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Garden of Eden

Granite island Since the mid-1990s, a multinational conservation team has strived to reintroduce magpie robins to other Seychelles islands where they once thrived.
Saving the Magpie Robin
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This early success gave the team the confidence to try reintroducing the species to other islands where it formerly lived. In 1994, they established a population on Cousin, a 70-acre island that had become a nature reserve in 1968. Three decades of conservation work have restored the plantation island to native forest, which teems with wildlife and has proven to be a perfect home for the magpie robins. An initial group of nine birds translocated in 1994 has grown to 27. In 1996, we also seeded a new population on the island of Cousine, which is just south of and slightly smaller than Cousin. Cousine is a private island managed for conservation, with a small hotel specializing in ecotourism.

Interestingly, Cousin and Cousine have played key roles in an earlier, fruitful pulling-back-from-the-brink. By 1959, the endemic Seychelles warbler had dwindled to about 30 individuals. By 1987, following stringent conservation measures, the population had soared to almost 400 birds, and three years later, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) removed the Seychelles warbler from its Red Data list of threatened species.

Robin on branch Only a single magpie robin—a female—survived the most recent introduction to Aride, though with help from BirdLife Seychelles, a male joined her there in early 2000.

The one island that has eluded us is Aride. This mile-long scrap of granite has been called the Seabird Citadel of the Indian Ocean. Ten species reside here, including the sooty tern, the red-tailed tropicbird, and the world's largest colony of the lesser noddy. Aride also once hosted a thriving population of Seychelles magpie robins, which snatched up fish dropped by the seabirds. Unfortunately, several reintroductions have failed since that first attempt in the 1970s. We know that a major predator of Seychelles magpie robins there is the barn owl, which, ironically enough, was introduced in the 1950s to control rats, another robin killer. Poor habitat, pesticides, and bacterial infections may also be to blame, but currently we're unable to finger the chief culprit or culprits using the available data. Today only one pair resides on Aride, but research is ongoing.

Looking up
Despite the failure on Aride, prospects for the Seychelles magpie robin are brighter today than ever before. On January 1, 1998, BirdLife Seychelles, a newly formed nongovernmental organization (NGO), assumed management of the Recovery Program. We feel this is crucial for success, for while expatriate scientists provided vital technical assistance in saving the species from immediate doom, only a local NGO can achieve long-term sustainability. That is, local people can best teach local people how to do things better.

Aviary Science coordinator James Millet stands next to one of two recently built aviaries on Frégate.
In 1998, we also formed the Seychelles Magpie Robin Recovery Team, or SMART. This group comprises BirdLife Seychelles staff members, island owners and managers, and government officials, who make decisions by consensus in conjunction with a technical advisory committee based in the United Kingdom. We have also strengthened partnerships with overseas institutions such as the New Zealand Department of Conservation and the Zoological Society of London, which provide captive and health management assistance, respectively.

We have strived as well to build awareness locally among Seychellois. Most of the roughly 10,000 visitors to Cousin in 1999 had the opportunity to see Seychelles magpie robins and learn of our conservation efforts, for example, while tourists on Frégate can avail themselves of weekly tours and lectures. Recently, six articles on the Seychelles magpie robin appeared in the national newspaper The Nation, and a segment on translocating the birds aired on television. We published a full-color brochure and a newsletter, both of which we've distributed widely, and we put up a display at our country's Natural History Museum.

Naturally, we have also continued our efforts to protect the Seychelles magpie robin. When translocating birds from one island to another, we previously relied on a 'hard' release method: capture and caging, transfer by helicopter, and release. But when we realized that this could stress the birds, we began opting for a 'soft' version. This features captivity for two to three weeks before transfer and a further week of captivity on the new island before release, which now includes supplementary feeding.

SMR Brochure A BirdLife Seychelles brochure proclaims the group's motto: "Safe But Not Yet Secure."

Two aviaries we built recently have already more than paid for the time and effort we put into them. In November 1999, a young female with a broken bill turned up on Frégate. We placed her in an aviary and fed her a combination of live prey and supplemental food. She adapted well and soon had increased her weight by 15 percent. And in 2000, we held the entire population of magpie robins on Frégate in the aviaries for four months while we eradicated rats accidentally introduced there in 1996 during tourist development.

Getting to safe
As I intimated earlier, however, the Seychelles magpie robin is not out of the woods yet. Or should I say back in the woods. Forest restoration must continue, and habitat loss is only one of many threats still facing the species. Rats and cats can be accidentally reintroduced; novel diseases like avian malaria, which decimated the birds of Hawaii, can appear; and alien plants can quickly dominate the landscape, disrupting the natural order of things. Inappropriate development, unsympathetic managers, a downturn in tourism or international donor funding—all could potentially rend our fragile safety net.

With monies now on the way from the World Bank-funded Global Environment Facility, we hope to establish populations of Seychelles magpie robins on several more predator-free islands. Our goal is seven islands—including the current three and with four of them self-sustaining—by 2006, with a total population of 200 birds. Only then would we consider lopping off the last four words of our motto.

Dr. Nirmal Shah
Dr. Nirmal Shah is chief executive of BirdLife Seychelles, an NGO committed to safeguarding the Seychelles magpie robin. For more information, contact BirdLife Seychelles at P.O. Box 1310, Victoria, Mahé, Republic of Seychelles.

Photos: (7-9) Courtesy of BirdLife Seychelles.

Seychelles Through Time | Saving the Magpie Robin
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