Some Thoughts on Conservation and Why It Matters
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Some Thoughts on Conservation and Why It Matters

Published on Tuesday, 9th December 2014
Filed under Conservation

The global loss of species is even worse than previously thought. The London Zoological Society (ZSL) in its new Living Planet Index suggests populations have halved in 40 years, as new methodology gives more alarming results than in a report two years ago.

Many birds are counted amongst this species loss. Since the 2007 ban on importing wild caught birds into the EU, the supply of relatively inexpensive wild caught Parrots has dried up in Europe. But Parrots are still at risk.

Illegal poaching and smuggling means thousands of wild Parrots are still caught and enter Asian and Middle Eastern markets.
 

Jamie Gilardi, Director of the World Parrot Trust has said, “when we compare notes with our conservation colleagues who are often talking about their “threatened” birds or elephants numbering in the tens or even hundreds of thousands – for many Parrots, we’re looking at hundreds of individuals left, even tens in some extreme cases. For Parrots, extinction is not hypothetical, for many species, it’s an immediate reality.”
 
Parrot species fare even worse than other birds; of 356 species, about one third figure on lists of endangered in varying degrees of severity.
 
The problems of wild Parrots stem from a variety of causes. The most serious is the loss of habitat which occurs when forests are cut down for farming, for mining or for human habitation. As cities increase in size and population, wildlife is squeezed out. Birds’ habitat degrades when seas and water are poisoned, the dying off of insect life due to chemical fertilisers, hunting and trapping for the pet trade and the slaughtering of huge numbers of birds for the use of their feathers in hats or headdresses.
 
Fortunately, we’ve largely stopped decorating hats with feathers and we’re trying to persuade tribespeople to alter their feather-collecting habits. Good examples of that are the projects that encourage making headdresses from artificial feathers and giving prizes for the best creations.
 
Bird keepers have good reasons to be in the forefront of encouraging conservation.  We are made aware daily of our charges’ extraordinary intelligence, their adaptability to captive conditions. And, for many of us, their beauty and their ability to fly.
 
They have been around longer than we have. Yet their wild cousins are facing problems ranging from difficult to practically unendurable. It’s essential that we change cultural attitudes to the natural world; it is no longer a cornucopia of inexhaustible resources as Europeans and Americans used to think.
 
When the great Victorian explorers were in South America discovering new species of plants mammals and birds, they might happily shoot a few blue Macaws for the pot that evening. Numbers appeared limitless. This is no longer the case.
 
Since the latter half of the last century, strenuous attempts (some successful, others not) have been made to reverse the trend of birds becoming extinct – both by conserving wild populations and breeding captive ones.
 
There are now more captive birds of some species than are living in their natural environment. An example: my beloved Perdy- a Lesser Sulphur Crested Cockatoo (Cacatua sulphura parvula) has more of her species in captivity than in the wild. 
 

Amidst the general gloom of the extinction of species, many projects led by dedicated individuals are reversing the trend. Here’s one success: the yellow eared Parrot (Ognorhynchus icterotis), which hails from Colombia.

These Parrots nest in wax palms. The cutting down of these palms for Easter celebrations destroyed the majority of their nest sites. However this Parrot has been brought back from the brink of extinction. Local people were persuaded to substitute other leaves for the wax palm.
 
From a remnant of 81 known birds found in a remote area, there are now over 1,000. A site has been purchased on private land where the wax palm can be grown thus providing the nesting holes for the Parrot.

Lories were once endemic in the Pacific Islands. Their numbers have been in decline for centuries - a decline hastened by the introduction of black rats from sailing ships. These rodents were not deliberately introduced; they jumped ship or swam ashore.

The Lorikeets’ colourful feathers have also meant that the species was regularly hunted for decorating ceremonial costumes. 

On the island of Rimatara  a population of the extremely rare Lorikeet (Vini kuhlii) species had survived because in around the year 1900 the then Queen of Rimatara put a taboo on hunting them. I don’t know why she did that but without her intervention, the species would have disappeared.

Fossil studies have shown that this pretty red bird once had a widespread distribution from the Cook Islands to French Polynesia. Its range contracted after the arrival of humans, until the only surviving natural population was on Rimatara, one of the Polynesian islands.
 

A hundred years later, in 2007, 27 birds were reintroduced to one of the black-rat-free Cook Islands, Atiu. The project was organized by BirdLife International, the Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust and numerous conservation bodies, including the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. In 2008, the introduced population was found to be reproducing. If you follow YouTube the release is shown in several videos.

One of the most successful of all the attempts to halt species extinction is what happened in Mauritius to the Echo parakeets (Psittacula eques) – the last remaining species of four native parakeets in the area.

In the 1970s, probably less than a dozen were left. In 2014 the flocks were counted at over 600. In the 1990s, the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, working together with other institutions and private funding, launched intensive population management measures.

Captive-bred Echo parakeets were released and established in artificial nest boxes and supplementary feeding stations were established for these released Parrots. Would they be able to rebuild a viable population?

By 2010, they achieved a population of 500 Echo parakeets, 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. The growing population of Echo parakeets now faced an onslaught of Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD), which started reducing healthy Echo parakeets to underweight, featherless birds unable to survive in the wild. Many died from the disease.

However Professor Jones told delegates to Loro Parc last September. ’Despite high disease incidence, the population is increasing and disease may have purged the population of highly inbred birds.’

Some people argue that when the population is reduced to pitifully small numbers, conservation efforts are not worth the expense and possible failure. The story of the Echo parakeet provides strong evidence against this view.

When we talk about the Spix Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii). I can understand critics’ complaints that so much money could be better spent on more viable projects. I don’t happen to agree.  The last wild Spix was seen in Brazil in 2000. Captive breeding takes place principally in Al Wabra.

The latest figures that I’ve seen from June 2013 give 96 as the number of living Spix Macaws, most chicks have been bred at Al Wabra.

Maybe one day they will be released into the catanga, their arid homeland
 

Mark and Marie Stafford of Parrots International, an American conservation NGO, have helped raise the money to purchase a tract of land in the Spix homeland where within the foreseeable future there may be a release of captive bred birds.

The larger and extremely beautiful Blue Throated Macaw (Ara Glaucogularis) is another species whose numbers are greater in captivity than in the wild. According to local people in Bolivia, in the 1980s only 500-1000 individuals were counted. Trapping became illegal but numbers went on dropping.  Recent estimates after surveys by Armonia Association and the Loro Parque Fundacion found additional birds are thought to be around 300 - 450.
 
The World Parrot Trust has many volunteers and employees working to monitor nests and to protect the chicks from predation. Chicks are also examined periodically to ensure that they’re healthy and receiving adequate food from their parents. If necessary, the chick is supplemented with formula.
 
Nest boxes have been built, current nest sites improved, and support from the local landowners has been established. In 2008, American Bird Conservancy partnered with the World Land Trust-US, Loro Parque Fundacion, and Associacion Armonia to create the Blue-Throated Macaw Reserve.
 
In 2010, the reserve was expanded by 2,800 acres (formerly Juvena Ranch) and is now 11,500 acres.  Estimates of Blue Throats in captivity are well over 10,000. A few of these birds are in programmes for release into the wild.

Without a magic carpet or unlimited travel funds, you can’t easily visit these endangered birds in the wild. However, resources are plentiful to learn about them at second hand. Rosemary Low’s Go West for Parrots  (Insignis publications 2009) makes an absorbing guide to the Parrots of South America and the Caribbean. In Spix’s Macaw, Tony Juniper (Fourth Estate, 2002) has written movingly about the race to save the world’s rarest bird.
 

Conservation can only work with political will from governments, local people protecting their wildlife, funds from the public and the devotion of those people who will go and work in the field.

Can our meagre donations make a difference? Yes, there are success stories as I have described above.  It’s true that the majority of funding comes from institutions rather than individuals.  Individuals help conservation also by helping to create a climate of opinion in favour of increasing biodiversity; by changing society’s seeming indifference to the loss of habitat and what that entails for animals and birds who live there.

As you might expect, 97% of charity giving goes to human causes. Of the remaining 3%, half goes to pets. That leaves 1½% devoted to the natural world including the crisis-ridden oceans, the drying or flooding land and the shrinking biosphere on which our lives depend. (The Guardian 09/01/10)

On the web, Birdlife International has 10 million supporters worldwide and will inform you where the birds are and what’s happening to them. This is a very user-friendly site. The World Parrot Trust which originated in UK and now has branches in many other countries, has an excellent website - also very useful for help with our captive birds.

We have more information on endangered Parrots here

Useful Links

If you want to contribute your might to conservation, here are a few out of many:

Birdlife International http://www.birdlife.org/
Loro Parque Fundacion http://www.loroparque-fundacion.org/
Parrots International (USA) http://www.parrotsinternational.org/
World Parrot Trust   http://www.parrots.org/
Black Cockatoo in Australia http://www.blackcockatoorecovery.com/

Photo Credits

The picture of Perdy is Dorothy Schwarz.
The Lear Print is from a website. 
The other three pictures are Mark Stafford.
 
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