The Southern African Bird Atlas Project 2 (SABAP2)

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The Southern African Bird Atlas Project 2 (SABAP2) is an updated and refined version of the first Bird Atlas Project, SABAP1, which ran from 1987 to 1991. SABAP1 culminated in 1997 with the landmark publication of two volumes of the first bird atlas, which looked at the distribution and relative abundance of Southern African birds. This publication has contributed greatly to biodiversity initiatives in Southern Africa, and has been extensively used.


For the first time SABAP1 included maps showing the ‘true distribution’ of all bird species in Southern Africa, and represented a ‘snapshot’ of the distribution of each species during the late 1980s and early 1990s. SABAP2, a partnership project between SANBI, the UCT’s ADU, and Birdlife South Africa, was launched on 1 July 2007, and covers South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.

Since the first bird atlas project, bird distributions in Southern Africa have continued to change, possibly more rapidly than during the previous 30 to 40 years. Large-scale landscape changes resulting in widespread habitat loss, transformation and fragmentation, and in some cases new habitat creation, coupled with climate change, have contributed to changing bird distributions. Monitoring these distributional changes is crucial if properand effective BMPs are to be put in place to conserve bird populations and diversity in Southern Africa into the future – hence the need for SABAP2. The project focuses on the use of citizen scientists for data collection, and, as in SABAP1, aims to increase the public’s interest in and awareness of birds. The project is overseen by both a steering committee and an executive committee, and is implemented by a project team.

BOX: Crazy about acronyms

After SABAP1, a number of focused projects were initiated to sustain the public’s interest and involvement. These included CWAC (the Co-ordinated Waterbird Counts), BIRP (Birds In Reserves Project) and CAR (Co-ordinated Avi-faunal Roadcounts), which all showcased the birding public’s commitment to making further contributions to bird conservation in South Africa. The acronyms don’t stop there. Smaller projects within SABAP include WHAMB (Welcome Home All Migrant Birds), which looks at both the intra-African migrants coming to Southern Africa to breed, and the Palearctic* migrants arriving for their non-breeding season. WHAMB builds on LAMP (the Long Autumn Migration Project). Then there is also BASH (the Big Atlassing Summer Holiday), which was conducted in summer. DeJaVU (December January Atlassing Vacation Unlimited) is the latest project aimed at documenting the distribution of as many species as possible, as comprehensively as possible, in the SABAP2 region in December and January 2009/10. *One of the eight ecozones into which the world is divided, extending across Europe, North Africa and North Asia, north of the tropics

BOX: SABAP1 as a pioneer

The software used to develop SABAP1 was so successful that it has been used to develop atlas projects for other faunal groups, such as the Southern African Frog Atlas Project (1996–2003); SARCA (2005–2009) and SABCA (2007–2011).

Aims of the project

Key aims of SABAP2 include the following:
  • Providing a scientifically rigorous, replicable platform for tracking through time and space the impacts of environmental change on Southern African birds by means of standardized data collection on bird distribution and an index of abundance
  • An increase in public participation in biodiversity data collection and public awareness of birds through large-scale mobilization of citizen scientists/volunteers

Project successes

  • Coverage – Gauteng has reached 100% coverage, and Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Free State more than 50% coverage. Currently, the project has a 35,7% coverage of Southern Africa, with over 1,6 million records.
  • Automated data submission and vetting process – Records are electronically submitted to the project, and processed immediately. Each record is checked (vetted) against existing SABAP2 records plus data from SABAP1. Where a species was not recorded or was rare in SABAP1, it is flagged as 'out of range', requiring further assessment and verification.
  • Up-to-date website – The website includes near-real-time* distribution maps, observer summaries and project progress statistics ( The website is automatically updated every five minutes, and observers can confirm and check their own data submissions online.
  • Human resourcesin place – Regional atlas committees and provincial atlas coordinators were set up to assist with the vetting of out-of-range records, and the promotion of the atlas in their regions.
  • Atlas challenges – Atlassers are encouraged to take part in mini-projects/challenges with defined targets within SABAP2. These mini-projects have specific goals, such as trying to determine arrival and departure times of migrants, or trying to cover a specific number of new pentads.


  • Coverage – It is challenging to obtain coverage in critical gap areas in order to reach project targets.
  • Protocol perceptions – The project was initially perceived to be ‘too difficult’, which led to negative public relations, and affected participation levels.
  • Limited observer network – In the beginning, participation was slow, and converting registrations into active participants proved challenging.
  • IT issues – The network availability was erratic at times, and software development and maintenance posed some problems.
  • Funding – There is not enough funding available for the project to be completed.

What are the lessons from SABAP2?

  • Lead time is essential – Data collection needs to be preceded by better lead time and consultation with stakeholders with regard to project planning.
  • Where information is updated almost the same time that it is received, providing the most current, up-to-date data
  • Involve citizen scientists, and communicate with them – The use of volunteers or citizen scientists is critical for large-scale data collection. Equally important is regular feedback to volunteers through the internet.
  • Training – Training volunteers in correct field procedures is critical for the success of the project, and increases levels of participation.
  • Technology – Use of advanced technology, such as the internet and GIS, has greatly improved the day-to-day operational activities of SABAP2.
  • Baseline data – Having a baseline dataset, with inclusion of other bird datasets, streamlines data checking.
  • Mentoring – One-on-one mentoring and support play a large role in creating more active participants.

Box: How to participate in SABAP2

Taking part in SABAP2 is easy, and involves the following steps:

  • Register as an observer.
  • Obtain a SABAP2 starter kit.
  • Obtain the relevant maps for field surveys.
  • Conduct a field survey, and submit your checklists.
  • Attend a bird atlas workshop or presentation.

For more information on SABAP2, visit

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