Working for birds in Africa

Rescuing Africa's most endangered parrot from extinction

Date posted: 
Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Cape Parrot is one of the most endangered bird species in South Africa with less than 1,000 individuals remaining in the wild. Most of the remaining wild population are infected by and dying from a Pssitacine Beak and Feather Disease epidemic that erupts during early winter each year. Early cold snaps and mild droughts escalate this problem with devastating effects on population levels. Up until 2008, when rats native to Christmas Island went extinct after being exposed to new pathogens, disease had not been proven to cause any extinctions. Alarmingly, Cape parrots are now succumbing to an endemic virus that attacks when their body condition declines, their immune systems begin to falter, and they naturally start molting. They are simply too weak to combat this “doomsday virus” that has always been with them…? How do we save this intelligent parrot from extinction…? How do we help this parrot help itself? Read about them and what people are doing to rescue, conserve and defend one of the world’s most enigmatic birds.

“uPholi” is the nickname for the Cape parrot (Poicephalus robustus) or isiKhwenene (the local isiXhosa name). Just the same as “Polly want a cracker!”, “uPholi” wants a forest because local South Africans have busied themselves over the last 350 years selectively removing almost all the large hardwoods (most especially Podocarpus yellowwoods) from all remaining Afromontane forest patches. Starting in the early 1600s in the Cape of Good Hope, these vulnerable forest patches were decimated and have never been given adequate opportunity to recover. For hundreds of years, logging was intensive with millions upon millions of railway sleepers and mining timbers being manufactured. Harvesting of yellowwood trees and other depleted hardwoods continues today in these forests…

Most people know about the popular African Grey parrots of central and western Africa, but very few people know about Africa’s most endangered parrot, South Africa’s Cape parrot. Today, there could be as few as 800 Cape parrots remaining in the wild and they are considered Critically Endangered due to continued habitat loss, poor nesting success due to lack of nest cavities, a severe Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease epidemic, historical persecution as a crop pest, and illegal capture for the wild-caught bird trade. If Africa was to lose this “green and gold” ambassador of some of our last-remaining Afromontane forest patches, it would be a sign of very bad times to come… We would have lost one of the last Afromontane endemics clinging onto these forests through their own ingenuity and collective intelligence. Intensive logging in their forest habitat, persecution (e.g. being shot or caught in nets and clubbed to death), nest poaching and mist-netting adults for the wild-caught bird trade, and very little or no conservation intervention, has left the Cape Parrot in ruins with an ageing populations in declining physical condition. We need to intervene now and stimulate positive change for Cape parrots in the wild…

In 2009, we initiated the Cape Parrot Project in an effort to save this endemic species from extinction. Preliminary surveys established that the observed body condition of Cape parrots in the southernmost part of their distribution has been declining for at least 5 years. In March that year, we received over 30 photographs of Cape parrots with symptoms of advanced beak and feather Disease infection from concerned South Africans who had been photographing Cape parrots feeding in their pecan trees for many years and never seen anything like this before. This news was shocking and it has been our focus ever since to understand the nature of this apparently severe threat to their persistence in the wild. A grant from the National Geographic Society Conservation Trust enabled us to undertake much needed research into the threat posed by this little-known circovirus. Our findings were absolutely shocking with a 50% infection rate in 2010 and a staggering 100% infection rate in four times as many blood samples this year. By March, the general public started handing in dead and dying Cape parrots that needed to be rehabilitated for over 6 months before release back into the wild. We had a fight on our hands and began fundraising to support the effort…

Today, we are reacting as strongly as possible to this threat, investing in the DNA sequencing of all viral strains that we encounter and contributing towards the development of a suitable vaccine for application in the wild. In addition, we are looking at establishing a disease-free Cape parrot population in forest patches where they went locally extinct around 150 years ago. Our ongoing research has linked these disease outbreaks to a lack of suitable food resources between January and March each year when there is literally nothing for the parrots to feed on. The severe drought this year resulted in infection rates escalating due to starvation at population level. Up to 10% of the local population were estimated to have died. In 2012, we will be testing the application of supplementary feeding decks to ensure that the parrots have sufficient food to combat the virus and avoid eating exotic, potentially poisonous food resources like unripe pecan nuts from the US, cherries from Mexico, plums from Japan, and syringa fruits from India. We need to help this parrot help itself by providing supplementary food resources within the next 5-10 years.

We are not just studying the virus and its relationship to food resources, we are also planting over 25,000 indigenous trees in degraded Afromontane forest patches and “Cape Parrot orchards” across the Amathole mountain range, which has the largest-remaining Cape Parrot population. The Cape Parrot orchards are made up of 500-1,000 indigenous trees that provide fruit for parrots within 7-10 years. In order to support all this tree-planting we launched the “iziKhwenene Project” that contracts local communities to grow, plant and take care of the all indigenous trees planted as part of this project. We pay whole communities $2 per tree that survives every 6 months, planting teams weekly wages to plant these trees, and individuals R10 per saplings grown within our Community Nursery Program. The iziKhwenene Project aims to position local communities as “Forest Custodians” supported by the Wild Bird Trust and corporate sponsors. In addition to planting thousands of trees, the Cape Parrot Project is also erecting 600 Cape Parrot nest boxes to supplement the shortage of suitable nest cavities for Cape Parrot breeding pairs and other cavity-nesting species. We have a tough 10 years ahead of us before the food orchards are producing fruits for the parrots between January and March. Until then we must push to get every Cape Parrot that falls ill to beak and feather disease rehabilitated and back into the wild. We must provide safe, warm nest boxes and supplementary feeding decks until such time as the forests have been restored…

Our work rehabilitating four Cape Parrots from the ravages of beak and feather disease demonstrated an instant reaction to the yellowwood fruits we were feeding them. All four parrots began to recover more rapidly from the infection and started to put on weight for the first time, thus supporting research that put forward that yellowwood fruits have very strong anti-microbial activity when ingested. It seems as if due to the lack of this fruit in their diet Cape Parrots are just not strong enough to fight off the ravages of this disease, which, similar to influenza in the human population, has probably been in the wild Cape Parrot population for a very long time, but only at very much lower levels. A Senior Producer from National Geographic Missions Media, Neil Gelinas, visited the Cape Parrot Project for a few weeks and was fortunate enough to film the release of the four rehabilitated Cape Parrots back into the wild: “Dead birds flying!” Hopefully there will soon be a short video clip to share with the world?

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