The dodo is the world’s most famous extinct bird. Its quirky appearance makes it instantly recognisable in popular culture, including in classics such as Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and the animated short film ‘Ice Age’. One of the reasons it is so well known is that it is considered to be the first species where humanity recognised that the cause of the species’ global extinction was entirely due to humans. But how many people know where the dodo lived?
The answer is the island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar in the tropical Indian Ocean. And the dodo is just one of eight endemic Mauritian bird species that have become extinct since the island was discovered by the Portuguese 509 years ago, while several others have come perilously close. New Zealand conservationists well know the story of the Chatham Island black robin, which reached a low of five individuals in 1978 before intensive management built up a population of about 250 birds. The Mauritius kestrel has a similar story, but went one worse – a low of only four individuals in 1974. Two other Mauritian species weren’t much better off. The pink pigeon reached a low of just 9-10 individuals (in 1980), and the echo parakeet (=Mauritius parakeet) a low of 8-12 individuals in 1987.
The causes of bird extinctions and declines on Mauritius are all too familiar – introduced predators, hunting and habitat loss being the main ones. Some of the introduced predators are shared with New Zealand, for example feral cat, ship rat, Norway rat and feral pig. Others are less familiar, including crab-eating macaque (a monkey), small Indian mongoose, common tenrec and house shrew (admittedly the last two are more likely competitors for invertebrate food than direct predators on birds).
Very little native forest is left on Mauritius, where the landscape is dominated by fields of sugar cane. It was the rugged landscape of the south-west corner, and particularly the Black River Gorges (now a national park) that was the salvation for the nine endemic landbird species that survive. This was one of the few areas where some forest survived logging activity. In addition to the kestrel, pink pigeon and echo parakeet, Black River Gorges National Park and nearby forests are still the best places on the main island to see the endemic Mauritius bulbul, Mauritius cuckoo-shrike, Mauritius fody and Mauritius olive white-eye, while the Mauritius paradise-flycatcher can also be seen at the Bras d’Eau National Park on the north-east coast. Of the endemic birds, only the Mauritius grey white-eye is common throughout the island, including in habitats dominated by introduced plant species.
The rescue of the three (formerly) ultra-rare Mauritian bird species was initiated by Carl Jones while employed by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and has been continued by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF). All three species have been bred in captivity and released to the wild, where they have been further supported through provision of supplementary food, and (for the kestrel and parakeet) artificial nest sites designed and placed to reduce the risk of monkey predation and competition from introduced hole-nesting bird species. As a result, all three species now number between 300 and 700 individuals. In addition, MWF translocated pink pigeons to Ile aux Aigrettes, a restoration island off the south-east coast, during 1994-96, and have since released olive white-eyes and Mauritius fodies there.
Further to the many parallels between conservation problems and solutions in Mauritius and New Zealand, there has been much interchange of personnel and ideas between the two island nations. The New Zealand connection in Mauritius included the eradication of rabbits on Round Island by Don Merton and his New Zealand team in 1986, and many New Zealand conservationists have lived on Mauritius and assisted with the kestrel, echo parakeet and pink pigeon recovery programmes.
Te Papa curator of vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly visited Mauritius on his way back from the French subantarctic territories of Crozet and Kerguelen Islands. His visit to Ile aux Aigrettes was hosted by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation.