Endangered birds rescued from wildlife trade by Singaporean

The Santa Cruz Ground Dove has an average lifespan of 6.6 years.
The Santa Cruz Ground Dove has an average lifespan of 6.6 years. PHOTO: WILDLIFE RESERVES SINGAPORE

A Singapore "bird man" has been instrumental in saving 109 endangered birds from death and, hopefully, extinction.

The birds, known as Santa Cruz Ground Doves and native to the Solomon Islands, were found on the island in cages and set to be sold.

Mr Ivan Choo, assistant curator of birds at Jurong Bird Park, spent two weeks nursing them back to health. "Due to our proximity to the island and urgency of the case, I went as soon as I could," he said.

According to Mr Duncan Bolt, chairman of the Santa Cruz Ground Dove Working Group that was formed after the birds were discovered, they had been captured by local bird exporters for export from the Solomon Islands, probably to the Middle East.

Mr Choo and Mr Joe Wood, who is from leading conservation group BirdLife International, helped the highly malnourished birds regain weight and strength, and built an aviary that could comfortably hold them all.

"I was so angry when I first saw the birds. Their feathers were ruffled and there were over 25 birds stuffed into 1 sq m cages. They had no space to move and disease spreads quickly like this," said Mr Choo.

OceansWatch, a non-governmental organisation in the Solomon Islands, was the first to discover the birds and had put out a Facebook appeal for bird keepers. Both Mr Wood and Mr Choo volunteered.

"There was one female who was so thin and weak, she didn't look like she was going to make it. She managed to survive after we gave her antibiotics and many injections of fluids," said Mr Choo.

After two weeks of round-the-clock care, the 76 male and 33 female doves recovered. They are now housed in a protected area within a government compound, and the authorities are hoping to find locals who can take care of them.

Mr Bolt said that after the birds had been trapped, a volcanic eruption destroyed about three-quarters of what is believed to be their sole natural habitat, on the island of Tinakula. Only 15 birds remain.

  • Fast facts

  • • Scientific name: Alopecoenas sanctaecrucis

    • Endangered since 2000 according to International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List

    • Known to only two recent locations: the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu islands

    • Does not migrate

    • Average lifespan: 6.6 years

    • Major threat: Predation by mammals - extinct in previous locations due to rats, cats, dogs and pigs

    • Forages exclusively on the ground but often perches on low branches and roosts in trees

    Source: IUCN Red List

While the dove had previously been listed as native to both the Solomon and neighbouring Vanuatu islands, he noted: "In reality, this is probably the most threatened species of bird on the planet at this time, with as few as 15 birds living in the wild."

Said Mr Nigel Collar, a 71-year-old Leventis Fellow in Conservation Biology at BirdLife International: "The conservation status of this species is endangered, but that is now under review and is likely to move up to critically endangered in due course."

Mr Bolt said that the 109 birds in captivity are the best chance for the survival of the species. "We plan to establish a captive population in Singapore... as well as a smaller captive population on the Solomon Islands. Our ultimate aim is to have the doves living in the wild in self-sustainable populations."

Mr Choo said Jurong Bird Park hopes to get at least 15 pairs of the doves, as a "safety population", so that they can be bred and returned safely to the wild, to boost their numbers.

The park has done this before, with the Luzon Bleeding Heart Dove, which is classed as "near threatened" by BirdLife International. It bred two pairs of the doves and then sent them back home to the Philippines.

HEADING FOR DISASTER

In reality, this is probably the most threatened species of bird on the planet at this time, with as few as 15 birds living in the wild.

MR DUNCAN BOLT, chairman of the Santa Cruz Ground Dove Working Group, on the birds native to the Solomon Islands.

The wildlife trade is often to blame for dwindling animal numbers. Over 100 million individual plants and animals from over 10,000 species are used in wildlife trade, according to Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

"The species traded are often already highly threatened and in danger of extinction, and conditions under which wildlife is transported are often appalling," it said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2017, with the headline 'Endangered birds rescued from wildlife trade by S'porean'. Print Edition | Subscribe