Sunday, June 12, 2011

Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust: It all started with a zoo

Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust logo
Conservationist, nature documentarian, and author Gerald Durrell founded the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust during 1963 (although 1959 saw the zoo open) to create captive breeding groups of endangered animals and plants.  Since that time the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (formerly the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust) has driven much endangered species protection, often through captive breeding at the zoo (the Durrell Wildlife Park, formerly the Jersey Zoo).  The trust made the dodo Raphus cucullatus their symbol, highlighting their conservation work's importance and  demonstrating what happens among endangered species when conservation enterprises are not taken or are not strong enough.

Among the many ways that the trust helps endangered species is through its original mission: captive breeding endangered species and returning them into the wild.  Since its founding more than 13,000 animals have been born at the Durrell Wildlife Park, many later returned into the wild.  Captive breeding for release is still a major conservation strategy today.

Training conservation biologists is another major strategy.  The trust created a school during 1984 which trains people regarding vital techniques they will need when conducting successful conservation programs back home and have trained more than 2,700 conservationists from 128 countries.  Courses are based at Jersey but are also held among various locales overseas, aiding people who cannot afford global air fare prices.  Training local people to conduct conservation programs within their own countries is an absolutely brilliant way to provide conservation support.  Local people must manage conservation projects or they will not be successful, but local people need training or they will not understand what needs doing and how.  The trust recognized that need when nobody else had and then filled the need, and have filled it admirably.  I know some people who have gone through their program and all speak extremely highly regarding their program and the knowledge that they took away.  The former students are particularly pleased concerning the continuing information stream and international connections within the conservation community that the course provides them after completion.

In addition to their captive breeding programs and their conservation biologists' training programs, the trust also protects/restores endangered species' natural habitats, so captive plants and animals will have a safe home when reintroduction becomes possible.  A crucial aspect is their involvement regarding research into local flora and fauna which determines threats concerning local endangered species populations and responses.

Discussing all the trust's projects over the past half century is impossible- the trust is currently conducting 45 conservation projects globally and this is not including the many more which they finished over the years- so I will instead present a few examples of their Mauritius work:

Pink Pigeon Columba / Neseonas mayeri with nest and eggs by Casey age 4
Pink pigeon with nest and eggs
by Casey, age 4
The dodo's home is a place where the trust has focused much energy ensuring that extinctions through the Mascarene Islands halt.  Like dodos, several decades ago another Mauritius pigeon (the dodo was a large flightless pigeon) was near extinction.  The pink pigeon Nesoenas/Columba mayeri is a species that experienced a severe population crash: during the 1970's only 10-20 individuals were left and when 1991 rolled around only 10 wild individuals remained.  Without the Trust's intervention this species would definitely have become extinct.  During 1977 five wild birds were captured, forming the trust's captive flock.  Two years later these captive birds' offspring started returning to Mauritius, both through return into the wild and adding into the Mauritius in situ captive propagation center.  Today through their captive propagation efforts, their researches into causes concerning their declines, and then addressing problems which they discovered, captive pink pigeon numbers stand at ~140, and ~350 pink pigeons now flying free.

A population having only 10 remaining birds may sound pretty low, but pink pigeons were positively numerous compared to the Mauritius kestrel Falco punctatus when the Trust targeted them.  During 1974 there were only 4 individuals left, and only one breeding pair, making the Mauritius kestrel the rarest bird on Earth at the time.  Look up now at the first 3 people that you see.  Now imagine that you and those 3 people are the last human beings.  Not 3 people that you want, but the 3 that you just saw, chosen at random.  That was the Mauritius kestrel's status.  What a seriously bleak outlook.  The trust, and several other conservation organizations like the Peregrine Fund, initiated a captive breeding program and intensive wild management.  This breeding program succeeded so well that there are now over 800 wild Mauritius kestrels flying around the island.  What an absolutely amazing recovery given the bird was so near extinction.

The Mauritius (Echo) parakeet Psittacula eques was experiencing similarly dire straits when the trust targeted them.  During 1986 less than a dozen wild birds were left, and only three were females.  Through captive breeding and intensive wild management the population has since increased past 300 individuals.  Help for the Mauritius parakeet could not have come later; its close relative, neighboring Rodrigues Island's Newton's parakeet Psittacula exsul, went extinct ~1876, like its Reunion island relative which went extinct before that.  Three fewer females and the Mauritius parakeet would have followed them into extinction, but work through the trust and their partners has ensured these three species and many more like them are still around, and extensive habitat tracts have been protected that would otherwise not be.

Mauritius is certainly not the only place where the Trust saves endangered species however.  Peruse their wonderful website and investigate other trust projects.  But all this good work doesn't come cheap and the trust really needs help financially when saving endangered species.  Do send some money their way, it will be extremely well spent.  I do not have any idea how many species would be extinct today without the trust's activities, but they have definitely made a spectacular difference throughout both conservation and zoos.  The trust has redefined how zoos look at their role, and how people look at zoos.  The trust has been a main force driving positive change throughout conservation during the past century, without a doubt.  This is how all zoos should be run, but sadly this is not yet the case, but with gentle pressure more zoos are becoming like their model every year.  It was a book that Gerald Durrell wrote that I read while a wee small child that initially convinced me concerning zoos' potential and got me onto my current zoo keeper career track.  I can highly recommend all Gerald Durrell's books, as can almost everyone else since the books were/are all insanely popular.

Want to see photos or videos of pink pigeons?
Want to see photos or videos of Mauritius kestrels?
Want to see photos or videos of Mauritius parakeets?

Want to learn more?  Check out the following links/books:

A Zoo in my Luggage by Gerald Durrell
I can't recommend A Zoo in my Luggage by Gerald Durrell strongly enough.  It was the first book of his that I read so I may be biased, but it is the book that got me interested in zoo keeping as a career.  Try it- you won't be disappointed.

Pigeons and Doves of the World by Gibbs Barnes and Cox
Pigeons and Doves: A Guide to the Pigeons and Doves of the World by David Gibbs, Eustace Barnes, & John Cox is superb- it covers the entire Columbiformes order magnificently.

Handbook of the Birds of the World volume 4
The Handbook of the Birds of the World: Volume 4 Sandgrouse to Cuckoos.  This amazing (and very pricey but very worth it) volume covers all of the known information on all of the sandgrouse, pigeons, parrots, turacos, and cuckoos of the world.  If you have the money and love birds with a passion, get the entire set.

Handbook of the Birds of the World volume 2
The Handbook of the Birds of the World: Volume 2 New World Vultures to Guineafowl.  This volume covers the Falconiformes and the Galliformes.  Again, simply astonishing.

small version
Raptors of the World by Ferguson-Lees and Christie
large version
Raptors of the World by James Ferguson-Lees and David Christie is an incredibly comprehensive collation of all of the raptors of the world.  It comes in two forms: a small (320 pages) version that is essentially a field guide, and a larger (992 pages) version with everything you could ever want to know about each species.  Be sure you are purchasing the one you mean to get.

Parrots of the World by Juniper and Parr
Parrots: A Guide to Parrots of the World by Tony Juniper and Mike Parr is a similarly wonderful book detailing all of our current knowledge about all of the world's parrots.

IUCN Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan for Parrots
If you're interested in Parrot conservation, then you need to get a copy of the IUCN Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan for Parrots to see what the status of conservation plans for these species is.

I am going to end this post with a quote from Gerald Durrell to future generations that I absolutely love:
We hope that there will be fireflies and glow-worms at night to guide you and butterflies in hedges and forests to greet you.
We hope that your dawns will have an orchestra of bird song and that the sound of their wings and the opalescence of their colouring will dazzle you.
We hope that there will still be the extraordinary varieties of creatures sharing the land of the planet with you to enchant you and enrich your lives as they have done for us.
We hope that you will be grateful for having been born into such a magical world.
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