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Protecting species recovery efforts from disease in Mauritius

The dodo – a large, flightless bird – only ever lived on the island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean. It became extinct around 350 years ago, shortly after humans discovered the island. Today WVI gives practical advice, training and support to local efforts aimed at rescuing other unique native species from the brink of extinction, crucially making sure that the risk of disease is minimised.

In recent years a huge amount of work and effort has gone into saving species like the Mauritian parakeet (also known as the echo parakeet), the pink pigeon and the Telfair’s skink. Numbers are still low, they wouldn’t survive without human input and they are still at serious risk of extinction from disease.

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Not long ago there were only 10 Mauritian parakeets left. Although they have been successfully brought back from the brink of extinction, disease continues to threaten this Endangered species.

The story so far

Credit Simon Tollington

Mauritius is a unique island habitat, home to species found nowhere else on the planet. The dodo and its close cousin, the solitaire, as well as the island’s Mauritius giant tortoise are long gone, but the future is looking brighter for some of the other native species.

The Mauritian parakeet (or echo parakeet), pink pigeon, Mauritius kestrel, Telfair’s skink and Round Island Boa are just a few of the species reduced to a handful of individuals. Intensive work over many years by Durrell and Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) together with government and other partners have pulled them back from the brink of extinction. 

Mauritius was uninhabited by man until the late 16th Century. It was then occupied by the Dutch, French and British, before becoming independent in the second half of the 20th Century. The human settlers destroyed forest so they could plant crops like sugar cane, rice and tobacco. Rats, cats, monkeys and mongooses came off their ships with them. Together with the humans, these new animals hunted the local wildlife, ate their eggs and young. The dodo survived for about sixty years, and many other species, like the Round Island burrowing boa and the Mauritian giant saddle-backed tortoise, have also disappeared. Fortunately plenty have managed to last longer, even though many have been drastically reduced in number. 

Over the last few decades conservation efforts in Mauritius have successfully rescued a number of bird species from the brink of extinction. 

It’s thought there were only about ten Mauritian parakeets (echo parakeet) left in 1986. Today there are nearly 600 and their official status has been downgraded from Critically Endangered to Endangered. A great result for conservation. 

The Mauritian kestrel has made a similarly impressive recovery, from just four birds in the 1970s to 500 today. These are very important achievements, but they’re not enough. The fight for these and other species goes on.

The challenge so far

WVI is working with our partners on Mauritius to exchange knowledge and help build local capacity in wildlife medicine, particularly in disease detection and control. It’s all about making sure that efforts to re-establish and strengthen local species are not thwarted by outbreaks of disease. We want to provide local professionals with vital skills which will benefit not just those who need them in their everyday work, but ultimately the islands as a whole. 

The dedicated team at our local partner organisation, the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, works tirelessly to restore habitat and reintroduce threatened local populations. They have had significant success over the years, rescuing a number of bird species, like the pink pigeon and Mauritian parakeet (echo parakeet), from the brink of extinction. 

The Mauritian kestrel deserves a special mention, since there were only four birds left in 1974 and now there are nearly 500. However, they still need help with screening for disease. WVI is able to work with them to survey for disease before and after translocations and provides ongoing advice when needed.

For example, when a potentially devastating outbreak of Psitticine Beak and Feather Disease hit the recovering Mauritian parakeet (echo parakeet) population in 2005, WVI founder, veterinary director and avian specialist, Andrew Greenwood, was able to advise how to reduce the risk of infection. 

Andrew has provided veterinary support in Mauritius since 1994 and makes annual visits for the ongoing training of staff in relevant techniques for investigating and dealing with ongoing disease problems. He is in constant contact with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation. 

What WVI is doing to help

WVI’s Veterinary Director and avian expert, Andrew Greenwood has been working with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation for many years, giving them practical advice, training and support for the essential veterinary component of their programmes. 

MWF does excellent work on the ground, and has a very comprehensive database covering many endangered species. WVI is closely involved with their ongoing work into the investigation and management of complex disease problems and risks which are always present and can affect any of the reintroduced species at any time. 

For example, Andrew has been able to give detailed advice on how the recovering pink pigeon population needs to be carefully monitored for disease, especially with regard to watching out for any signs of drug resistance developing. He is also helping MWF collaborate with European zoos which hold captive pink pigeons that have been shown to have retained genetic material which has been lost in the wild pigeons. This genetic aspect could be addressed through integrating the carefully managed captive breeding programme in Europe with that in Mauritius. 

The wide range of issues on which Andrew has been able to provide practical help and advice include the mechanics of quarantining new birds coming from overseas, or simply from different local populations, comprehensive health screening, hand-rearing and general hygiene. 

WVI is also currently helping with the supervision of academic research into Psitticine Beak and Feather Disease, which is a constant problem for the recovering Mauritian parakeet (echo parakeet) population.

As part of the ongoing restoration of endangered species, MWF has recently translocated young sea bird chicks from five different species to new nest sites in restored habitat on islands around Mauritius. Sea birds are very loyal to the place they hatched, and it’s hoped that the translocated chicks will return to breed in the new sites. Once they are old enough, the chicks leave the colony and fly off to explore the world before hopefully returning to the same place when they are sexually mature and ready to breed. The eldest chicks are now about four years old, and may, or may not, return in the autumn of 2016. WVI has been closely involved in helping develop a suitable diet for the young birds, using a food supplement designed specifically for seabirds: Emeraid Piscivore. Emeraid is very effective at helping young chicks move onto a fish diet and as nutrition for sick birds. We are also advising on disease control, which involves collecting ticks and lice from the birds and investigating these for signs of avian viruses and Lyme disease.

What progress is being made

WVI’s Veterinary Director and avian expert, Andrew Greenwood, has been travelling to Mauritius regularly for more than twenty years in order to help advise and train field staff at the Mauritian Wildlife Trust. 

In addition to these visits, Andrew is in constant communication with local professionals, providing practical veterinary help and advice for all their programmes. His involvement has helped to ensure the success of the Mauritian parakeet (echo parakeet), pink pigeon and Telfair’s skink reintroduction programmes, as well as the recovery of the Mauritian kestrel and numerous other small bird and reptile species.

 WVI are industry collaborators on a current NERC CASE Studentship – a PhD ‘Measuring the Effects of Supplementary-Feeding on Trajectory of Threatened Populations’ supervised by Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology.

Learn how we battle to save endangered species

Project Report 2014