Endangered Species Handbook

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Vanishing Species

Actions and Attitudes: Page 7

     Dramatic rescues of endangered species have become commonplace on the island of Mauritius through the efforts of teams headed by Dr. Carl Jones, a scientist working for the Wildlife Preservation Trust, founded by famed author and conservationist, Gerald Durrell.   This island harbors some of the world's most endangered birds, and by the 1970s, conservationists had become resigned to the imminent extinction of several of these endemic birds and other endangered animals.  In steep decline, they seemed to be following on the path of the Dodo.  Crucial to the success of the efforts to reverse this trend was the agreement signed by the government of Mauritius with four conservation organizations in the 1980s, including the Wildlife Preservation Trust, to cooperate in preserving the island's natural heritage.  A conservation program in the 1970s to protect the Mauritian Pink Pigeon (Columba mayeri) had failed, and the remaining 33 birds were dying off.  Captive-bred birds failed to breed, and wild birds were dying from various causes.  Jones arrived on the island in the 1980s and, after years of concerted effort in cooperation with a small staff, brought the wild population from a low of 10 birds to approximately 375 birds in 2000.  Pink Pigeons now nest at four sites on Mauritius, and another on Ile aux Aigrettes, an islet off the coast (BI 2000).  This spectacular increase was the result of a program in which exotic monkeys, rats, mongooses and feral cats were removed from the roosting and nesting grounds of these beautiful, pale pink birds.  Captive-bred birds released to the wild were given food until they were independent, and nests were carefully monitored for predation, falling eggs and other mishaps (BI 2000).  The program hopes to increase these pigeons to a population of 500 birds within five years. 
     The Mauritius Parakeet (Psittacula eques), once the most endangered parakeet in the world, became reduced to a total population of only six birds in 1978 (BI 2000).  The captive-breeding program set up to preserve them in the 1970s was not successful, and the last wild birds were dying out.  Jones and other experts in parrot breeding set up a new captive-breeding program and gave the few wild birds strict protection from the many threats that appeared almost certain to cause their extinction.  These included an almost total loss of forest habitat, including old trees with nest holes; a lack of available food; monkeys and rats preying on nestlings; infestations by nest fly larvae; and competition for nest sites with various introduced birds and bees (BI 2000).  In spite of these overwhelming odds, these lime green parakeets are making a slow recovery.  A forest habitat of 8,000 acres has been made into a national park where exotic species have been excluded and captive breeding is now succeeding.  At first, the wild parakeets refused to nest in boxes set out for them and would not try to find other nest sites if their nest tree were destroyed during hurricanes.  Fortunately, a few pairs did nest, and habitat improvements were made, such as the planting of fruit trees as a food source.  Through these and other efforts, the wild and captive populations rose to between 85 and 90 birds by 1997 (Hoyo et al. 1997).  Numbers continued to rise, and by 2000, 106 to 126 birds survived (BI 2000).  This is one of the world's most impressive conservation stories.  The vast majority of birds whose populations have declined so drastically experience genetic impoverishment or become prone to other threats by failing to respond to conservation programs.  The recent extinctions of Hawaii's honeycreepers and other native birds are testament to the failure of many 11th-hour programs to conserve critically endangered birds.  Although still listed as Critical by BirdLife International (2000) and the IUCN, the Mauritius Parakeet may be reclassified as Endangered, should present trends continue (BI 2000).
     A third endangered bird of this island, the Mauritius Kestrel (Falco punctatus), a small falcon, numbered only four birds in 1974, coming the closest to extinction of any Mauritian bird.  Yet today the species is numerous, having almost completely recovered.  Through captive breeding and restocking birds to the wild using methods employed in the United States for Peregrine Falcons, and with the help of the Peregrine Fund, hundreds of captive-bred birds have been released to the wild and fed at release sites until they gradually sought wild prey.  By 1995, these kestrels totaled 286 birds (Jones and Hartley 1995).  Control measures have been successful in reducing exotic species that preyed on them.  The population of Mauritius Kestrels reached 145 to 200 breeding pairs in 2000; the species totals from 500 to 800 individual birds who live in three subpopulations in various parts of the island (BI 2000).  Jones has also worked to restore habitats for various endangered lizards that are captive bred at the headquarters of the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust.  These small, iridescent geckoes had become restricted to out-islets, where they survived because introduced predators were absent.  Unfortunately, rabbits were released on Round Island, habitat for several of these endangered reptiles, and they multiplied to pest proportions, leaving almost no natural vegetation.  Many of these lizards were captured just in the nick of time, and bred in captivity, as the last of their habitat was being consumed.  After removal of the rabbits and replanting of native species, these lizards are now being reintroduced.

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