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Saving the most endangered parrot on earth from going the way of the dodo…

In the late 1980s, the Echo or Mauritian parakeet (Psittacula eques) was considered the most endangered parrot on earth and researchers, who by that time were getting really good at finding them, could only account for 4 or 5 pairs in the wild. These emerald green parakeets are only found on the island of Mauritius...

In the late 1980s, the Echo or Mauritian parakeet (Psittacula eques) was considered the most endangered parrot on earth and researchers, who by that time were getting really good at finding them, could only account for 4 or 5 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 very lucky to see one or two pairs fly over the Black River Gorge. It was clear then that this species, along with several other Mauritian endemics, was teetering on the brink of extinction. Echo parakeets were going the way of the Dodo hundreds of years before. Read here about how the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and World Parrot Trust have worked tirelessly over the last 25 years to save the Echo parakeet, Mauritius kestrel, Mauritian pink pigeon, Rodrigues warbler, and Rodrigues fody. Mauritius has saved more species than any other country in the world…

Mauritian Wildlife Foundation
Echo parakeet living free in Black River Gorge. (Mauritian Wildlife Foundation)
Mauritian Wildlife Foundation
Echo parakeet in flight aviary. These beautiful parrots almost disappeared along with the Dodo. Sometimes intervening is the only way... (Mauritian Wildlife Foundation)
Mauritian Wildlife Foundation
Over 1% of the global population of 550 Echo parakeets in one photograph. There is still a surplus of male Echo parakeets that continue to be about thrice as numerous as females. (Mauritian Wildlife Foundation)

 

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 viable species even though they were still holding on in the wild. Step in the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and World Parrot Trust to support this species. Together with the National Parks and Conservation Service dedicated people like Carl Jones, Vikash Tatayah, Mike Reynolds, more recently Heather Richards, and many other researchers, collaborators, volunteers, and conservationists have set about ensuring that there are no more extinctions on an island made famous by the extinction of the Dodo in 1690.

Ballista
Dodo reconstruction (Raphus cucullatus) reflecting new research at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Their extinction on Mauritius was a siren to us all! (Ballista)
Louise Warburton/Cape Parrot Working Group
Skin of a Echo parakeet from the Natural History Museum collection at Tring. Collections like this are valuable in systematics and even isotopic research. (Louise Warburton/Cape Parrot Working Group))
Louise Warburton/Cape Parrot Working Group
There are thousands upon thousands of bird, mammal, and reptiles skins at the Natural History Museum at Tring dating back hundreds of years. These collections will become more and more valuable in the coming years. (Louise Warburton/Cape Parrot Working Group)

 

Vikash Tatayah from the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation says that since 1984, the Mauritius Kestrel, Pink Pigeon, Rodrigues Warbler, Rodrigues Fody and Echo Parakeet have been saved from extinction. Mauritius (and Rodrigues) have, therefore, saved more species than any other country in the world, ahead of New Zealand and the United States (including Hawaii), which have each saved four species from extinction. The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and its partners have also saved numerous plant species from extinction and worked hard to restore native forest habitats, thus establishing Mauritius as a leader in endangered species conservation. Vikash still pointed out: “There is still a lot more to do!”

Mauritian Wildlife Foundation
Two Mauritian kestrels in Black River Gorge. These too needed to be saved from extinction. (Mauritian Wildlife Foundation)
Mauritian Wildlife Foundation
Mauritian kestrel on the ground. There are now about 800 kestrels in Black River Gorge from a founding population of 4 birds. (Mauritian Wildlife Foundation)
Mauritian Wildlife Foundation
Mauritian pink pigeon was on the brink of extinction in 1991 when only 10 individuals remained. Numbers have increased due to the efforts of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust since 1977. (Mauritian Wildlife Foundation)
Mauritian Wildlife Foundation
Captive breeding and re-introduction programs run by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Mauritian Wildlife Foundation has resulted in a stable population of about 350 in the wild. (Mauritian Wildlife Foundation)

 

Today, Echo parakeet is restricted to a remnant of native forest comprising less than 40km2 of the Black River Gorge National Park. Like most endangered parrots they were forced to watch 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 – only 1% of their natural habitat remains. The last-remaining Echo parakeets were thus faced with a chronic lack of suitable trees for nesting, out of control nest predation by introduced black rats, continuous disturbance by humans, feral pigs and deer, and staunch competition from the more plentiful and aggressive Rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri) introduced by immigrants to the island. By the late 1970s, the two, three or four Echo parakeet pairs remaining in the wild were vulnerable to disease outbreaks and tropical cyclones as extinction threats, which made every year a nerve-racking experience if you cared about the future of this parakeet on this iconic island.

Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri) is one of the most widespread parrots on continental Africa with a range that spans the Sahel. They are also the closest relative to the Echo parakeet. (Cyril Laubscher)
Mauritian Wildlife Foundation
Echo parakeets at a feeding station in Black River Gorge. These stations are essential to their survival. (Mauritian Wildlife Foundation)
Mauritian Wildlife Foundation
Researcher checking on Echo Parakeet chicks in a nest box. Not the wrapping around the tree to prevent access to nest box by nest predators like rats (Mauritian Wildlife Foundation)
Mauritian Wildlife Foundation
Researcher harnessed below an Echo Parakeet nest box. Constant inspection and care is required to increase nesting successes. (Mauritian Wildlife Foundation)

 

In the 1990s, the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust made a huge decision and, after successful captive breeding, launched intensive population management measures. Captive-bred Echo parakeets were released and established in artificial nest boxes, supplementary feeding stations were established for these released parrots, captive-bred chicks were then introduced to nest boxes, and so they began the process of rebuilding a viable population. By 2010, they achieved a population of 500 Echo parakeets (550 Echo Parakeets in February 2011)! A huge conservation milestone and a wonderful story. Now we have to keep the species going until the forest habitat they depended upon has been rehabilitated. Nest predation, competition with honeybees, and further habitat destruction have been controlled, but we now face the ominous arrival of Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD), which has started reducing healthy Echo parakeets to underweight, featherless birds unable to survive in the wild. Many have died from the disease and the international parrot research and conservation community is working feverishly to combat this debilitating “Doomsday Virus” for endangered parrots around the world.

Mauritian Wildlife Foundation
Regular blood samples are important in monitoring the threat of Pssitacine Beak and Feather Disease to the remaining population. (Mauritian Wildlife Foundation)
Claire Raisin/University of Kent
Echo Parakeet with no tail feathers and yellow feathers tested positive for Pssitacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD) virus. PBFD is widely recognized as the "Doomsday Virus" for endangered parrot species. (Claire Raisin/University of Kent)
Claire Raisin/University of Kent
Deformed feather taken from an Echo parakeet that died of Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease. (Claire Raisin/University of Kent)

 

Downlisting the Echo parakeet from Critically Endangered to Endangered in the 2007 IUCN Red List was a monumental achievement. The goal moving forward is a stable population of 300 mature birds in the wild. At current population levels they are still threatened by natural disasters (e.g. tropical cyclones) and the ravages of Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease, which is poorly known and requires significant research investment. The World Parrot Trust will continue supporting what is widely recognized as the most successful parrot conservation program ever undertaken. The ground-breaking work of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust is an example to us all.

Quentin Bloxham/Mauritian Wildlife Foundation
Echo parakeet photographed in Black River Gorge in 2009. (Quentin Bloxham/Mauritian Wildlife Foundation)

 

Dr Steve Boyes

National Geographic Grantee

http://www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com/experts/steve-boyes/detail

http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/author/sboyes/

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Meet the Author

Steve Boyes
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.