Animals

Critically endangered birds brought back from the brink

The pink pigeon and northern bald ibis are two of the success stories in the official Red List of endangered bird species, published today. Thursday, 22 November 2018

By Jonathan Manning

Long-term conservation programmes have saved two exceptionally rare birds from the brink of extinction.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, published today, has downlisted the risk profiles of both the northern bald ibis, a distant relative of storks and herons, and the pink pigeon. At one stage numbers of the pink pigeon had declined to just nine wild birds, and the northern bald ibis to 59 pairs, before intensive conservation efforts began to restore their populations.

Official IUCN Red List definitions classify bird populations of below 250 mature adults as ‘critically endangered’; fewer than 2,500 mature adults as ‘endangered’; while ‘vulnerable’ species have populations below 10,000. Rates of decline and the number of populations can also signal a threat.

“Since 2000 we have downlisted 26 species of bird, but there are still 224 critically endangered birds; 469 endangered species and 799 vulnerable species,” said Dr Ian Burfield, global science co-ordinator, Birdlife International, the official bird authority for the IUCN Red List.

He added that of the 11,000 bird species in the world, the status of nearly twice as many species has deteriorated rather than improved.

“We are on track to downlist [the threat status of] 30 species of bird by 2020, but more are uplisted every year,” said Burfield, who called for “a massive upscaling of investment and resources” to keep species recovery heading in the right direction.

Northern Bald Ibis

The northern bald ibis is an unlikely figurehead for conservation, lacking the drama of a bird of prey or the cute appeal of a puffin, but conservationists and zoo keepers who get to know the species all end up loving them, said Chris Bowden, coordinator of the AEWA Northern Bald Ibis International Working Group, who first started working with the species in 1994.

“They have fantastic characters, they’re very social birds, and apart from their rather ‘punky’ appearance they are very elegant in flight. They are incorrigible thieves, stealing food and nesting materials from each other – they’re like naughty children the whole time,” said Bowden.

The bird was once widespread across North Africa and even featured as an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph, but its numbers struggled throughout the 20th century, declining from about 50 colonies in 1900 to just two colonies and 59 pairs by 1998. Since then, a concerted conservation effort in Morocco’s Souss-Massa National Park and nearby Tamri has seen the sole wild breeding colony gradually recover to 147 breeding pairs, which has downgraded the bird’s Red List status from critically endangered to endangered this year.

A succession of NGOs, including the UK’s RSPB, Spain’s SEO, and now GREPOM (Groupe de Recherche pour la Protection des Oiseaux au Maroc) have supported the conservation effort, but one constant has been the involvement of local people.

“The key factor I would highlight in the programme is that right from the outset in the 1990s we put a lot of energy into nominating and training local fishermen to become wardens of the colonies in Souss-Massa,” said Bowden.

“Three of the guys I helped train back then are still there as wardens. They are regularly monitoring the birds and making sure other fishermen and tourists do not disturb them.”

The national park and Moroccan government have strongly supported the programme, and their continued backing is vital to ensure the long-term recovery of the northern bald ibis, said Bowden. The boundaries of the Souss-Massa almost perfectly protect the feeding and breeding grounds of the northern bald ibis, and it’s vital that this land is shielded from future disturbance and development, according to the recently updated International Single Species Action Plan.

“Maintaining unintensive land use is crucial, and there’s some nervousness among our colleagues in Morocco that downlisting the bird’s critically endangered status will weaken its protection,” said Bowden. “We’ve still only seen a gradual increase in numbers and the second main colony at Tamri urgently needs stronger protection.”

Pink Pigeon

As a young conservationist, Dr. Vikash Tatayah, thought his colleagues were playing a trick on him shortly after he joined the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation back in 1997. Sent to explore Bel Ombre forest, Tatayah awoke to find 20 to 25 pink pigeons eating from a hopper outside his field station verandah.

“My first thought was, ‘have they been lying to me that this bird is really rare?’” said Tatayah, who is now conservation director at the foundation. “But it is a very rare bird.”

So rare, in fact, 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, and its status improved to 'vulnerable'.

“The pink pigeon had been hunted for food – it can taste awful to eat depending on the season and what it’s been feeding on,” said Tatayah.

“It had also suffered habitat loss; less than 5% of Mauritius’s native vegetation remains, and less than 1.5% of that is good quality native vegetation. And it was threatened by predators, including crab eating macaques, black rats, feral cats and mongooses.”

A combination of habitat restoration, supplementary feeding, disease management and predator control has helped the pink pigeon to recover. There is a plan to reintroduce birds from captive breeding programmes in Mauritius and to repatriate birds from several UK zoos including  London, Cotswold, Bristol, Chester, and Jersey, to boost numbers further.

“The pink pigeon has gone through some genetic in-breeding, which is to be expected when the population falls so low, but that leaves it susceptible to diseases and higher infertility of eggs,” said Tatayah.

“However, birds taken to the UK in the late 1970s and early 80s, as well as the US (now all in San Diego), show a nine to 10% genetic diversity which is not in our wild population in Mauritius. So we are working on the repatriation of birds to reinstate the genetic diversity of our population.”

The recovery programme remains a management-intensive project, with every bird ringed –“we even give them names,” said Tatayah– and supplementary food provided.

“This has been a 40-year programme, and we are working towards getting the numbers up to 600 birds,” he added. “Then we will see to what extent we can minimise the management. The point where they can fend for themselves remains a long way off because of predators, disease and habitat quality. We are very proud to have been able to downlist the bird, but we do not have the luxury of taking our eyes off the ball.”

With invaluable support from the government of Mauritius and the country’s National Parks and Conservation Service, conservation organisations such as as Durrell and Chester Zoo, as well as research support from the universities of East Anglia, Cardiff, Kent and Reading, Institute of Zoology there are now pink pigeon populations at nine sites in Mauritius.

Moreover, the bird has had a global impact on the conservation community.

“There have been hundreds of people who have worked on the pink pigeon project, both Mauritians and expatriates,” said Tatayah. “They are taking lessons learnt in Mauritius and adapting it to situations in other countries, including the UK. The international reach is enormous – people have learnt how to handle birds and ring birds here, people have learnt how to look for diseases, how to keep birds in captivity, how to release birds, how to control predators. These are things they don’t teach you at universities.”

Extinction is not inevitable

The success of the northern bald ibis and pink pigeon projects have proved that effective conservation action can save critically endangered species, said Dr Roger Safford, senior programme manager (preventing extinctions), BirdLife International, in a press release.

“Both of these species have become icons for the spectacular and unique places they inhabit, with benefits to many other animals and plants,” he said. “But even these two remain threatened, so we cannot be complacent and our efforts must continue – as they must also for too many other species that continue to decline.”

Seven hornbill species in Southeast Asia, for example, have seen their threat levels raised in the latest Red List, as has the straw-headed bulbul (now critically endangered) and the Java sparrow, both due to the songbird trade in Asia.

In an official statement, Melanie Heath, director of science, policy and information, BirdLife International, said, “This year’s list shows that given sufficient resources and political will, species can recover and habitats can be restored. However, still more concerted effort is required to reverse the downward trends of our planet’s most threatened bird species. Governments have a particular responsibility to implement policies that scale up existing successes and achieve environmentally sustainable development to end the biodiversity crisis – the focus of this month’s gathering of the world’s governments, NGOs and the business community at the 2018 UN Biodiversity Conference.”