Their expressions are so tender; both are smiling constantly. The almost fledged chicks wriggle like crazy and yell like banshees.
René gets bitten through his surgical gloves. Eventually a feather is taken, a ring put on the unringed chick and the chicks are hoisted back to the nest.We take a short rest (I need one) at a camp site for the wardens where they cook rice on an open fire, and then a long forest walk to a second nest tree. The forest on this island is practically untouched. I could have spent hours with the unfamiliar trees and flowers.
A word about poachers
Out of a Philippines staff of 38 wardens and field workers, 15 are ex-poachers. Peter Widmann says that involving Cockatoo poachers as wildlife wardens is essential to arrest decline of the species in the short-term and to recover subpopulations in the long term.
In company with other NGOS, Katala has found that once these men can be persuaded to turn gamekeeper, they have invaluable skills in climbing trees and extensive practical knowledge of the Cockatoos’ breeding habits. They can also be trained in collecting data.
Formerly poachers kept their individual trees. Villagers knew whose tree was whose. Indira points out that once enlisted as a warden, they receive a basic salary all year round rather than an occasional lump sums for poached chicks. She calculates that one poacher stole 168 chicks over a decades-long career.
The price for a poached chick in Manila has risen over recent years. Several hundred dollars provides an incredible incentive for poor farmers who need cash to buy medicine or consumer goods.
Poaching has not died out. Indira says that the release of rescued Cockatoos will be on islands where they can be monitored. On Rasa, eveyone on the island appears proud of their Cockatoos. Surely they won't be tempted to poach again.
The second nest tree
Sabino uses the same technique to cross from slender neighbouring tree to wider nest tree. He has trouble removing the chick from the nest site because the hole is underneath the branch. He needs one arm to cling on and so has to work with one hand only. The chick sounds loudly indignant even to our ears many metres below.
Ensuring chicks’ survival
Sometimes conservation entails interference. In 2010 wardens retrieved 4 chicks from nests from Rasa Island. They were starving because in drought conditions the parents were unable to find enough food. “If we had not interfered they would have died,” Siegfred Diaz told us.
Sigi is a founding member of Katala and now works at Narra as the Field Operations Officer. The wardens hung a net cage from the trees, removed the chicks three times a day, fed them and put them back in nest. The chicks reintegrated with the flock and fledged.
The Research Station at Narra
Narra, a pretty provincial town 90 minutes drive from Puerta Princesa, calls itself the Cockatoo capital of the Philippines. The municipality has granted Katala, free of charge, both an office in town and a two-hectare site outside.
Jewel, an enthusiastic young graduate, runs the office; she shows us the first rate teaching materials for school kids about the necessity of preserving local bio diversity. Indira believes that working with children is the way forward to protect wildlife.
Infrastructure for the research station out of town is proceeding slowly but steadily: what was derelict farm land six years ago is now covered with lush grass and growing trees, a house for the caretaker and her husband/landscaper, aviaries for rescued Cockatoos.
A series of freshwater tanks hold turtles. These species are endangered in Philippines. One variety has never bred in captivity and Katala hopes to be the first. Siegfred showed us with enormous pride the tree nursery where he’s growing hundreds of native saplings for forest regeneration.
Already, on the property, trees are several metres high; local trees that provide food for Cockatoos. Wild Cockatoos have been spotted using these trees.
Problems of soft release
Peter and Indira have many ideas for the research station at Narra, some already completed. The aviaries are splendid. Four Red vents were in a 10 m. flight, fully enriched with plants and trees. Their story illustrates the problem of soft release.
Ten chicks were confiscated from poachers and hand reared. No aviary existed yet, so they were hand reared in cages in the Narra office.
As a result they became accustomed to people. They were released onto an island which contained a tourist resort.At first all went well with the Cockatoos finding the breakfast buffet and helping themselves. Any Cockatoo owner can attest the persistence of these birds. After guests tired of having their snacks seized and being disturbed at 5.30 am by insistent cockies, the resort owner requested Katala remove the birds.
They are now at Narra and likely to remain so. In spite of their magnificent aviaries equipped with trees and branches, two of them are plucked. The Widmanns believe that the traumatic experience of being released and recaptured in the attempt to steer them away from the breakfast buffet may be the cause of this plucking.
Rasa island in the Sulu Sea, just offshore of the municipality of Narra, where Katala has a firm presence is a good choice for conservation.
Rasa is a small coral island of 8.34 km2. In February 2006, the island became a Wildlife Sanctuary through Presidential Proclamation.
About 70 to 75% of the Red vent population is probably found in Palawan. This makes Rasa a high priority area for the protection of this species.
Not only Philippine Cockatoos live on the island, but a variety of other species, with an unusual high percentage of globally threatened and near-threatened taxa (IUCN 2013), considering the small size of Rasa.
Noteworthy among the 109 recorded bird species are Grey Imperial-pigeon Ducula pickeringii and Mantanani Scops-owl Otus mantananensis.
Peter Widmann’s ambition is to increase the numbers of birds so that the Red vent will be off the critically endangered list and on the endangered one. Indira says, “If we protect the Cockatoo in the lowland forest we are actually benefitting ourselves.”
A healthy habitat for the Cockatoos has spin-off effects. A forest contains numerous plant species, many of whose benefits are only being discovered. The forest ecosystem holds the water. This makes farming easier. Protect the Cockatoo – protect yourself. In a healthy ecosystem threatened species can survive, increase and flourish.
Six months after our trip, I received this email from Peter Widmann. It says it all.
Just returned from Dumaran, our project site in northern Palawan. The news is that we had the best result of any breeding season so far, with 30 hatchlings in Pandanan and 82 in Rasa. This results in more than 200 Cockatoos in the former site and more than 300 in the latter. It means that about half of the world population of the Philippine Cockatoo is concentrated in these two sites.
(Katala Foundation, Inc. P.O. Box 390, Puerto Princesa City 5300, Palawan, Philippines Telefax: 63 48 434 7693. mail: email@example.com url: www.philippineCockatoo.org)
Read more about Parrot conservation projects here.