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This one day old echo parakeet chick was rescued from the wild after its parents abondoned the nest. Its full crop is noticable after every feed.
Photo : Genevieve Johnson

January 5, 2004
Saving the Echo Parakeet
Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

Genevieve Johnson - RV Odyssey Education Director:

The other day some of the crew met with a young man named Ryan Watson. Ryan has chosen to dedicate his career to the conservation of critically endangered bird species, a passion that has brought him to work for the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation (MWF) at the Gerald Durrell Endangered Wildlife Sanctuary. The mission of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT) is to save animals from extinction and in Mauritius, is dedicated to ensuring that several bird species unique to the island nation do not meet the fate of its most infamous extinction - the Dodo.

At the sanctuary, captive breeding of birds is used to keep various species from becoming extinct, while attempting to implement habitat protection within its natural range on the islands.

Ryan Watson - Mauritius Wildlife Foundation:

My name is Ryan Watson. I work for MWF as the Coordinator of Incubation and Hand-rearing for the endangered echo parakeet. MWF is made up primarily of volunteers, but there are also pais staff and a real mixture of expatriates and local people involved.

Genevieve Johnson:

It is known that there were approximately twenty endemic bird species inhabiting Mauritius before human settlement, possibly more. Eleven of these have subsequently gone extinct, leaving only nine endemics.

Their sharp decline is the result of two pressures, habitat destruction and introduced species. Ninety eight percent of the original forest cover was cleared for agriculture and housing, while the remaining two percent survives inside the Black River Gorges National Park. The 6,574-hectare park protects a phenomenal concentration of gravely endangered species - most have nowhere else to go. Unfortunately, the park is severely degraded and overrun by exotic plants. Inside the remaining habitat, black rats and the Southeast Asian long-tailed macaque monkey thrives in excessive numbers. It is estimated there are between 45,000 - 65,000 macaques in the park, the highest density of monkeys anywhere in the world. Both species have a habit of predating on the eggs and chicks of native birds.

Chicks are carefully weighed after each meal to monitor growth.
Photo : Chris Johnson

For decades the unique birds of Mauritius continued to decline and were in dire need of some kind of human intervention. Today, some are among the world's rarest birds, however, their future is looking brighter thanks to the staff at the Gerald Durrell Endangered Wildlife Sanctuary.

In 1974, the first program was established to save the Mauritius kestrel, the sole surviving Mauritian raptor - an exceptionally ambitious proposition considering only 4 birds could be found in the wild. At that time, it was declared the rarest bird in world. To add to the complications, only one of the four was a female. Today the population is at almost 800 and they can even be found nesting in people's gardens - a remarkable achievement. The pink pigeon was also brought back from the brink of extinction in the late 1970's. Once again, through captive breeding and release into the wild, the pink pigeon population, once numbering a mere 9 birds, now stands at a population of over 350.

The phenomenal success of the first two programs meant the attention could be turned to another endemic in peril. Ryan focuses his attention on the strikingly beautiful echo parakeet, a species that only a few years ago faced certain extinction.

Ryan Watson:

In the late 80's, early 90's, the echo parakeet got down to what was thought to be 8 or 9 birds, in hindsight it was probably an underestimate and there was probably between 12 and 20, but still a very low number. Fortunately, we have been able to recover them to over 200 today. The echo parakeet is the most intensively managed bird species in Mauritius if not the world. Basically every facet of the recovery program has been used to save the species. There is wild management, captive breeding. Every chick and every egg is considered valuable and everything will be done to try and save and individual, so if it requires artificial incubation or hand rearing, than that is done. All the nesting cavities in the wild have been made predator proof, weather proof and all the young chicks and eggs are monitored and the moment it looks like an egg is not going to hatch or a chick is not thriving, they will be brought to the facility for hand rearing.

Genevieve Johnson:

None of these species were previously managed in captivity, therefore the markedly different requirements of each was unknown. This left staff little time to work out what breeding, rearing and release strategies would work.

Ryan Watson:

The learning process was through trial and error. Initially a similar species was used as a model or analogue species, the Indian ring neck parakeet which is an introduced pest to the island. Although the echo parakeet looks very similar to the Indian ring neck, in every other way they are a very different bird, consequently in treating the two birds the same way, in the early days nearly all the echo parakeets were lost. Out of the twenty birds rescued from the wild, seventeen of those twenty died over a twenty-year period. In 1993-94 there were three birds remaining in captivity and they were just starting to get the husbandry right and that's when they were first bred them [in captivity] and we've bred them every year since. Every year we've improved on the captive management with lots of little changes making a significant difference, such as separating the pairs into their own individual breeding aviaries where they are isolated with no visual contact and this drastically increased the fertility of eggs.

Genevieve Johnson:

Some chicks are 'parent-reared' in the wild and in captivity, but most are 'hand-reared' by the staff. From what the crew witnessed at the sanctuary, the hand rearing of these birds appears highly intensive. We asked Ryan to explain the process.

Ryan Watson:

All of the birds we are with in the incubation room at the moment are derived from the wild. Because the entire population including every nest is managed, no chicks are deliberately allowed to die or eggs not allowed to hatch. The moment it is thought they may be in jeopardy in the wild, they are rescued and brought here to the facility.

Ryan spends everyday at the sanctuary caring for and catering to the every need of the young birds he is hand-rearing.
Photo : Chris Johnson

It [hand incubation and hand rearing] is very intensive, obviously we have to provide for their every need so we are constantly changing the bedding and feeding them. Initially when they first come in if they are one day old or have just hatched from the egg, they need feeding ten times a day and that is reduced to eight times, then seven times and so forth until they are on two feeds a day. They are then taken up to the forest release sights and once they are eating solids and have been reduced to one feed a day and finally are eating enough solids on their own, then they are on their own so to speak.

Genevieve Johnson:

After 45-50 days, young birds are taken to the national park and fledged in enclosures at various release sights, prior to being released into the wild. Each bird is released depending on its individual needs. 'Hand-reared' birds are generally released earlier as the weaning process is quicker. Last season the youngest release was a 'hand-reared' bird at 61 days, the oldest a 'parent-reared' bird at 74 days.

The parakeets are also supplementary fed in the wild where necessary. This year there was not a lot of fruit in the forest, so birds were given access to feeding 'hoppers' and parrot pellets. This assists wild breeding pairs in rearing two healthy chicks.

Ryan Watson:

We do have things down pat now, as a team, the echo parakeet team has things running very smoothly and every year we're producing more birds. This program has been very successful when compared to other recovery programs. If you look at the percentage of increase every year from when we first started recovering the birds, it has been very successful. There is always a bit of pressure, it's no different to anyone who is dealing with endangered creatures and there is that pressure to keep them alive. However, we also understand that not all of them are meant to live and you have to accept a certain level of mortality as a natural attrition.

Genevieve Johnson:

Today, there are almost 170 echo parakeets in the wild, all in monitored, predator proof cavities or nesting sights. At the sanctuary, Ryan and his colleagues are rearing 11 wild chicks and 16 captive bred chicks. All this means that the population should be in excess of 200 birds in the wild by the end of this season.

Chris with 'Bonza' - a mature male echo parakeet.
Photo : Genevieve Johnson

In 3 years, it is hoped there will be between 350 and 500 echo parakeets in the wild. Captive breeding will cease and birds will be managed in the national park. Considering the sanctuary's remarkable track record and the dedication of Ryan and his co-workers, there seems little doubt this species will be saved in the short term. However, their future lies in the success of continued funding for long-term wild management and restoration of forest habitat.

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in Mauritius.


Log written by Genevieve Johnson.

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