Rufous Fishing-owl Scotopelia ussheri


Justification of Red List Category
This species has a larger population is larger than was once thought, however the population size is still estimated to be small and severely fragmented, and is suspected to be in decline owing to habitat loss, persecution and disturbance, amongst other potential threats. Its is therefore classified as Vulnerable. It is very likely that its future survival will depend on populations in protected areas, which presently receive inadequate management and protection.

Population justification
The species was previously estimated to number fewer than 2,500 individuals because of its apparent scarcity; however, it has recently been shown to be more widespread and probably more common than previously thought, thus it is now estimated to number 2,500-9,999 mature individuals. This equates to 3,750-14,999 individuals, rounded here to 3,500-15,000 individuals. Further study is required.

Trend justification
Data suggest that in the species's range states forest extent on average decreased by c.13% from 1990 to 2010 (FAO 2010). The population is therefore suspected to have undergone a moderate decline (10-19%) over the last three generations (estimated at 18 years by BirdLife International), owing to habitat loss and other threats.

Distribution and population

Scotopelia ussheri is endemic to the Upper Guinea forests of West Africa, occurring in Guinea (recorded from Ziama forest in 1951 and more recently in 1992 and 1993 [Bützler 1996]), Sierra Leone (four records up to 1969, in 1989 recorded from an area adjacent to Gola Forest [P. Robertson in litt. 1998], in 1992, found to be moderately common in one small area on Mt Loma, and recently river surveys in Gola located it in at least four, but possibly six, areas, suggesting it is uncommon or rare, but perhaps locally common along the Kwadi and Mogbai Rivers [E. Klop in litt. 2007, Dowsett-Lemaire and Dowsett 2008]; most recent sightings have been from the Gola Rainforest near Tiwai Island [Conway et al. 2010, Klop et al. 2010, Monticelli et al. 2015]), Liberia (fairly widely distributed and not uncommon with recent sight records from the upper Dube River, Zwedru, and near small forest streams in Grand Gedeh and northern Lofa County [Gatter 1997]), Côte d'Ivoire (five sites: Lamto [Demey and Fishpool 1991], and four protected areas: Taï NP [Gartshore et al. 1995], Azagny NP, Mount Péko NP and Marahoué NP [H. Rainey in litt. 2003]) and Ghana (not found during surveys in the south-west during 2001-2005 [H. Rainey in litt. 2007], but reported from Antikwa, Kakum, in 2008, with records from several other sites [Dowsett-Lemaire and Dowsett 2009, 2014]). Loma Forest, Sierra Leone, is a prime site for the species's conservation due to the area of suitable habitat (Atkinson et al. 1994).


Its preferred habitats are riverine rainforest and mangroves. However, records have also come from a small stream in swampy forest in Taï National Park (Gartshore et al. 1995) and streamside vegetation in a coffee plantation in degraded forest near Gola Forest (P. Robertson in litt. 1998). Surveys in Gola located the species in primary forest, forest edge near villages and in secondary growth such as old cocoa plantations and bamboo stands, along small, shady streams in mosaics of open floodplains and riverine forest (E. Klop in litt. 2007, Dowsett-Lemaire and Dowsett 2009). It would appear that it can survive in secondary forest with small rivers as long as there is suitable gallery forest (Atkinson et al. 1994), where branches of trees overhanging streams can be used as fishing posts (Atkinson et al. 1996b). The species may feed on freshwater crabs and other food items, in addition to fish (E. Klop in litt. 2007). The comparative paucity of records, and its absence at some sites with potentially good habitat, suggest it is patchily distributed and generally at low densities (G. Rondeau in litt. 2003 H. Rainey in litt. 2003, 2007). Pairs probably engage in duets (H. Rainey in litt. 2003, E. Klop in litt. 2007). It is generally considered to be nocturnal, although an active individual was camera-trapped at midday in Sierra Leone in 2009 (Conway et al. 2010).


Continuing deforestation outside reserves and the inevitable consequent disturbance are both serious threats (Atkinson et al. 1994). Forests on the Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire border, near Mt Nimba, have little effective protection and clearance for agriculture and logging is taking place rapidly (H. Rainey in litt. 2007). Marahoué National Park, where the species was previously recorded, has now been cleared of semi-deciduous forest (H. Rainey in litt. 2009). Whilst outright forest clearance seriously threatens the species, it seems able to tolerate some habitat degradation provided sufficient cover remains and swampy areas are present (Dowsett-Lemaire and Dowsett 2009). It may be affected by the poisoning of small streams and rivers, e.g. due to industrial pollution (H. Rainey in litt. 2007) or fishermen using poison for illegal fishing (M. Gartshore in litt. 1999), which is apparently becoming more frequent (G. Rondeau in litt. 2003). Increased sedimentation in rivers as a consequence of deforestation causing increased turbidity could adversely affect the species, which hunts by sight (Atkinson et al. 1994). Birds on low perches are easily shot by day or captured at night by fishermen who dazzle them with spotlights (Demey and Fishpool 1991); however, in some areas the main threat from hunters, as well as fishermen, is probably disturbance (Dowsett-Lemaire and Dowsett 2009). The association of owls with witchcraft by many local people means that they are not commonly hunted for food, although there is evidence to suggest that they are sometimes captured as pets or for local trade (E. Klop in litt. 2007). The fragmentation (and therefore increased accessibility) of its habitat is exacerbating such hunting pressure (G. Rondeau in litt. 2003). Climate change may affect this species (Carr et al.  2014, Willis et al. 2015).

Conservation actions

Conservation Actions Underway
CITES Appendix II. It occurs in a few protected areas, including Taï National Park and Loma Forest Reserve. Taï National Park and periphery reserves (including Haute Dodo and Cavally Forest Reserves) is the largest and best-preserved area of Upper Guinea forest, but management needs improvement (H. Rainey in litt. 2007). Forests on the border of Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire, near Mt Nimba, are not effectively protected (H. Rainey in litt. 2007). The AfRap Project planned to conduct a systematic survey of this species in the National Parks of Côte d'Ivoire (G. Rondeau in litt. 2003). River surveys for the species have been conducted recently in Gola.

Conservation Actions Proposed
Conduct surveys in western Ghana, around the three large river systems Tano, Ankobra and Pra and their tributaries (Holbech 1992, 1996). Conduct surveys to determine whether the species occurs within other protected areas in West Africa (Gatter 1997). Survey the mangroves of Guinea, Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana (H. Rainey in litt. 2003). Upgrade the protected status of Mt Loma (currently a non-hunting forest reserve) (H. S. Thompson in litt. 1999) and carry out ecological studies there (Atkinson et al. 1996b). Enforce the law against fishing with poison, particularly in protected areas. Improve the management and protection of protected areas where the species occurs, particularly riparian forest. Improve management of Taï National Park and periphery (H. Rainey in litt. 2007). In Taï National Park and Gola Forest, take action to limit forest clearance in and around the national park and incorporate local people into the development of an effective management plan including development of land use regulations, alternative livelihoods, ecotourism and other activities that will limit encroachment into park (H. Rainey in litt. 2007). Effectively motivate forest guards to carry out patrols (H. Rainey in litt. 2007).


46-51 cm. Large, orange-coloured owl with dark eyes and no ears. Uniform orangey-brown upperparts with paler buff underparts streaked with brown. In flight, imparts an orange and white appearance, showing off pale underwings and white belly. Similar spp. Smaller than Pel's Fishing Owl Scotopelia peli and has uniform, not barred, upperparts. Voice Baritone hoot given at irregular intervals, sometimes in a series and may duet. Call similar to S. peli, but somewhat higher pitched and not as flat, but slightly rising in pitch.


Text account compilers
Benstead, P., Ekstrom, J., Shutes, S., Symes, A., Taylor, J. & Westrip, J.

Gartshore, M., Klop, E., Rainey, H., Robertson, P., Rondeau, G. & Thompson, H.S.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2019) Species factsheet: Scotopelia ussheri. Downloaded from on 17/06/2019. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2019) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 17/06/2019.