02/05/2016
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Saving the world's rarest birds, one by one

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BirdLife International has embarked on an ambitious new global initiative to prevent the extinction of endangered species as part of the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE).

An example of a truly endangered bird species is Stresemann's Bristlefront, a long-tailed bird with distinctive forehead bristles, a rufous rump, a musical whistling song, which eats frogs and insects, and has a tennis-ball-sized tunnel for its nest. Seen just a handful of times since its rediscovery in Brazil's Atlantic forest in 1995, that's about all that is known about this unique bird apart from one frightening fact: there are fewer than 15 individuals left.


Stresemann's Bristlefront (Video: Ciro Albano)

Some species cling to existence on mere scraps of remaining habitat until they're gone, and once they're gone, there's no turning back. However, while those few individuals cling on we have a chance to save them.

The new multi-million dollar initiative teams up co-ordinators BirdLife, the American Bird Conservancy, the Global Environment Facility and the United Nations Environment Program with the governments of Brazil, Chile, and Madagascar, where projects to restore and protect AZE species' habitat with community support will first be engaged with. AZE works to prevent extinctions by identifying and safeguarding the places where Endangered or Critically Endangered species are restricted to single, remaining, irreplaceable sites.

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"Protecting the last remaining habitats for Critically Endangered species is a vital strategy for preventing extinctions," said Braulio Dias of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), with whom the initiative will work closely. BirdLife is well versed in preventing extinctions, and not to save the rarest of the rare would be unthinkable. Saving these tiny habitats is saving entire species.

Stresemann's Bristlefront habitat is a remnant strip of humid forest in a valley on the border of Bahia and Minas Gerais states, Brazil. Every day the sound of chainsaws firing up, the crackle of forest fires, and the smell of cow dung get ever closer. Rapid deforestation for logging, plantations and cattle ranching have devastated the state's forest, which is a unique habitat type (South American Atlantic forest), high in endemic species and of which only 10 per cent of its original extent remains. The 15 individual birds are clinging to existence, stranded in an 'island' of forest. Is it possible to save them?

In arguably one of the world's great conservation success stories of recent times, BirdLife saved Seychelles Warbler, which survived only on Cousin Island in the Seychelles, a mere tenth of a square mile. In 1959, only 26 birds remained but through purchasing the island and involving local people in the project, a brand new home-grown conservation organisation was established — Nature Seychelles — who today care for several species that have been brought back from the edge of extinction. Last year, Seychelles Warbler was taken off the endangered list, with a population of 3,000 birds and growing.

Carlos Alberto de Mattos Scaramuzza, Ministry of the Environment in the Brazilian government, is on board: "By expanding the Mata do Passarinho Reserve and working with local landowners, this initiative will provide a vital lifeline for the Critically Endangered Stresemann's Bristlefront." The initiative aims to save AZE species at a total of five demonstration sites in Brazil, Chile, and Madagascar, and at an additional 10 sites globally.

"We are truly honoured to be working with the Governments of Brazil, Chile and Madagascar," said Pepe Clarke, Head of Policy at BirdLife International.

Additionally, Tsitongambarika forest in Madagascar is also a BirdLife Forest of Hope site, where Asity Madagascar (BirdLife Partner) recently secured a permanent protected area status. Asity is now co-manager of the site together with local communities, and has already been fulfilling this role to ensure the site's conservation for several years, but the site next needs the implementation of a management and financing plan in order to secure its future for the endemic and endangered species that live there.

Written by: BirdLife International