05/01/2012
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An epic tale of global conservation

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Disney is world renowned for recounting epic tales of triumph over adversity. But now the corporation has become involved with a world-leading conservation project mirroring their silver-screen productions. In the 1960s, the Seychelles Warbler (Acrocephalus sechellensis) became one of the world's rarest birds. There are 115 islands in the Seychelles archipelago, which lies in the Indian Ocean 1,500 km east of mainland Africa, but the warbler's population had slumped to just 26 individuals, all on tiny Cousin Island. Formerly, the bird had been more widely distributed in the Seychelles, but habitat destruction and non-native species brought the warbler to extinction everywhere apart from Cousin. But now the fortunes of the bird are looking much brighter, thanks to a programme to redistribute these sparrow-sized birds to other islands in the Seychelles.

In the latest move, 59 Seychelles Warblers have been transferred from Cousin Island Special Reserve to Frégate Island thanks to an initiative let by Nature Seychelles, the RSPB's BirdLife International partner in the country. Before the redistribution, the warbler was facing a huge threat of extinction, and a one-off event could have had a devastating impact on the species. The transfer was carried out to start a new breeding population on Frégate Island — a privately owned luxury resort — making it the fifth island in Seychelles to hold this charming little bird.

"It will pave the way for this bird, once said to be one of the rarest birds in the world, to eventually come off the Red List of threatened birds of the world, updated annually by BirdLife International. We have been trying to get this project off the ground for a very long time and we have to thank the company managing the island (Frégate Island Private) for agreeing to partner with us and take the warblers," says Nirmal Shah, CEO of Nature Seychelles. "It is another step in our efforts to fully restore this island and to support the conservation of the unique and indigenous species of this country," said Ian Barbour, Frégate Island general manager.


Seychelles Warbler (Martijn Hammers).

The project is funded by a $18,000 grant from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund to Nature Seychelles through the RSPB, the Seychelles Warbler Research Group (SWRG — a collaboration between the Universities of East Anglia and Sheffield in the UK, and the University of Groningen, Netherlands) and Frégate Island Private. The translocation proposal was developed and submitted by Nature Seychelles to the Department of Environment. "They readily agreed to it because of the potential ground-breaking results for conservation worldwide." says Shah. The operation involved a team from Nature Seychelles, the SWRG, and Frégate Island. Birds were captured in the morning, transferred by helicopter and were released on Frégate by afternoon of the same day. "This way the birds are kept in captivity for the minimum amount of time and they have time to eat and drink on Frégate before nightfall," says Dr David Richardson of the University of East Anglia, which forms part of the SWRG.

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Before the transfer, there had been preparations on both islands. Frégate was surveyed for its suitability to carry the warblers. "The island has been restored over many years, is rat-free, and is free of the Common Mynahs that compete with and harm native birds," says Richardson. The population on Cousin, which now numbers over 300 birds, was also surveyed to identify territories from which to catch individuals. Cousin has the original population, and therefore the highest genetic diversity. This population has also been monitored for over two decades by the SWRG.

Nesting on Frégate is expected within a week or two. The SWRG will be monitoring this population for the next few years. "Seychelles is an example of how science and conservation can go hand in hand, and this is a brilliant opportunity to continue studying the warbler's evolution and behaviour," says Richardson.

Dr Chris Magin of the RSPB, who works closely with Nature Seychelles, said: "With one in eight of the world's bird species facing extinction, the recovery of the Seychelles Warbler provides hope that the fortunes of threatened species can be turned around. Before the Seychelles Warblers were moved to other islands, this species literally had all its eggs in one basket, but now the bird has a much brighter future."

The warbler has come a long way from the days when it neared extinction in the 1960s. An international campaign, which resulted in the purchase of Cousin by BirdLife International, and conservation action saw a complete turnaround for this bird. From Cousin, BirdLife International and Nature Seychelles started new populations, in line with the Species Action Plan, on Cousine, Aride, and Denis Islands in order to secure its long-term survival. "If the population takes off on Frégate as we expect, it will be the first bird species in the world once classified as Critically Endangered to be removed from Birdlife International's list of the threatened birds of the world because of conservation action," says Shah. "In 1969, the Red List had said the Seychelles Warbler could well become extinct in our time. We can now say the Seychelles Warbler was saved in our time — definitely the most amazing conservation success story in Seychelles."

Written by: RSPB