Afrotropical and Malagasy Birds, as one of the most important works on the region's ornithology in the last 30 years. Its editors, together with their numerous contributors across the whole continent, deserve the highest praise for seeing such an ambitious project through to completion.
The book's value falls neatly into two halves. On the one hand it is a single volume compendium of all we know about the region's most bird-rich landscapes and is therefore a critical departure point for all future conservation activity on the continent. The foremost challenge which it highlights is the lack of legal protection for 44% of the IBAs. Given that all the 1,228 sites make up just 7% of the continent's land surface, the safeguarding of the entire IBA network represents a relatively modest and attainable goal, even when one takes into account the massive human development obstacles confronting African society.
As well as offering us a conservation map for decades to come, the book has an important negative function, which the authors acknowledge all too readily. It is as much a benchmark for what remains to be discovered, as it is a statement of what is now known. The book has the potential to inform almost all our ornithological activity on the continent, enabling amateurs and professionals alike to supply the many missing fragments to the overall picture.
There is little doubt that it is primarily a technical manual aimed both at informing environmental professionals and convincing African decision-makers to implement its powerful conservation message. On that basis alone I suspect many ABC members will want to own a copy. Yet I think it also has a surprisingly strong appeal to a much more general birding community (which would have been far stronger had English names also been included!). It provides a valuable and authoritative outline of ornithology in every African country, while the site-by-site information is extremely useful for shaping recreational birding itineraries. It also indicates where ordinary birders can make valuable contributions to any ongoing site database.
Finally, and not least, I think the book provides enormous satisfaction simply to the armchair birder, allowing us to dream about countries few of us will ever see. Take Chad, for instance, a country with just eight IBAs. Yet of these, one is the Ouadi Rime-Ouadi Achim region, among the largest protected areas in all Africa. It extends for almost 8 million ha, is described as largely featureless (!) terrain and in the short rainy season is thought to hold thousands of Palearctic waterbirds. Yet judging from the references hardly more than a handful of birders have been there in the last two decades. Now there's an opening for an enterprising young undergraduate!