“uPholi” want a forest? Rescuing Africa’s most endangered parrot from extinction

The Cape Parrot is one of the most endangered bird species in South Africa with less than 1,000 individuals remaining in the wild. Most of the remaining wild population are infected by and dying from a Pssitacine Beak and Feather Disease epidemic that erupts during early winter each year. Early cold snaps and mild droughts escalate this problem with devastating effects on population levels. Up until 2008, when rats native to Christmas Island went extinct after being exposed to new pathogens, disease had not been proven to cause any extinctions. Alarmingly, Cape parrots are now succumbing to an endemic virus that attacks when their body condition declines, their immune systems begin to falter, and they naturally start molting. They are simply too weak to combat this “doomsday virus” that has always been with them…? How do we save this intelligent parrot from extinction…? How do we help this parrot help itself? Read about them and what people are doing to rescue, conserve and defend one of the world’s most enigmatic birds.

 

Capes in sunlight
A beautiful Cape parrot breeding pair in the morning light - future of the species. We need to provide suitable nesting sites by erecting 100s more nest boxes. (Rodnick Biljon/Cape Parrot Project)

 

“uPholi” is the nickname for the Cape parrot (Poicephalus robustus) or isiKhwenene (the local isiXhosa name). Just the same as “Polly want a cracker!”, “uPholi” wants a forest because local South Africans have busied themselves over the last 350 years selectively removing almost all the large hardwoods (most especially Podocarpus yellowwoods) from all remaining Afromontane forest patches. Starting in the early 1600s in the Cape of Good Hope, these vulnerable forest patches were decimated and have never been given adequate opportunity to recover. For hundreds of years, logging was intensive with millions upon millions of railway sleepers and mining timbers being manufactured. Harvesting of yellowwood trees and other depleted hardwoods continues today in these forests…

View over Hogsback Village
Photograph showing the degradation of Afromontane forest patches by plantations and development near Hogsback Village (Eastern Cape, South Africa). (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)

 

Most people know about the popular African Grey parrots of central and western Africa, but very few people know about Africa’s most endangered parrot, South Africa’s Cape parrot. Today, there could be as few as 800 Cape parrots remaining in the wild and they are considered Critically Endangered due to continued habitat loss, poor nesting success due to lack of nest cavities, a severe Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease epidemic, historical persecution as a crop pest, and illegal capture for the wild-caught bird trade. If Africa was to lose this “green and gold” ambassador of some of our last-remaining Afromontane forest patches, it would be a sign of very bad times to come… We would have lost one of the last Afromontane endemics clinging onto these forests through their own ingenuity and collective intelligence. Intensive logging in their forest habitat, persecution (e.g. being shot or caught in nets and clubbed to death), nest poaching and mist-netting adults for the wild-caught bird trade, and very little or no conservation intervention, has left the Cape Parrot in ruins with an ageing populations in declining physical condition. We need to intervene now and stimulate positive change for Cape parrots in the wild…

Young male Cape parrot roosting in a wild plum tree during the heat of the day (Rodnick Biljon/Cape Parrot Project)
Cape parrots are famous aviators that fly up to 200km to and from feeding sites (Rodnick Biljon/Cape Parrot Project)
Two juvenile Capes
Two juvenile female Cape Parrots roosting in a wild plum tree. So precious. When they are young they let you climb into the tree with them. Very inquisitive. (Rodnick Biljon/Cape Parrot Project)

 

In 2009, we initiated the Cape Parrot Project in an effort to save this endemic species from extinction. Preliminary surveys established that the observed body condition of Cape parrots in the southernmost part of their distribution has been declining for at least 5 years. In March that year, we received over 30 photographs of Cape parrots with symptoms of advanced beak and feather Disease infection from concerned South Africans who had been photographing Cape parrots feeding in their pecan trees for many years and never seen anything like this before. This news was shocking and it has been our focus ever since to understand the nature of this apparently severe threat to their persistence in the wild. A grant from the National Geographic Society Conservation Trust enabled us to undertake much needed research into the threat posed by this little-known circovirus. Our findings were absolutely shocking with a 50% infection rate in 2010 and a staggering 100% infection rate in four times as many blood samples this year. By March, the general public started handing in dead and dying Cape parrots that needed to be rehabilitated for over 6 months before release back into the wild. We had a fight on our hands and began fundraising to support the effort…

Dying Cape Parrot
Nature doesn't do this a bird. A virus out of control. We do not know what happened to this parrot, but a cold snap arrived two days after this photo was taken (Rodnick Biljon/Cape Parrot Project)
PBFD-positive Cape Parrot
Cape parrot left underweight with almost no feathers due to beak and feather disease. This parrot died overnight due to exposure (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Alice
"Alice" was in shocking condition when she arrived. Unable to lift her own weight. She survived to be released with three other survivors in November this year. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Cape parrot to rehab
Cape parrot being handed in by general public. "King" survived the crucial first 48 hours and was released 6 months later back into the wild. Fit and strong! (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Capes in rehab
Alice, King, Buddy & Red. Cape parrots towards the end of 6-7 months rehabilitation. All were successfully released back into the wild. "Dead birds flying!" (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)

 

Today, we are reacting as strongly as possible to this threat, investing in the DNA sequencing of all viral strains that we encounter and contributing towards the development of a suitable vaccine for application in the wild. In addition, we are looking at establishing a disease-free Cape parrot population in forest patches where they went locally extinct around 150 years ago. Our ongoing research has linked these disease outbreaks to a lack of suitable food resources between January and March each year when there is literally nothing for the parrots to feed on. The severe drought this year resulted in infection rates escalating due to starvation at population level. Up to 10% of the local population were estimated to have died. In 2012, we will be testing the application of supplementary feeding decks to ensure that the parrots have sufficient food to combat the virus and avoid eating exotic, potentially poisonous food resources like unripe pecan nuts from the US, cherries from Mexico, plums from Japan, and syringa fruits from India. We need to help this parrot help itself by providing supplementary food resources within the next 5-10 years.

Cape parrot feeding
Cape parrot feeding on exotic syringa berries. These berries are reputed to be poisonous to birds and monkeys. Cape parrots seem to be able to metabolize these poisons, but at what cost? (Rodnick Biljon/Cape Parrot Project)

 

We are not just studying the virus and its relationship to food resources, we are also planting over 25,000 indigenous trees in degraded Afromontane forest patches and “Cape Parrot orchards” across the Amathole mountain range, which has the largest-remaining Cape Parrot population. The Cape Parrot orchards are made up of 500-1,000 indigenous trees that provide fruit for parrots within 7-10 years. In order to support all this tree-planting we launched the “iziKhwenene Project” that contracts local communities to grow, plant and take care of the all indigenous trees planted as part of this project. We pay whole communities $2 per tree that survives every 6 months, planting teams weekly wages to plant these trees, and individuals R10 per saplings grown within our Community Nursery Program. The iziKhwenene Project aims to position local communities as “Forest Custodians” supported by the Wild Bird Trust and corporate sponsors. In addition to planting thousands of trees, the Cape Parrot Project is also erecting 600 Cape Parrot nest boxes to supplement the shortage of suitable nest cavities for Cape Parrot breeding pairs and other cavity-nesting species. We have a tough 10 years ahead of us before the food orchards are producing fruits for the parrots between January and March. Until then we must push to get every Cape Parrot that falls ill to beak and feather disease rehabilitated and back into the wild. We must provide safe, warm nest boxes and supplementary feeding decks until such time as the forests have been restored…

MWF vehicle and yellowwoods
The Mazda Wildlife Fund have loaned us this vehicle for the duration of the Cape Parrot Project. Photographed here with our first 2,000 yellowwood saplings. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
100 nest boxes waiting to be erected
100 new Cape Parrot nest boxes ready to be erected in tall trees near established roosting sites (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Hala planting team
iziKhwenene Project planting team planting a "Cape Parrot Orchard" with wild plums and wild olives near Hala Village (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)

 

Our work rehabilitating four Cape Parrots from the ravages of beak and feather disease demonstrated an instant reaction to the yellowwood fruits we were feeding them. All four parrots began to recover more rapidly from the infection and started to put on weight for the first time, thus supporting research that put forward that yellowwood fruits have very strong anti-microbial activity when ingested. It seems as if due to the lack of this fruit in their diet Cape Parrots are just not strong enough to fight off the ravages of this disease, which, similar to influenza in the human population, has probably been in the wild Cape Parrot population for a very long time, but only at very much lower levels. A Senior Producer from National Geographic Missions Media, Neil Gelinas, visited the Cape Parrot Project for a few weeks and was fortunate enough to film the release of the four rehabilitated Cape Parrots back into the wild: “Dead birds flying!” Hopefully there will soon be a short video clip to share with the world?

Landing sanctuary
Almost 10% of the global population of Cape parrots in this photo. They are landing in 35-year old pecan trees in our "Cape Parrot Sanctuary" near Alice (South Africa). In 2011, we saw flocks of up to 278 Cape parrots in the orchard! (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust).
Hogsback Cape Parrot
First ever photo of a Cape parrot feeding in the high canopy of a yellowwood tree. It took us three days of vocalisation playbacks to "call" them in, but once the discovery was made they were there for the next week or so. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)

First ever footage of Critically Endangered Cape Parrot feeding in the high canopy…

 

Please join the Cape Parrot Project group on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/414491807165/) to stay up-to-date on developments in the conservation of Africa’s most endangered parrot. Spread the word, share your unique insights in our discussions, and help us save South Africa’s endemic Cape parrot… The Cape Parrot Project group on Facebook is now one of the largest parrot conservation group online with over 4,800 members and hundreds of photos, videos, links and posts. We look forward to seeing you in the group… Please also have a look at our outreach work with local schools (YouTube link: Cape parrot education at Reddam House)

 

Please contact me at steve@wildbirdtrust.com for more information on the Cape Parrot Project. Also see: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Wild-Bird-Trust/197215716988240 for daily updates and wild bird photos…

 

Remember that sharing is caring! Please share this blog with your friends and family… Please also read the SafariTalk interview for an in-depth look at the Cape Parrot Project: http://safaritalk.net/topic/7575-dr-steve-boyes-the-cape-parrot-project-wild-bird-trust/

 

Are you keen to visit Africa with National Geographic? Please join me on one of the National Geographic Expeditions in southern Africa: http://www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com/experts/steve-boyes/detail

 

Dr Steve Boyes, National Geographic Grantee

Wildlife

Steve Boyes has dedicated his life to conserving Africa's wilderness areas and the species that depend upon them. After having worked as a camp manager and wilderness guide in the Okavango Delta and doing his PhD field work on the little-known Meyer's Parrot, Steve took up a position as a Centre of Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. He has since been appointed the Scientific Director of the Wild Bird Trust and is a 2014 TED Fellow. His work takes him all over Africa, but his day-to-day activities are committed to South Africa's endemic and Critically Endangered Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus). Based in Hogsback Village in the Eastern Cape (South Africa), Steve runs the Cape Parrot Project, which aims to stimulate positive change for the species through high-quality research and community-based conservation action. When not in Hogsback, Steve can be found in the Okavango Delta where he explores remote areas of this wetland wilderness on "mokoros" or dug-out canoes to study endangered bird species in areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Steve is a 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work in the Okavango Delta and on the Cape Parrot Project.