THE pleasant twittering of swallows, the sound of an English summer afternoon, breaks the dawn silence on the slopes of the Mbe Mountains in south-eastern Nigeria. After a few minutes, tens of thousands of birds take off from the elephant grass covering the hillsides: grass which reaches more than twice as high as a man. For 20 minutes flight after flight of swallows - each numbering thousands - rises from the forest of grass.
A vast cloud of birds forms above the mountains, rising higher and higher into the pale African sky. After a while, the mass gets smaller and smaller until it fades into the horizon.
At dusk, they return, filling the sky once more as they come back to the hillside to roost. From 50ft above the ground, they make a final, swift dive into the grass. This is their daily routine: the swallows spend the night in the grass and the day far off on the horizon, searching for food.
The birds, believed to come each winter from no less than 14 European countries, including Britain, find the steep hillside and the dense penniselum, or elephant grass, an ideal roosting site. Ornithologists estimate that at least two million swallows have been making the annual trip from October to March, for the past 60 years. Some estimates place the numbers as high as 40 million; it seems likely that this is the single largest swallow roost in Africa.
The yearly influx of so many birds is more than welcome for the inhabitants of Boje Ebok, a village at the foot of the Mbe mountains. As in most of rural Nigeria, life here is tough. The people are poor and hungry.
Each evening, before the swallows return, the villagers lay in ambush in the grass with home made traps in hand. These consist of a yam cut in half with a long stick at its base. Twigs are inserted all over the rounded side of the yam. Homemade adhesive of palm resin and water is spread over the twigs. Once the swallows begin the dive into the grass, the device is raised and swung in the air.
A sad end awaits any swallow that falls in contact with the trap. Glued to the twigs, they are pulled off and thrown into sacks after their wings have been broken. Back in the village, they are prepared in a stew. Villagers say the swallows taste good. "God has created these birds to be eaten," says Boniface Ofre, chairman of the community.
Those birds they don't eat they sell in neighbouring villages, to generate much-needed income. Ferdinald Obi a 15-year-old student, says he sold hundreds of the birds to pay his school fees. Ornithologists reckon that as many as 200,000 are caught and eaten each winter.
Dave Kelly of the Wetland Trust, Icklesham, East Sussex, is currently involved in a five-week study at the roosting site. He says the activities of the villagers represent the worst single threat to swallows from man. Swallow numbers are declining. This is almost certainly not because of traditional depredations in Africa; it is more likely because of problems in their breeding habitat in Europe. Nonetheless, killing of the birds on such a large scale is very distressing to bird-lovers who are trying to protect them thousands of miles away.
The existence of this roosting site in the Mbe mountains was unknown to the outside world until 1987. It was only last year that efforts were made to halt the massacre of the little birds. A "Save Our Swallows" project was launched by Phil Hall of Pro-Natura, an international conservation group based in Paris and John Barker of the Worldwide Fund for Nature's Cross River National Park in Nigeria.
The campaign seeks European support to reduce the need of the local people to kill the swallows. One idea is to provide an alternative source of protein, by establishing a goat, pig and snail breeding programme. Support has come from, among others, British Airways, Barclays Bank and the BBC, which donated an electricity generator after filming the swallows for its series Great Natural Journeys, to be screened later this year.
The villagers have responded by imposing a ban on swallow killing last October for a trial period of one year. But some of them have reservations. Francis Ebu, one of the village chiefs, says the hunting ban denies the community a natural gift. He argues that if Europe wishes to conserve its swallows it must be prepared to pay a good price. This means, he says, the provision of much-needed amenities like a health centre, a primary school, an accessible road and a guest house.
But Anthony Bassey, of the WWF argues that life in the village has already been improved since the "Save Our Swallows" project started. Five villagers have been employed to work permanently at the roosting site - four of them are rangers while the fifth is a researcher. The influx of ornithologists and conservationists from Europe has also created casual jobs for village youths. Half-a-dozen young people last week were on the payroll of four Europeans working on a bird ringing project.
One of the bird experts, Chris Hewson of of Cambridge University, said the roosting site is a godsend for research into swallow migration. But tapping the full scientific and tourist potential will depend on whether or not the villagers can agree to extend the ban on the killing and forget their taste for swallow meat.
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