A Tern for the Worse

Around 90% of the world population of the tiny Damara tern, of which less than 2000 breeding pairs remain, are endemic to the open shores and sandy bays of the Namib coast from South Africa to Angola. Adult Damara terns, which have a grey back and wings, a black head and white breast, measure just 22cm long, and are more similar in appearance to swallows than to other terns.

Damara terns nest on the Namib gravel flats well away from jackals, hyenas and other predators, though their small size renders them incapable of carrying food for long distances. As a result, they must always remain near a food source, which usually consists of prawns and larval fishes.

When alarmed, Damara terns try to divert the threat by flying off screaming. Since the nest is usually sufficiently well camouflaged to escape detection, this is an effective behaviour. However, if the breeding place is in any way disturbed, the parent tern abandons the nest and sacrifices the egg or chick to the elements. The following year, it seeks out a new nesting site, but more often than not, it discovers that potential alternatives are already overpopulated by other species, which it instinctively spurns.

Over the past few seasons, this has been a serious problem along the Namib coast, mainly due to the proliferation of unregulated off-road driving along the shoreline between Swakopmund and Terrace Bay. This problem is further compounded by the fact that Damara terns usually hatch only a single chick each year. In recent years, the terns have failed to breed successfully, and if the current situation continues, they may well be extinct within just a few years.

Although the biggest risk to the Damara tern continues to be off-road drivers, the increase in tourist activities on the dunes is also taking its toll. One way of reducing the environmental impact of activities is for a company to operate in a confined area. When you’re booking through a company, inquire about its conservation policies.