Lost in Paradise

by Jeff Neale

Paradise. The word has become a cliché used by travel writers to describe tropical islands. Paradise indeed for tourists, beachcombers and honeymooners of the species homo sapiens, but tragically, too often a Paradise lost for bird species, including parrots.

Indian Ringneck - Psittacula krameri

Last year I was fortunate enough to find myself in Paradise - Rarotonga in the Cook Islands to be exact; a lush, verdantly forested island in the heart of the South Pacific. Just the sort of place you would expect to be teeming with birdlife. I took the first opportunity to leave the populated coastal strip, and hike through the rainforest across the uninhabited, mountainous heart of the island.

A similar bushwalk in Australia would have been filled with the sound of birdsong, but there I was struck by the deafening silence. There were no birds to be seen or heard. Once, a species of Vini Lory may have screeched across the valleys but no-one can be sure, because none can be found there now. The local conservation service is now working desperately to save the last of the Kakerori Flycatchers, Pomarea dimidiata, which now number less than fifty birds. Introduced rats have been blamed for their demise, and perhaps the introduced Indian Mynah has also occupied the ecological niche of former native land birds. Back on the populated coast the gardens are filled with birdsong, but it all emanates from the flocks of Mynahs. My thoughts turned to other islands; other birds.

This same sorry theme is continued in the islands of the Caribbean. The last recorded Cuban Macaw, Ara tricolor, was shot from its perch in 1864 and most likely ended up on a local family's dinner table. The Puerto Rican Amazon Parrot, Amazona vittata, was down to sixteen individuals in 1971. So far, they have been rescued from the brink by a concerted effort by the U.S. and International Wildlife agencies, with a little help from captive breeding techniques and the provisions of artificial nesting sites in their last stronghold, the Liquillo Forest reserve. The smaller islands of the West Indies - St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Dominica - each have their own unique species of Amazon Parrots; all of them are now seriously endangered by the onslaught of human population pressure and habitat destruction.

In French Polynesia, the Society Parakeet, Cyanoramphus ulietanus, became extinct sometime after 1773 on the island of Raiatea. Its relative on nearby Tahiti, the Black-fronted Parakeet, Cyanoramphus zealandicus managed to hang on till 1844 before it too disappeared. Today the Tahitian Lory, Vini peruviana, is in dire straits over its range and could go the same way.

Indian Ringneck Psittacula krameri

Nowhere is the vulnerability of island species more starkly illustrated than in the Australian sphere. Australia administers two small South Pacific Oceanic islands - Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island. The former is an External Territory, the latter a part of New South Wales. Norfolk has seen the extinction of one native parrot, the Norfolk Kaka, Nestor productus, last recorded about 1850, and the threatened extinction of a second parrot, the Norfolk Green Parrot, Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae cookii. Lord Howe settlers despatched their native Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae subflavescens to oblivion in 1869, for the sin of feasting on the settlers' fruit orchards. 

By contrast, the Australian continent (including Tasmania) is home to some fifty-two Parrot species. In the two hundred years since European settlement, only one species, the Paradise Parrot has been recorded as extinct; and even that extinction has a question mark over it, with intermittent sightings being claimed for Psephotus pulcherrimus to the present day. Of course, half a dozen other species are severely threatened now, but the contrast between island and continental extinction rates is glaring.

The Norfolk Island Parrot, a subspecies of the well-known New Zealand Kakariki, is threatened by both habitat destruction and by competition from the introduced Crimson Rosella, Platycercus elegans. Fortunately, wildlife authorities on Norfolk Island have recognised the plight of their parrot, and over the last decade a rescue programme has quietly been under way. The aggressive Rosella population has been reduced from the Mt. Pitt area of remnant native forest. Some Norfolk Kakarikis were acquired for captive breeding and some nestlings removed from their nests for hand-rearing to ensure a greater juvenile survival rate. But the parrot's future still remains under a cloud.

The extinct Lord Howe race of Kakariki, Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae subflavescens, was a close sibling of the now-threatened Norfolk race. Of course, extinction is forever; it can never be brought back, but the ecological niche it occupied on Lord Howe Island is still vacant. It has been advocated by eminent bird lovers (Ornithologist Joseph Forshaw, among others) that the vacancy can be filled by the transfer of a breeding colony of Norfolk Kakarikis to Lord Howe Island.

Lord Howe wildlife authorities gained world-wide acclaim for their successful captive breeding strategy that so recently rescued the Lord Howe Woodhen from the precipice of extinction. It would surely be a double-edged victory if we could now save the Norfolk Kakariki and at the same time re-establish the species on Lord Howe Island after an absence of over 120 years.

Perhaps Paradise Lost could become a Paradise Regained!


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