Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Back from the brink - Mauritian Wildlife Foundation

On Thursday, 22 November 2018, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species down-listed the risk profile of the Mauritian Pink Pigeon from "Endangered" to "Vulnerable". Official IUCN Red List definitions classify bird populations as ‘Critically Endangered', 'Endangered’ or ‘Vulnerable’.
Pink Pigeon Mauritius - Photo © Dr. Vikash Tatayah

As described in the subsequent National Geographic article - the Pink Pigeon was so rare that the great early-20th century naturalist, Walter Rothschild, included the pink pigeon in his book Extinct Birds. Fortunately he was premature in signaling the demise of the species, although at its absolute low point in 1990 the pink pigeon population had crashed to just nine wild birds before determined efforts by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, with support from a number of partners, turned its fortunes around. The result is a remarkable success story, with pink pigeon numbers now at over 400 birds hence its improved status to 'vulnerable'.
© Steve McCarthy
The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation is running an ongoing 40year programme for the Pink Pigeon with support from the Government of Mauritius, the country’s National Parks and Conservation Service, conservation organisations such as Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Chester Zoo, Paignton Zoo, Institute of Zoology, and a host of universities including Reading, Kent and East Anglia.There are now pink pigeon populations at 9 sites in Mauritius and, as a successful species saved from extinction, the bird has had a global impact on the conservation community.

Mauritius is well-known as the site of the most infamous extinction caused by humanity - the ill-fated Dodo. It is only fitting that the island is now considered a path-breaker in rescuing endemic species from extinction because of their ongoing efforts with a number of very rare endemic species.

This includes (among others) the Pink Pigeon, Echo Parakeet, Olive White-Eye, the Mauritius Fody, the Rodrigues Fody and - of course - the Mauritius Kestrel, saved by what was called one of the most spectacular raptor conservation programs in the world by the Scientific American in 2010.

The Scientific American article went on to describe the success story as below:
Locally called the “Crécerelle de Maurice”, the Mauritius Kestrel had a population of only 4 individuals in the wild in 1974 that included just 1 breeding female.

This grim state of affairs inspired a conservation effort whose goal—to rescue the Mauritius kestrel from extinction—was thought unthinkable. Among the detractors of the project was British environmentalist Norman Myers. In 1979, Myers wrote: 
"We might abandon the Mauritius kestrel to its all-but inevitable fate, and utilize the funds to proffer stronger support for any of the hundreds of threatened bird species that are more likely to survive."

A few others believed in the project however, as was the case of well-known conservationist and writer, Gerald Durrell.
Remarkably, by 1994, less than 20 years after the start of the conservation project, a free-living population of the Mauritius kestrel has been attained. That same year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature(IUCN)promoted the species from "Critically Endangered" to "Endangered." Six years later, in 2000, the species’s status was again lifted, this time to "Vulnerable."

The program included a number of groundbreaking conservation techniques, such as cross fostering, hand rearing and release of captive-bred and captive-reared birds as well as artificial incubation, provision of nestboxes and continued management in the wild. Captive kestrels were fed on mice and small chicks and a few years later, between 1981 and 1986, as many as 13 birds, thrice as many as had been reported in 1974, had been recovered. By the end of the 1986-1987 breading season, these birds had reared more than 30 new ones.
Meanwhile, eggs and nestlings were being removed from nests in the wild and artificially incubated. The young ones were then made available to be released in the wild. Release of captive-bred and captive-reared birds in the remaining endemic forests of Mauritius proved a significant success. More than 75 percent of the birds released in the wild became independent. Furthermore, they were seen to have a high mating rate.

Although the conservation techniques pioneered in the programme were still not being used in other countries, they were successfully put in practice in conservation projects for other Mauritian birds like the Echo Parakeet, Mauritius Fody and the up-listed Pink Pigeon.

Active management of the Kestrels is not done any more but the population of the species is constantly monitored. As per the MWF website - over time, the small population re-introduced to the Moka Range in the 1990s died out leaving the population in the Black River Gorges which has suffered a slight range contraction, and the Bambous Mountains population - together comprising around 400–500 kestrels today.
The Scientific American article quite presciently said in 2010: the status of the Mauritius Kestrel is likely to remain "Vulnerable." Due to the relatively small population of the species, the Mauritius kestrel is perpetually at risk. Indeed, chance events like tropical cyclones—not uncommon in the tropical region of Mauritius — may yet abruptly annihilate the entire population.

Judging by how the re-introduced Moka population died out, and the relatively un-improved numbers of the Black River Gorge/ Bambous mountain populations over the past 8 years - their author is probably correct.

Author: Shahana Dastidar


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