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A challenging road to eradication - Seychelles' tireless efforts to rid the archipelago of the destructive green parakeets

Victoria, Seychelles | September 13, 2014, Saturday @ 15:41 in Environment | By: Brigitte Mendes | Views: 5291
A challenging road to eradication - Seychelles' tireless efforts to rid the archipelago of the destructive green parakeets

Ring necked parakeet feeding on berries, Bushy Park (Dan Davison/Flickr) Photo License: (CC BY 2.0)

(Seychelles News Agency) - Perched high up in a tall Albizia tree (Falcataria moluccana), one of its favorite spots - the ring-necked parakeet or as it is commonly known the green parrot looks beautiful and innocent. But there’s more than meets the eye about this little bird.

It is considered a major invasive species to the biodiversity of the Seychelles archipelago of 115 islands scattered in the Indian Ocean.

A campaign that kicked off in late 2011 by the island nation’s Ministry of Environment and the Seychelles Island Foundation, SIF, to study and eradicate this bird has proven to be successful to date.

Established by the government under the Seychelles Island Foundation Decree of 1979, SIF is a public trust that manages and protects the archipelago’s World Heritage Sites of Aldabra situated 1,150km from the main island of Mahé and Vallée de Mai, on the second most populated island of Praslin.

The current population of the ring-necked parakeet is estimated at 150, down from around 400 birds prior to the commencement of eradication in 2013.

“We conservatively estimate that more than 70 percent, nearly 300 birds of the population has been culled leading to a significant decrease in sightings across the island,” SIF told SNA in an email interview.

“We should, however, expect the remaining birds to continue breeding so the final total is likely to be higher than currently estimated (…..) The parakeet population is visibly declining all over the island. Due to the restriction of the parakeets to Mahé and their relatively low numbers present we believe that complete eradication of the species from Seychelles is still possible.”

A similar campaign to rid the islands of this species, was initially conducted between 2003 and 2005 by at that time Department of Environment. The programme back then was able to get the population of green parrots down to about 20 birds.

Unfortunately it could not be continued and by 2009, the green parrot population estimates had exceeded 200 birds. By the end of 2011 it had increased to around 300 birds.

The ring-necked parakeet or as it is commonly known the green parrot perched high up in a tall tree(SIF) Photo License: CC-BY

This invasive species of parrot (Psittacula krameri) is believed to have been introduced in Seychelles as early as 1970.

“The species was probably brought to Seychelles as caged pet bird. The parakeet was accidentally introduced into the wild in Seychelles in 1996, when it is reported that two captive birds escaped. These birds quickly bred and established a viable and rapidly increasing population centred on the Southwest of mainland Mahé. The first larger group of wild individuals was reported in 1997, when a group of seven birds was seen… the population then increased substantially,” said SIF.

Although the Green Parrot is mostly restricted in numbers across mainland Mahé, a few sightings have been reported on the Seychelles second largest populated island of Praslin as well as on Silhouette, the fourth largest populated in the archipelago.

“This shows that the bird can fly between the islands,” warned the SIF.

The eradication programme funded by the European Union, SIF, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Environment Trust Fund Seychelles at an estimated cost of over one 100 thousand Euros or around $130 thousand is said to have seen great results in trying to control this bird population which if introduced to Praslin’s UNESCO World Heritage site of Vallee de Mai, home to the endemic Seychelles Black Parrot, will have devastating results.

“The black parrot- one of the rarest birds in Seychelles found only on Praslin- has a small total population size of only 500 to 900 birds (world population) which, together with its limited range make it highly vulnerable to external pressures. There are justifiable concerns that the parakeets, if they reach Praslin they could compete with the black parrots for food and nesting sites, which are already in short supply in some breeding years, and transmit novel diseases.”

“The black parrot, having been restricted to a small island for a very long time, has probably lost its resistance to many pathogens which are known to be carried by the green parrot and could be devastating if they become established in the Black parrot population,” warned SIF.

The entire Black Parrot population of about 520–900 is found on the second most populated island of Praslin. Efforts to prevent the green parakeet from reaching Praslin is also aimed at protecting the black parrot population. (Gerard Larose, STB) Photo License: CC-BY

On average the ring-necked parakeet measures up to 40 cm including its’ tail feathers, which make up a large portion of its total length. Its’ single wing length is about 20 cm.

It is routinely seen in groups of 3 or more, especially in the early mornings and late afternoons. They can be seen repeatedly going into holes in trees and they feed in large groups from residential fruit trees such as the star fruit, golden apples, mangoes and guava as well as commercial crops such as maize.

The method being used to eradicate the Green Parrot comprises mainly of an observation and a shooting team.

The observation team provides information to the shooting team, by monitoring the parrots through their behaviour. This entails the numbers, as well as the feeding and nesting patterns during different times of the day.

Previous techniques tried and tested involved direct and automatic traps or a combination of both in the form of cage traps and net traps, mist-netting and nest targeting. These were proved unsuccessful and it later transpired that shooting was the most efficient method.

“The catch rate in nets simply dropped so much that it was no longer worth the effort - it was taking many hours to catch a single bird which, at that early stages of the project, was inefficient. These birds are too clever to continue flying into nets after seeing other birds caught,” SIF explained to SNA.

“Birds are dispatched with a single shot. Professional avian hunters, the Seychelles Police and the Seychelles Peoples Defense Force have all worked with the team to ensure high ethical and security standards (.....) Everybody involved in the project is pleased, especially with the recent progress and success of the shooting, which is clearly making a difference to the parakeet population.” 

Two dead ring neck parakeet. SIF says shooting is the most efficient method to eradicate the green parrot. (Ronley Fanchette ) Photo License: CC-BY
Poster used in the campaign to eliminate the ring neck parakeet in Seychelles (SIF ) Photo License: CC-BY

However, the eradication programme of this major invasive species has not been an all easy task. 

The ring-necked parakeet often described as a clever bird is constantly changing its habits and routes which ultimately change the breeding areas which make it difficult for the team.

They prefer tranquil environment and tend to nest in cavities in tall Albizia trees which make it quite unsafe for the team to reach. 

Apart from the fact that the birds fly quite high making shooting difficult, the terrain and topography of Mahé itself makes it even more difficult to get access to these sites.

Other than being a threat to the native bird of the islands, worldwide, the ring-necked parakeets are often a nuisance to farmers who describe them as an agricultural pest due to the massive destruction they can cause which results to great loss of revenue.

In Seychelles, though the effects of the green parrots on plantations have not been studied further or found to have reached destructive proportions, they are found to be a nuisance in the small gardens found in almost every home on the islands.

Pierre Servina lives at Barbarons in the Grand-Anse district on the West coast of mainland Mahé. He enjoys gardening during his spare time. For the past five years, he’s had the company of a flock of green parrots around his fruit garden.

“Every morning at around quarter to six then again around six thirty in the evening they come in groups of about 40 to 60. They feast on the star fruit, golden apples and mango trees. I have noticed they prefer the seeds of the fruits when they are still green, not ripe. They destroy all the fruits before they have the time to mature,” Servina told SNA.

“I believe these birds breed quickly. The population is on the increase, every time I try to do a head count there are more of them” he added.  

Micheline George runs a popular spice and fruit garden and restaurant on a hill top at Enfoncement, Anse Royale in the South of Mahé. The Jardin du Roi -Royal Garden- spreads over some 30 hectares of land. 

An original Jardin du Roi located in the same Anse Royale district though not in the same location was set on fire back in 1780 by the French settlers upon seeing an approaching British flagged ship only to find out later that it was a French vessel.

The Jardin Du Roi Spice Garden which today boasts vanilla vines, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and other spices, as well as fruit trees are also regularly visited by green parrots.

“I see one or two green parrots fly by during the day. But they never miss their breakfast of green guava and star fruits in the early mornings. But the gardeners would always scare them away otherwise I would not yield anything. And in the evenings they always come to rest in the tall bamboo stalks not too far from my house. I have noticed they don’t like noisy environments and are quiet by nature but sometimes when they are noisy I would flash the torch up the trees and they would fly away,” the garden's owner Micheline Georges told SNA in a phone interview.             

Partly eaten guava, star fruits and other seeds. The green parrots prefer to feed on the seeds of the fruits when they are still green, not ripe. (Ronley Fanchette ) Photo License: CC-BY

The SIF has attributed the progress of the green parrot eradication programme so far to the remarkable help from the local public in providing useful information and support.

“All of them are playing a vital role in protecting Seychelles’ native biodiversity,” said SIF.

“Several birds have been successfully targeted by members of the public and then reported and passed on to us. The public targeting of parakeets included the lone parakeets on Silhouette and Praslin, which has been a huge boost for the project and made the team more efficient.” 

The eradication campaign of the green parrot has been running for 14 months. According to the SIF, it is expected to take a minimum of 12 more months keeping in mind that the most difficult stages are yet to come “before we can be confident of completion.”

There will also be monitoring and follow-up required for several years.

The SIF and its partners are confident that they will achieve an overall success in the coming months. Being the first of its kind, this large scale attempt to eradicate this bird from an ecosystem, has generated a lot of international interest. According to the SIF, it has challenged and given new meaning to avian eradications.

“The Environment Department and SIF believe eradication is possible in Seychelles and we hope that the Seychelles eradication, if successful, will act as a blueprint and trigger for similar eradications elsewhere.” 

The eradication of the green parrot is part of a larger EU funded project, to tackle the issues of invasive species and plants which pose a threat to the Seychelles' two UNESCO World Heritage sites of Aldabra and Vallee de Mai.

The results and recommendations from the project are expected to help better manage the two heritage sites.  

The main partners and associates of the project are the Environment Department, the Seychelles National Park Authority, the Island Development Company and Island Conservation Society.

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Tags: ring-necked parakeets, green parrots, eradication, invasive species, UNESCO World Heritage sites, Aldabra, Vallee de Mai, SIF, EU

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