Photo credit: Ciro Albano
There was a shootout. Andy and I weren’t there, but we learned through satellite text messages that Colonel Gui and his soldiers from the Congolese army ran into the bandits somewhere between Kisangani and Obenge—likely the brothers of Colonel Toms, a convicted war criminal and poacher. A gunfight ensued. One poacher was injured and two others were apprehended. Colonel Gui, with his prisoners in tow, is still coming to Obenge to route out poachers in the region. We should see them tomorrow.
I got the news during a four-day sampling hike through TL2 with Andy and the scientist John Hart [http://www.bonoboincongo.com]. But let me back up. After Kisangani, which is where I last blogged, we flew to Kindu, a town on the border of the 25,000 square mile jungle known as TL2. It’s the region Elephant Ivory Project-lead Samuel Wasser [http://depts.washington.edu/conserv/Director.html] wants elephant dung samples from most (read the previous posts to understand why). From Kindu, the three of us spent two days on the back of motorbikes, riding dirt paths notched into the jungle and savannah. These paths are arteries out of the bush. We saw locals pushing bicycles loaded with everything from pineapples to bush meat in the form of monkeys and okapi, a striped cousin of the giraffe. At the Lomami River, we loaded into motorized pirogues for a supposed two-day trip north to Obenge, the Hart’s research camp in the northern part of the proposed Lomami National Park. John stopped at every riverside village—about a dozen–to explain what the national park meant for the locals.
Today, I’m packing. After two years in the works, we’re kicking off the Elephant Ivory Project in earnest on Sunday morning, when Andy Maser and I fly to Kinshasa–the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)–with a case of collection vials and the goal of saving a species. Here’s the back story: Continue reading
Very few people are aware of the Western Ground Parrot, an enigmatic and unusual bird that occurs only along the south coast of Western Australia. Like many parrots in many parts of the world, this species is very close to extinction.
Western Ground Parrots are not as flashy as some parrots, but those lucky enough to have a close encounter with them can appreciate their gorgeous green and gold colours, flecked with black, and capped with a red splash across the forehead—and you do have to be very lucky to see one! In addition to being so rare, their colours provide excellent camouflage in their shrubby habitats, and their behaviour makes them difficult to find.
Can you spot the young bird in the picture below?
Rock Parrots and the Elegant Parrots, which are much more common in the area, are often mistaken for Western Ground Parrots because they also feed on the ground. However, they lack the red forehead and the fine black flecks.
Like many of the world’s rare birds, the Western Ground Parrot has not been well-studied. Its cryptic nature makes it a challenging species to work with. In fact, despite searching, no nest has been found since 1913! However, in the past few years, some insights have been gained in the behaviour and breeding of these birds through radio-tracking and field observation. Methods have also been developed to monitor population size. Additionally, recent genetic work has shown that it is actually a separate species from the ground parrots of Eastern Australia, after having been separated from each other for about two million years.
The Recovery Project is overseen by the Recovery Team and contributed to by staff from Western Australia’s Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC), the Friends of the Western Ground Parrot, and many volunteers. In recent years, the team has observed a rapid decline in Western Ground Parrot populations, which has alarm bells ringing. According to Dr. Abby Berryman, one of the team members battling to save the species, there are likely now less than 140 birds in existence.
“The Western Ground Parrot could be facing imminent extinction, and could become the first contemporary bird extinction on the Australian mainland,” explains Dr. Allan Burbidge, a principal research scientists with the DEC. “And to make it worse, we are concerned that the marked decline of the Western Ground Parrot in the 330,000 ha Fitzgerald River National Park, in the heart of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, could be a classic case of a ‘canary in the coalmine’. This reserve is home to eight other listed threatened animal species and a host of rare or threatened plant species. We are concerned that the decline of Ground Parrots in this area may be suggestive of the threatening processes impacting on this landscape.”
The low shrubland vegetation that the Western Ground Parrot depends on is very prone to fires, which have regularly swept through the area, destroying the bird’s habitat. Extensive bushfires, and those occurring too frequently, have been quite a challenge for managers entrusted with the protection of ground parrot habitat. Although these disasters remain an ever-present risk, the managers’ many hours spent in collaboration with the recovery team and volunteer data collectors has yielded improved fire management. However, it is now becoming clear that fire alone has not been responsible for the decline of this species.
Though the Ground Parrot can fly well, it feeds, roosts, and nests on the ground, making it vulnerable to introduced predators, such as cats and foxes. These skilled predators were brought to Australia from Europe and have wreaked havoc on the native fauna. It would seem a simple thing to do would be to just go out and control the numbers of these animals, but it’s not that simple in practice. First, the animals themselves are cunning, and often avoid traps or baits. Second, the removal of predators can have unforeseen consequences, including unpredicted changes in numbers of prey species, some of which might compete with the species we want to conserve.
“We are doing our best to unravel this puzzle, but it is proving extremely difficult to pull together sufficient resources to implement this ambitious program of integrated predator control and monitor the results,” says Sarah Comer, Chair of the recovery team.
We now realize that we need to come to grips with the impact these predators are having on Ground Parrot populations, and what the consequences might be if they are not removed. Understanding the influences on the endangered birds’ population size can best happen through controlled experiments and careful documentation. There can be no quick fix for this exacting work. It is slow, but at the same time urgent. Additionally, control of feral predators and setting up a captive breeding program will not come cheap. Currently, this species is listed under the Australian Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1992) as Endangered, but a nomination to change the classification to Critically Endangered is now being considered.
Brenda Newbey, Chair of Friends of the Western Ground Parrot says, “The Western Ground Parrot is a feisty survivor. Our community group is doing its best to support the Recovery Team but we are extremely concerned that insufficient funding will hamper efforts to conserve this unique species. However, we do strongly believe that with help now, the Western Ground Parrot can make a comeback.”
This means that you can help the Western Ground Parrot! Please visit the website of the Friends of the Western Ground Parrot (click here) to find out more about this unique bird. Or click here to make a donation.
Watch as biologist Brent Barrett leads us through the activities of the rarely observed Western Ground Parrot (Pezoporus flaviventris):
The Western Ground Parrot was featured in Bush Warriors’ “Saying Hello: Ten New Species Discovered in 2010”, after it was found to be a genetically distinct species from the Eastern Ground Parrot. Click here to see the article!
In the late 1980s, the Mauritian Parakeet (Psittacula eques), also called the Echo Parakeet, was considered the most endangered parrot on earth. By that time, researchers, who had become really good at finding them, could only account for four or five pairs in the wild. These emerald green parakeets are only found on the island of Mauritius in the Western Indian Ocean, and 30 years ago you would have been extremely lucky to see one or two pairs fly over the Black River Gorge. It was clear then that this species was teetering on the brink of extinction, along with several other Mauritian endemics.
Many mainstream conservation funds and authorities didn’t want to invest in what they saw as a certain failure, effectively writing off the Echo Parakeet as a nonviable species, even though they were still holding on. Then stepped in the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF), Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and World Parrot Trust. To ensure there would be no more species lost from this island, made famous by the extinction of the Dodo in 1690, a team of dedicated people banded together with the National Parks and Conservation Service. It was a unified effort that included people like Carl Jones, Vikash Tatayah, Mike Reynolds, Heather Richards, and many other researchers, collaborators, volunteers, and conservationists.
The last remaining Mauritian parakeets were challenged a chronic lack of suitable nesting trees, unprecedented nest predation by a booming population of introduced black rats, ceaseless human disturbances, feral pigs and deer, and staunch competition with the more plentiful and aggressive Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri) introduced by the island’s immigrants. By the late 1970s, the two to four Echo Parakeet pairs remaining in the wild were gravely threatened by heightened vulnerability to disease outbreaks and tropical cyclones, which made every year a nerve-wracking experience for those concerned with the future of this species.
After successful captive breeding efforts, the MWF and its partners made a bold decision in the 1990s to launch intensive population management measures. Captive-bred Echo Parakeets were released and provided with artificial nest boxes and supplementary feeding stations. Captive-bred chicks were also introduced to nest boxes, and so began the process of rebuilding a viable population. By 2010, they had achieved a population of 500 Echo Parakeets (a total of 550 Echo Parakeets expected in February 2011)! A huge conservation milestone and a wonderful story!
Vikash Tatayah from the MWF says that, since 1984, the Mauritius Kestrel, Pink Pigeon, Rodrigues Warbler, Rodrigues Fody and Echo Parakeet have been saved from extinction. This means that Mauritius has saved more species than any other country in the world. Even more than New Zealand and the United States (including Hawaii), which have each saved four species from the point of no return. The MWF and its partners have also prevented the loss of numerous plant species and have worked hard to restore native forest habitats, establishing Mauritius as a leader in endangered species conservation. Yet, Vikash points out: “There is still a lot more to do!”.
Today, the Echo Parakeet is restricted to a remnant of native forest that comprises less than 40 square kilometers (15 square miles) of the Black River Gorge National Park. Like most endangered parrots, they saw their limited forest habitat degraded and broken down until they were forced to seek new food resources and nesting sites in habitat that simply couldn’t support them. Now, only 1% of their natural habitat remains.
We must continue to support the species until the forest habitat they depend on has been rehabilitated. Threats posed by nest predation, competition with honeybees, and further habitat destruction have been controlled. However, we now face the ominous arrival of Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD), which has already begun to reduce body weights in healthy Echo Parakeets and has seen featherless birds unable to survive in the wild. Many have died from the disease and the international community in parrot research and conservation is working feverishly to combat this debilitating “Doomsday Virus” for endangered parrots around the world.
The World Parrot Trust will continue supporting what is widely recognized as the most successful parrot conservation program ever undertaken. To read more about these magnificent birds, please click here.
Photo via World Parrot Trust
Many are aware of the plight of the African Grey parrots of central and western Africa, but few know about that of the continent’s most endangered parrot: the Cape Parrot of South Africa. Today, there are less than 1,000 of these gorgeous birds remaining in the wild, and they are classified as ‘critically endangered’ by the South African government. This species is threatened by continued habitat loss, challenges to their reproductive ecology, disease, conflict with humans, and the illegal pet trade industry.
If Africa lost this green and gold ambassador of South Africa’s last-remaining Afromontane forest patches, it would cause the destabilization of this delicate ecosystem. Other endemic organisms dependent on these forests would also be lost; species such as Samango monkeys, the Amathole toad, and a variety of chirping frogs.
The many threats to this bird are largely caused by humans and their activities. The Cape Parrots’ forest habitat has been logged intensively for over 350 years. Due to a lack of nesting cavities, which is a function of habitat loss, the Cape parrot population also suffers from poor nesting success. They are often regarded as crop pests, resulting in their persecution when they are shot or caught in nets and clubbed to death. The wild-caught bird trade places a high demand on this rare species, as well. Eggs are frequently stolen from nests and adults are mist-netted to supply the black market. The physical health of ageing populations is also on the decline. To date, there has been very little intervention on the part of law implementation and enforcement, and the Cape Parrot now flies closer and closer to extinction. We must intercede immediately and stimulate positive change for this imperiled bird.
In 2009, the World Parrot Trust initiated the Cape Parrot Project in an effort to save this endemic species from extinction. Preliminary surveys indicated that the observed body condition of Cape Parrots in the southernmost part of their distribution had been declining for at least five years. Soon, we received over 30 photographs of Cape Parrots with symptoms of advanced Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD), a debilitating circovirus that attacks the immune system, beak, internal organs, and feathers of parrots globally. Varieties of this PBFD are widespread and usually specific to small groups of parrots. It is particularly nasty in that it is airborne, spread by the shedding of feather dust. No known agent (e.g. alcohol or virucide) can kill this virus, making it a “doomsday virus” for endangered parrots around the world.
The photos were sent to us by some concerned South Africans who, in the many years that they had been observing and photographing the birds feeding in their pecan trees, had never seen anything like this. The news was shocking and prompted us to investigate the nature of this emerging threat to the Cape Parrots’ future.
Between March and July 2010, we finally had the opportunity to capture the birds at the pecan orchard where the photos had been taken. Within a week, we were able to collect blood and feather samples for disease testing. The results confirmed an alarming rate of PBFD infection among this feeding flock. Over 50% of the samples tested positive for the disease. All signs pointed to an outbreak.
The individuals we captured were all in terrible condition with chronic weight loss, fleas, lesions on the beak, a lack of down feathers, and poor feather condition in general. To our heightening distress, we soon began to find carcasses under roost trees after the first two cold snaps of the season. By July, this flock, which represented 30% of all wild Cape Parrots, had been reduced by nearly half (45%). Concern mounted about the far-reaching impacts of this disease on the species as a whole, as we realized that 10-15% of the entire population had been lost in this incident alone.
Currently, we are working towards the development of a PBFD vaccine using the blood samples we’ve already collected. Cape Parrot Project is also collaborating with international researchers in the study of this disease. Next year, we plan to capture Cape Parrots at six additional locations in order to determine infection rates among these isolated subpopulations. We hope to find them thriving in absence of the disease. However, if similar infection rates are discovered next year, we will be forced to remove sick individuals from the wild for rehabilitation in a quarantine facility. After recovery, they would then be returned to the wild in the spring.
There is no doubt that long-standing and extensive logging has radically transformed the Afromontane Yellowwood forests that the Cape Parrots are vitally dependent on. Our research indicates that, due to the significant changes and pressures endured by these precious forests, the birds’ habitat simply isn’t healthy enough to support them any longer. This may have played a major role in the PBFD outbreak. It’s also possible that the species is just not strong enough to fight off the debilitating nature of PBFD. The disease has probably been present in the wild Cape Parrot population for a very long time, but at a significantly lesser prevalence.
Historically, these birds fed predominantly on yellowwood fruits, which are high in calcium and protein, low in fats, and have strong anti-microbial activity. A lack of natural food resources has seen the species turning to pecan nuts, plum and cherry pits, pine nuts, acorns, apple seeds, Australian Acacia seeds, and other exotic foods. The new resources they’ve come to rely on are either high in fat or sugar. This diet could be compared to a person living off fast food and getting sick as a result. The lack of nutrients could be contributing to the spread of PBFD.
What would cause a sudden increase in the pervasiveness of this airborne virus in the wild population? Illegal traders regularly capture Cape Parrots and breed them to produce eggs that can be sold legally with the appropriate permits. If these wild-caught specimens declined in condition as a result of poor diet and resultant PBFD infection, it’s possible that the traders might have released the animals back into the wild, thus spreading the disease. It’s also conceivable that this species has been exposed to a new and more virulent strain of the PBFD virus. Either way, it’s indisputable that humans have contributed to the current situation in some way. It’s imperative that we do everything we can to secure a future for these birds in the wild.
Please join the Cape Parrot Project group on Facebook and invite your friends to join. Spread the word, share your unique insights in our discussions, and help us save Africa’s most endangered parrot. The Cape Parrot Project group on Facebook is now the largest parrot conservation group in social media, with over 4,500 members and hundreds of photos, videos, links, and posts. We look forward to seeing you in the group.
Nearly one third of all parrot species are now threatened with extinction due to the illegal pet trade, habitat loss, and disease. To read more about our alliance with the World Parrot Trust, in an effort to bring awareness to the plight of the world’s parrots, please click here.
Dr. Steve Boyes discusses the plight of Cape Parrots:
First-ever footage of a critically endangered Cape Parrot feeding in the high canopy of a yellowwood tree: