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Back from the Brink: The Echo Parakeet in Mauritius [BirdLife International Africa Report 2020]

Back from the Brink: The Echo Parakeet in Mauritius [BirdLife International Africa Report 2020]

Echo Parakeets were once widespread in Mauritius; numbers began to decline in the 17th century. Extensive habitat destruction due to human activity, and habitat degradation due to invasive alien plant species, reduced food availability and the number of cavity-forming endemic trees. Introduced ship rats Rattus rattus and crab-eating macaques Macaca fascicularis are egg and chick predators, and common mynahs Acridotheres tristis and ring-necked parakeets Psittacula krameri are competitors for breeding sites. The Echo Parakeet population declined to fewer than 20 birds by the 1980’s. It was the rarest parrot in the world.

Conservation efforts were intensified by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation in partnership with the Forestry Service in 1987 and later the National Parks and Conservation Service (NPCS). Broad conservation techniques used included habitat protection through creation of the Black River Gorges National Park in 1993 and habitat manipulation through fenced and weeded plots known as Conservation Management Areas (CMAs). From 1997, efforts intensified, with the provision and protection of breeding sites and manipulation of wild broods to increase productivity – regular examination of active nests, rescuing unhealthy and underweight chicks, hand-rearing and releasing chicks back into the wild, and releasing captive-bred Echo Parakeet fledglings.

Supplementary food and wooden nest boxes were provided to wild birds for many years, but neither were used. This was resolved by introducing both resources during the captive rearing of birds. The first bird to use a nest box in the wild was a captive-bred bird in 2001. In the following years, the wild birds learnt from the released birds, and today, most Echo Parakeets breed in artificial nest boxes and take supplementary food – this proved to be a major breakthrough.

In 2005, an attempt to establish a subpopulation in Combo, in the Black River Gorges National Park, failed when the young birds contracted Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD), causing feather dystrophy and immuno-suppression. The outbreak was not restricted to Combo and affected the entire population, leading to a number of deaths. Consequently, management practices were reviewed.

By 2014, the Echo Parakeet population had grown significantly, but was still restricted to the Black River Gorges National Park. Echo Parakeets were then reintroduced in two areas within their former range, the Ferney Valley (Bambou Mountains) in the south-east, and Ebony Forest (Chamarel) in the southwest. From 2015 to 2017, 73 birds were released in Ferney, and from 2018 to 2019, 50 birds were released in Ebony Forest. Survival post release was high, but as the birds were caught as fledglings, a number of birds retained a memory of their site of origin, and returned there post release.

One un-ringed Echo Parakeet fledgling was caught and ringed in Ferney in March 2017 – this bird was likely the result of the first breeding attempt to have been made in the Bambou Mountains. The first breeding site in the Bambou Mountains was discovered in 2018 in a tree cavity in Vallée de l’Est, three km away from the original release site.

“The Echo Parakeet project is a key example of how intensive conservation management focused on one species can be extremely successful, and is arguably essential in heavily modified habitats such as those found in Mauritius,” notes Sion Henshaw, Fauna Manager at the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation.

Today the Echo Parakeet population is estimated to be over 800 birds in the wild, has two thriving subpopulations in the Black River Gorges National Park, and has been reintroduced to two other areas within their former range. In the last breeding season (2019/20), 143 breeding pairs successfully produced 226 fledglings.

In December 2019, the Echo Parakeet was downlisted from Endangered to Vulnerable in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. This is a major milestone for the project, and recognizes the great population growth that has occurred since the species was downlisted to Endangered in 2007. The conservation efforts made to save the Echo Parakeet have been enormously successful; made possible by the work of project staff and volunteers, the science leading the project coming from crucial researchers and advisors, and partners’ support.

There is still a long road ahead for the recovery and safeguarding of the Echo Parakeet population. Continuous review of conservation management practices through scientific research will be integral. A key aim of the project is to reduce management of the population over time so that it can return to a more ‘natural’ state requiring minimal intervention. To achieve this, other factors including extensive habitat destruction will need to be addressed so that longterm survival of the Echo Parakeet can be realized.

Photo credits: Jacques de Spéville