Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Echo Parakeet saved from fate of the Dodo in Mauritius

A species whose numbers once dwindled to just eight known individuals, including only two females, has been removed from the critical list thanks to a conservation effort spearheaded by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

The Echo Parakeet is one of nine native bird species remaining on Mauritius, but its numbers have been severely impacted by deforestation and invasive species. Just a few years ago it was considered the rarest parrot on the planet, but now 320 of these birds fly freely in the Mauritian forests, resulting the species being downgraded from Critically Endangered to Endangered.

Invasive species had been the biggest factor in the bird’s decline. Introduced plants such as the guava have spread rapidly across Mauritius, preventing the growth of native trees on which the birds depend for food. Animals such as the Black Rat have raided nests and competed with the birds for native fruits.

Durrell and its partner organisation the Mauritian Wildlife Fund combated these threats by restoring areas of its natural habitat, removing invasive species, planting native trees and providing feeding stations. They received extensive support from The World Parrot Trust, Chester Zoo and the International Vet Group.

Techniques which the charities used to successfully increase numbers of two other critically endangered birds, Pink Pigeon and Mauritius Kestrel, were adapted. To ensure a high survival rate in the face of natural food shortages, Durrell removed all but one hatchling from the parakeets’ nests for hand-rearing. This reduced the burden on the parent birds and prevented infant mortality.

Dr Carl Jones MBE, a Durrell scientist who has spent 20 years fighting to save the birdlife of Mauritius, said: “There is a high natural wastage in birds so our intervention ensured the survival of a far greater number of hatchlings. This is the first time a species has ever gone from being such a rarity to being down-listed in such a short time. It is a major success for all the charities who have been working together on this project.”

Mauritius is famed for a bird tale with a less happy ending - the extinction of the Dodo. This large, flightless endemic pigeon relative was exterminated in the latter half of the 17th century, within 80 years of the islands being settled. Knowledge of its habits and affinities are somewhat patchy, but the remains of one recently found in a cave beneath bamboo and tea plantations may offer the best chance yet to learn about the extinct flightless bird.

The discovery was made earlier this month in the Mauritian highlands, but the location was kept secret until the recovery of the skeleton, nicknamed ‘Fred’, was completed on Friday. Four men guarded the site overnight.

Julian Hume, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum, told Reuters that the remains were likely to yield excellent DNA and other vital clues, because they were found intact, in isolation, and in a cave.

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Photo: Echo Parakeet by Sarah Seymour (Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust)