Two iconic birds make a striking comeback, but much work remains

  • BirdLife International has revised the information for the conservation status of more than 2,300 bird species this year.
  • Overall, 31 species of birds were moved to lower threat categories, while 58 species were uplisted to higher threat categories.
  • The pink pigeon, which has been downlisted to vulnerable from endangered, and the northern bald ibis, which has been downlisted to endangered from critically endangered, have shown some of the most dramatic improvements.

The pink pigeon, found only on the island of Mauritius, was once nearly declared extinct. Another bird, the northern bald ibis, underwent catastrophic declines across much of its habitat in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.

But now, both species are on the path to recovery, according to the latest assessment of the world’s birds by BirdLife International, a global partnership of conservation organizations.

In 2018, BirdLife, which serves as the official Red List Authority for birds for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, revised information on more than 2,300 bird species, based on information gathered by professional and citizen scientists, NGO staff, and birdwatchers from around the world. The assessed birds represent about 22 percent of all the world’s bird species.

“These updates have varied from minor amendments to the text or map for certain species, to comprehensive revisions of the factsheets for species where new information has become available, especially in cases where the species’ threat status has changed so much that they have now been reclassified to a different Red List category,” Ian Burfield, global science coordinator at BirdLife International, told Mongabay.

Overall, in this year’s assessment, BirdLife International moved 31 species of birds to less dire threat categories. (The categories range, in ascending order of threat, from “vulnerable” to “endangered” to “critically endangered.”) Of these, the pink pigeon and the northern bald ibis showed some of the most dramatic improvements.

Red-headed woodpecker. Image by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren.

Pink pigeon

The pink pigeon (Nesoenas mayeri) could have met the same fate as another Mauritian pigeon, the dodo, now extinct. But targeted conservation actions over the past 40 years have brought the species back from the brink of extinction.

In the 1970s, there were only about 12 to 20 pink pigeons left on Mauritius. The bird faced a range of threats: rapid loss of forest cover; the introduction to their island of non-native predators like rats, cats, mongoose and crab-eating monkeys; and the introduction of non-native birds, which brought new pathogens and diseases into the pink pigeon population. By the 1990s, the pink pigeon was down to just nine or 10 individuals.

Today, there are around 400 wild individuals, thanks to efforts like captive breeding and intensive management of the bird’s reintroduced populations and habitats. This number has remained relatively stable over the last 10 years, and the species, which was downlisted from critically endangered to endangered in 2000, has been downlisted once again, to vulnerable.

“We are thrilled that this has happened,” said Vikash Tatayah, conservation director of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF), an NGO that works closely with the country’s National Parks and Conservation Service and several international partners to protect the pink pigeon. “It took 43 years of work to get to this point, so it’s not happened overnight. This just goes to show that getting species to recover, especially in places where the ecosystem has been badly damaged, will take many, many years.”

A pair of pink pigeons. Image by Mauritian Wildlife Foundation.

The downlisting shows that conservation actions must continue, Tatayah said. And MWF has already set lofty goals: it wants to bring the pink pigeon population up to at least 600 individuals over the next decade. To achieve this, the MWF team has been reintroducing birds into privately held sites, in addition to other conservation efforts. Most of the previously reintroduced populations are inside government-designated protected areas.

“In Mauritius there are more forests in private hands than in government hands, so we need to find ways to work with the private sector as an equal partner in restoring species,” Tatayah said.

The genetic diversity of the wild birds is also currently “regrettably low,” he added. Researchers are working to resolve this issue by tapping into the captive population of pink pigeons in zoos and wildlife parks across Europe that are known to harbor greater genetic variation than the Mauritian wild population.

Northern bald ibis

The northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita), too, was driven to the brink, teetering at just 59 pairs in the 1990s due to habitat loss, pesticides and hunting. Today, the species, once revered as a holy bird in ancient Egypt, has disappeared from most of its known range. The only ibis population that’s shown evidence of improvement is in Morocco.

In fact, northern bald ibis numbers in Morocco have risen to 147 breeding pairs, a modern-day record, with the discovery of new breeding sites, according to BirdLife International. In the latest assessment, the northern bald ibis has been downlisted from critically endangered to endangered on the IUCN Red List.

“Since my first involvement working on this extraordinary species in the early 1990s, when the trends were a series of local extinctions and overall decline, it’s an immense source of pride that the sustained but gradual increase in Morocco means that downlisting is needed,” Chris Bowden, coordinator of the AEWA Northern Bald Ibis International Working Group, said in an email. “This has been the result of the sustained efforts of the Souss-Massa National Park, the locally trained wardens, fishermen recruited from nearby villages, and the BirdLife Partners involved (GREPOM, SEO and RSPB).”

A northern bald ibis. Image by D. Faulder.

But it hasn’t been all good news for the bird. A tiny population of northern bald ibis in Syria has declined from three pairs in 2002 and is likely extinct now, researchers say. In fact, Morocco might be the last home to the species in the wild. The bird’s overall numbers are also still low, which means conservation efforts need to be sustained.

“There is still a lot to do, including resisting development pressures in the two main Moroccan sites and maintaining all the ongoing efforts highlighted in the recently updated International Single Species Action Plan,” Bowden said. “It’s crucial that the downlisting doesn’t reduce the priority in achieving all of this, but we should congratulate in particular the Moroccan Government, and specifically the Ministry of Water and Forests [in their fight against] desertification, on this downlisting, which is a momentous endorsement of their success.”

Hope for birds

Of the 31 species downlisted this year, some have moved out of the threatened or near-threatened categories altogether and are now classified as being of “least concern” — that is, they are no longer at immediate risk of extinction. These include the red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) and Henslow’s sparrow (Passerculus henslowii), both native to North America and previously listed as “near threatened” (more dire than “least concern” but not yet in the threatened category of “vulnerable”). Henslow’s sparrow, for instance, declined due to loss of its grassland habitat over the decades. But the bird gained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to “remove environmentally sensitive land from cultivation and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality.”

“Such examples are currently rarer, because the species involved are not necessarily as rare, localised or iconic, and because reversing their declines often requires changes to be made over much larger areas and to land or water or sea uses controlled by powerful policy mechanisms,” Burfield said.

A Henslow’s sparrow. Image by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren.

Other highly threatened species remain listed as critically endangered or endangered. But this isn’t necessarily bad news because it could mean that conservation actions have successfully kept them from going extinct.

Overall, the downlisting of species to a lower threat category sends a hopeful message that conservation actions can work, even though they might take several decades to bear fruit. But does downlisting affect funding if the species are no longer seen as threatened as before?

“There is always a risk that when you downlist a species you lose funders because funders might say that this species is now vulnerable so let’s go and protect another species that is critically endangered,” Tatayah said. “But funders should be looking to be associated with success. Downlisting is a sign of success.”

Many battles remain

Successes have been few and far between. Many of the world’s birds face a growing risk of extinction: the latest assessment moves 58 species to a higher threat categories than before. Seven hornbill species, for instance, including the great hornbill (Buceros bicornis) and rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros), which have both been moved from near threatened to vulnerable, are under severe threat of extinction.

The straw-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus), uplisted from endangered to critically endangered, is being pushed to extinction by the songbird trade in Indonesia, as is the Java sparrow (Lonchura oryzivora), a popular cagebird in Southeast Asia that’s now been uplisted from vulnerable to endangered.

“We, the conservation community, know very well what needs to be done to save threatened birds, and can demonstrate that with numerous examples,” Burfield said. “What we need now is a massive upscaling in resources and capacity to match the scale of the biodiversity crisis and allow us to save even more species.

“And that requires political will and money.”

A great hornbill. Image by Angadachappa.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment


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