Saddle-billed Stork Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis Scientific name definitions
Version: 2.0 — Published June 25, 2021
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Only recently did the first empirical assessment of distribution demonstrate inaccuracies of the traditional range map (28) and challenge claims that it is widespread virtually throughout all of sub-Saharan Africa (8). The core of the range is from Uganda and Kenya to northern Botswana, Namibia, and extreme eastern South Africa. Aside from vagrants or dispersing immatures, it is absent from the desert southwest of the continent. Populations from Chad and Central African Republic to coastal Senegal are primarily restricted to the edge of the Sahel, where historic declines have left populations highly fragmented with questionable connectivity (JG, in prep). Most records in central Africa are from before 1970, so modern distribution there is unclear.
Present Range by Country
Between 1975 and 2002, the Angolan Civil War prevented the ornithological coverage that other countries received. Therefore, many records of occurrence predate the war, making it seem as though the species has disappeared from much of the country. Recent observations are concentrated in Quiçama National Park as well as along the Cuando and Quembo rivers thanks to National Geographic expeditions from 2015–2018.
It is restricted to the W-Pendjari National Parks complex in northern Benin, where records (including breeding) have been consistent since the 1980s. The single record from the coast no doubt represents a vagrant/disperser.
It is common in the northern part of the country, particularly in the Okavango Delta and the Makgadikgadi Pans. Aside from several vagrant/disperser records, it is absent from the desert south.
The population in Arli and W National Parks is continuous with that in Benin and Niger. Although the number of records are few, they span several decades. One record of four storks from the north in 2003 likely represents vagrants due to lack of suitable habitat in the region. Two observations of immatures on the Nazinga Game Ranch (B. Portier and V. van der Spek, personal communications) in the south of the country are significant in that they provide some measure of dispersal ability: the nearest known breeding population is roughly 175 km away in Mole National Park, Ghana.
Records from Burundi are scarce and probably represent vagrants from Tanzania. However, Verschuren (29) stated it could be found in large numbers at the Rusizi River Delta, which may suggest a decline more recently. It has also been listed as present in Ruvubu National Park in Cankuzo Province (30,31), but no specific records from there are known.
It is primarily found in northern Cameroon, where records have been consistent in the Waza-Logone floodplain for several decades. It has also been observed consistently in Bouba Ndjida and Benoue National Parks. Two observations further south likely represent vagrants/dispersers.
Central African Republic
Data from this country are sparse and do not provide insight into the species' status there. Although it has been reported on lists for Manovo-Gounda St. Floris National Park since the 1980s, no specific records or counts are available. There is an apparent dry season influx in the park, however (32). It was listed as common during the dry season in Baminqui-Bangoran National Park in the 1980s as well (33), yet no records since then are known. The few other records probably represent vagrants/dispersers given the lack of suitable habitat in most of the country. The observation in Djoubissi in the center of the country was the observer's only sighting in three years there (N. Voaden, personal communication), which also suggests it was a wandering bird.
The Bahr Aouk and Bahr Salamat river floodplains, which include Zakouma National Park, are characterized by an abundance of Saddle-billed Storks, which has particularly been noted in the past ten years. One of the highest concentrations ever recorded, 85 storks (34, R. Barnes, personal communication), was recorded in Zakouma in April 2015. This population is likely continuous with that in northern Central African Republic, where dry season abundance has also been noted (32). It is also abundant along the Cameroon border in the Waza-Logone Floodplain, and has only been observed on Lake Chad and Lake Fitri on several occasions (Wetlands International, unpublished data).
Occurrence in Cote d’Ivoire has been limited to Comoe National Park, where it has only been recorded three times (several eBird observations appear as country 'list-building' are are not considered legitimate). Walsh (35) recorded a nest with chicks in the park in 1975 and then the next records were not until 2017 and 2018 (Z. Martial, personal communication). Two possibilities may explain this 42-year gap: (1) it may be that Walsh's nest observation was a coincidental, extralimital breeding occurrence, or (2) the species may have disappeared in the intervening decades between observations. It is equally possible ornithological coverage has been historically poor in the park, but the rarity of the 2017 and 2018 sightings (Z. Martial, personal communication) suggest otherwise. Nevertheless, it only occurs as a vagrant in the country now.
Democratic Republic of Congo
The only recent records (i.e., post-1990) from this country are in border areas: Garamba and Virunga National Parks and one observation of a pair in Katanga Province (S. Doppagne, personal communication).
Very little habitat exists in the country, and the only records of occurrence in the late 1980s and early 1990s were from near the border with Mozambique (36, Wetlands International, unpublished data).
It is common throughout the Great Rift Valley lakes and rivers, but not known to occur east of the valley (37). Distribution in the north is scattered, and it is also common in Gambela National Park.
The few recent records from Gabon (G. Passavy, personal communication; Wetlands International, unpublished data) are probably of vagrants, especially considering the lack of suitable habitat and scarcity of observations.
It has been reported along the Gambia River or on the coast several times since 1990. These storks are part of the population from Senegal to Guinea-Bissau.
Mole National Park is the only area in Ghana where the species persists. Breeding has been recorded there for decades.
It is restricted to the Bissagos Archipelago, where records have spanned several decades, but breeding has yet to be recorded.
Common throughout the southern half of the country, and limited by suitable habitat in the north.
It is mostly found in Kasungu and Liwonde National Parks and along the border with Zambia, where it may be common in Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve (38).
It is only considered a vagrant now that the breeding population is extirpated.
The only record from this country was in Diawling National Park, near the border with Senegal, in 1997.
Records are mostly from southern (Banhine and Limpopo National Parks) and central Mozambique (Gorongosa National Park and the Zambezi River Delta) because of the atlas projects in those regions (39, 40). The remote north has received relatively poor ornithological coverage following the Mozambican Civil War from 1977–1992, so occurrence of the Saddle-billed Stork there is uncertain.
It is restricted to northern Namibia, where distribution is patchy, due to limited and marginal habitat. Most records come from the Caprivi Strip, Lake Oponono, and Etosha National Park. There are no recent breeding records.
It is only found along the southwestern border with Burkina Faso and Benin. All recent records but one come from W National Park. Older observations near the Mali and Burkina Faso borders were probably vagrants/dispersers due to unsuitable habitat.
Even historically it was apparently scarce in Nigeria. Yankari is the only area it has been observed in the past 20 years, where no more than three storks have ever been recorded (P. Hall and U. Ottosson, unpublished data). It has not been observed there since 2015; thus it seems likely to have disappeared from the reserve. Modern occurrence elsewhere in Nigeria is unlikely given the relatively good coverage of the Nigeria Bird Atlas (41) and extensive travel across the country by several ornithologists over two decades (P. Hall and U. Ottosson, personal communication).
Republic of Congo
One recent record is known from Lesio-Louna Gorilla Reserve, although it was provided secondhand and therefore unconfirmed (42).
Records are concentrated in Akagera National Park due to limited habitat. One record of a pair outside the park comes from Gashora Swamp.
It is mostly found on the coast, especially in the Saloum River Delta, where one nest has been recorded (W. Mullié, personal communication). For several decades it has been recorded in Niokolo-Koba National Park but breeding has not been recorded there since 1981 (43).
Although it was common in limited habitat along the south coast in the 1980s, the status of this population is currently uncertain due to poor ornithological coverage since civil war began around 1990. It has only been observed twice since 1987 (J. Miskell, personal observation).
This endangered population, which is no doubt continuous with that in southern Mozambique and Zimbabwe, is limited to the eastern margin of the country. The geographic core is in Kruger National Park and surrounding game reserves, but it is also commonly observed in coastal wetlands in KwaZulu-Natal Province. Records toward the interior of the country are of vagrants and dispersers.
Modern distribution in most of Sudan and South Sudan is unknown as decades-long civil wars have prevented sufficient coverage. Records from before 1985 indicate fairly widespread occurrence and breeding (44) but this needs updating. The Sudd in South South likely remains a stronghold, where historically it held the largest known population in Africa (45).
It is widespread and abundant across most of Tanzania, especially in expansive protected areas.
The most recent observation in Togo is from Keran National Park in 2004. Breeding was last recorded in the late 1980s, and it is now considered to be extirpated due to habitat degradation (46, R. Dowsett, personal communication).
It is found throughout most of Uganda, but records are especially concentrated in Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth National Parks, as well as along Lake Victoria.
It occurs across all of Zambia (47). However, atlas data are not available by year and so a look at historic changes in distribution is not possible. It is particularly abundant in Liuwa Plain National Park (48).
The first Southern African Bird Atlas Project showed it to be ubiquitous in Zimbabwe (49), but recent records are limited. It is commonly reported from Gonarezhou and Hwange National Parks, along the Zambezi River, and around Bulawayo and Harrare.
Historical Changes to the Distribution
Characteristic hieroglyphs and artwork from ancient Egypt indicate this stork was present in the Nile Delta region until the Late Predynastic Period (2,686–2,181 B.C.), during which it likely receded from the region due to environmental changes (50, 51). Presumably, it was after this period that it became restricted to sub-Saharan Africa, although no other archaeological, anthropological, or paleontological data are available.
Known distribution declines appear to have been most prominent in West Africa over the pasty fifty years (28). The combined evidence of these declines suggests this stork responds negatively to environmental change over short periods of time. It was historically common in the Inner Niger Delta of Mali (52, 53, 54, 55), but there have been only three observations (two of immatures) since 1960 (56, Wetlands International, unpublished data). The loss of this historic breeding population can probably be attributed to depletion of fish populations following the introduction of nylon fishing nets in the 1960s (57) and dams built along the Niger River in the last century (56). It has also not been observed along the Senegal River since the mid-1990s, probably due to dams altering flood regimes (58).
Previously it was more widespread in Ghana outside Mole National Park, including along the Volta River as recently as the early 1970s (59). A group of nine was even seen soaring above the Volta Delta in 1943 (60). A nest was recorded in Comoe National Park in Cote d'Ivoire in 1975 (35), and there are only three observations since then (61, Z. Martial, personal communication). Thus, it is unclear if this peripheral area was ever part of the historic range or if the nesting record was an extralimital occurrence (28). Many vagrant observations across Africa are of pairs (JG, unpublished data), so it is possible that a wandering pair could incidentally nest outside the normal range. It has been extirpated in Togo, along with several other stork species (46). There, it was limited to Kéran National Park and the Oti Reserve, where the last breeding was recorded in the 1980s (62). Following the drought of the 1970s, it disappeared from the Makalondi area of Niger, where it previously bred (63,64).
The majority of known records from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, and Gabon are from before 1970, with only several records for the region over the past fifty years. It is unclear if this contrast represents an actual range contraction or poor ornithological coverage in recent decades due to civil unrest. In Kasai and Katanga provinces, Democratic Republic of Congo, the species was anecdotally considered common and numerous in the early 1900s, which also raises questions about potential declines. Expeditions in the late 1800s and early 1900s into the Congo region may have resulted in more records in fairly remote areas that are not now frequently visited. Conversely, environmental conditions (e.g. surface water, climate) may have become less favorable since those expeditions, thus indicating real range loss (28).
In the 1940s and 1950s, Smith (65) reported small numbers were regular visitors to flooded crops in western Eritrea, but has not been observed in the country since. The species was reported uncommonly along the Shabeelle and Jubba rivers of Somalia in the 1980s, where breeding was suspected (66). Two observations in 2002 (J. Miskell, personal communication) represent the only known records after 1987. While conflict in the country has certainly limited ornithological coverage in recent decades, it is likely that habitat degradation (e.g. nest tree removal; 67) in the already-limited suitable areas of Somalia has caused the resident population to decline. More information is needed to determine if this area still holds a viable population.
Localized distribution changes in southern Africa have been less conspicuous than elsewhere. For example, it was common around Namibia's Nyae Nyae Conservancy during the 1990s but is no longer found there, perhaps due to an increase in surface water that has made for poorer foraging conditions (28). In Malawi, the species has disappeared from Lake Chilwa and possibly the Nsanje area (28). A decline along the Upper Bua River in Malawi has been attributed to hunting (68), which is the only published evidence of this threat to the species. The historic breeding range in South Africa has also decreased. For example, it was last recorded breeding as far west as the Nyl River floodplain in 1959 (69).