In the late 1980s, the Echo or Mauritian parakeet (Psittacula eques) was considered the most endangered parrot on earth and researchers, who by that time were getting really good at finding them, could only account for 4 or 5 pairs in the wild. These emerald green parakeets are only found on the island of Mauritius in the Western Indian Ocean, and 30 years ago you would have been very lucky to see one or two pairs fly over the Black River Gorge. It was clear then that this species, along with several other Mauritian endemics, was teetering on the brink of extinction. Echo parakeets were going the way of the Dodo hundreds of years before. Read here about how the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and World Parrot Trust have worked tirelessly over the last 25 years to save the Echo parakeet, Mauritius kestrel, Mauritian pink pigeon, Rodrigues warbler, and Rodrigues fody. Mauritius has saved more species than any other country in the world…
Many mainstream conservation funds and authorities didn’t want to invest in what they saw as a certain failure, effectively writing off the Echo parakeet as a viable species even though they were still holding on in the wild. Step in the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and World Parrot Trust to support this species. Together with the National Parks and Conservation Service dedicated people like Carl Jones, Vikash Tatayah, Mike Reynolds, more recently Heather Richards, and many other researchers, collaborators, volunteers, and conservationists have set about ensuring that there are no more extinctions on an island made famous by the extinction of the Dodo in 1690.
Vikash Tatayah from the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation says that since 1984, the Mauritius Kestrel, Pink Pigeon, Rodrigues Warbler, Rodrigues Fody and Echo Parakeet have been saved from extinction. Mauritius (and Rodrigues) have, therefore, saved more species than any other country in the world, ahead of New Zealand and the United States (including Hawaii), which have each saved four species from extinction. The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and its partners have also saved numerous plant species from extinction and worked hard to restore native forest habitats, thus establishing Mauritius as a leader in endangered species conservation. Vikash still pointed out: “There is still a lot more to do!”
Today, Echo parakeet is restricted to a remnant of native forest comprising less than 40km2 of the Black River Gorge National Park. Like most endangered parrots they were forced to watch their limited forest habitat degraded and broken down until they were forced to seek new food resources and nesting sites in habitat that simply couldn’t support them – only 1% of their natural habitat remains. The last-remaining Echo parakeets were thus faced with a chronic lack of suitable trees for nesting, out of control nest predation by introduced black rats, continuous disturbance by humans, feral pigs and deer, and staunch competition from the more plentiful and aggressive Rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri) introduced by immigrants to the island. By the late 1970s, the two, three or four Echo parakeet pairs remaining in the wild were vulnerable to disease outbreaks and tropical cyclones as extinction threats, which made every year a nerve-racking experience if you cared about the future of this parakeet on this iconic island.
In the 1990s, the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust made a huge decision and, after successful captive breeding, launched intensive population management measures. Captive-bred Echo parakeets were released and established in artificial nest boxes, supplementary feeding stations were established for these released parrots, captive-bred chicks were then introduced to nest boxes, and so they began the process of rebuilding a viable population. By 2010, they achieved a population of 500 Echo parakeets (550 Echo Parakeets in February 2011)! 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, but we now face the ominous arrival of Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD), which has started reducing healthy Echo parakeets to underweight, featherless birds unable to survive in the wild. Many have died from the disease and the international parrot research and conservation community is working feverishly to combat this debilitating “Doomsday Virus” for endangered parrots around the world.
Downlisting the Echo parakeet from Critically Endangered to Endangered in the 2007 IUCN Red List was a monumental achievement. The goal moving forward is a stable population of 300 mature birds in the wild. At current population levels they are still threatened by natural disasters (e.g. tropical cyclones) and the ravages of Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease, which is poorly known and requires significant research investment. The World Parrot Trust will continue supporting what is widely recognized as the most successful parrot conservation program ever undertaken. The ground-breaking work of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust is an example to us all.
Dr Steve Boyes
National Geographic Grantee