Guest blog by Dr Steffen Oppel, Senior Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science and Lorna MacKinnon, Senior Research Assistant
On 22 May 2015, the RSPB expedition team arrived on Henderson Island (Pitcairn Group, UK Overseas Territory) to better understand the ecology of this remote and rarely visited island. Over the next month the team will collect more data on vegetation, landbirds, rats, and seabirds, before being relieved by another crew at the end of August. You can read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 and part 6 of the Henderson Island science expedition here.
Investigating growth and survial rates Henderson petrel chicks
The Henderson petrel chicks hatch at a mass of 60g, and are left alone by their parents at the age of 2 days. The parents then return intermittently every day or two and feed the chick for 10-20 minutes. Some chicks double their body mass over night if they happen to have been fed by both parents, and a 5-10 day old chick is a fluffy ball of fat. After 2-3 weeks, however, they become increasingly stronger and object violently to being picked up and measured.
Photo of Henderson petrel by Richard Cuthbert (rspb-images.com)
Finding and weighing a feisty Henderson petrel chick
In our last blog (part 6) we mentioned that our botanist Lorna Mackinnon has branched out to participate in the zoological fieldwork. Being used to inanimate and motionless creatures, Lorna struggles to come to terms insubordinate wildlife. Here is her account of the daily challenge of weighing a particularly feisty petrel chick named Millhouse.
"Where will he be today? And what sort of mood will he be in? Millhouse is one of our more mature Henderson Petrel chicks who is close to fledging and has a tendency to wander. This makes it somewhat difficult to keep tabs on him in the course of our studies into growth rates and survival of petrel chicks. Of course, I say "he" but really I have no idea; although the invective levelled at us isn't generally considered ladylike... Millhouse can be a little... testy.
Finding "him" generally consists of a little bit of luck and a lot of bashing around in the Henderson bush, being stuck by Pandanus spines and tripping over the tangling vegetation: it's distinctly undignified and I suspect Millhouse always has a good view and has a quiet chuckle at our expense. On the occasions that we are successful in finding him, on a good day he might just mutter a bit about being put in a soft cloth bag and suspended from a spring balance, but more often we are subjected to an astounding torrent of abuse and petrel expletives which turn the air a vivid shade of blue. He doesn't even have to stop as he's lacerating whatever bit of human anatomy is within reach of his beak; adding injury to insult, as it were.
Considering the brevity of the measurements we take, there's a disproportionate length of time spent looking for the little blighter, and a lot more abuse than is strictly deserved. As the bag is opened and he shuffles his grumpy way back into the bush we experience a faint glow of pride in a job well done, with perhaps just a hint of relief... until next time."
The Henderson Island expedition is funded by The Darwin Initiative and David & Lucile Packard Foundation.
Find out more about our Henderson Island Restoration Programme
Nidal Issa and Alison Duncan of LPO/BirdLife France describe an important campaign to tackle the illegal poaching of ortolan buntings
Male ortolan bunting. Photo credit Aurelien Audevard
The Ortolan bunting (Emberiza hortulana) is a regular breeding species and a migrant in France. In the national IUCN Red List the conservation status for the breeding and the migrant populations, are Vulnerable and Endangered respectively. The whole European population has seriously declined between 1980-2012, by 84%, one of the largest declines of any passerine in Europe over the past 30 years
In France, hunting of Ortolan buntings has been forbidden by law since 1979 and the species was put on the protected list in 1999. Each year, however about 30,000 ortolans are trapped illegally during migration, August-September, in the SW France principally in the département of Les Landes using what are called “traditional hunting methods” (matoles or cage traps).
Trapping site with matoles (cage traps) set for ortolan bunting, SW France. Photo credit CABS
Ortolan bunting trapped in a matole. Photo credit Baptiste Marechal LPO
These birds are then put in the dark and force-fed to increase their fat reserves. They are considered a delicacy and may be sold, illegally, to restaurants for up to 150€/bird. In 2014, several of the French Grand Chefs holding several Michelin stars came out publicly (national TV news) to support the tradition of trapping ortolan buntings, pleading for at least one weekend when the trapping could be legalised. In 2002, in the UK the series “Meet the Neighbours” stopped off in France and a well known TV personality can be seen eating ortolan buntings in a restaurant. The fine for trapping these birds can be as much as 15,000€ and a year in prison. However, the public authorities in charge of applying the law simply cite “tolerance” and turn a blind eye to this poaching.
The LPO/BirdLife in France considers this situation is unacceptable. Confronted with the French government which does not apply the law properly, LPO decided ten years ago to start intervening physically during migration to expose the practice and raise awareness amongst the general public. Today the LPO works together with CABS (Committee Against Bird Slaughter) in an attempt to bring an end to this illegal trapping. The trapping sites are identified from the air, any caught birds or decoys are released, and reports on the illegal trapping are handed into the local police stations or the offices of the National agency for hunting and wildlife (ONCFS) in the hopes that the cases will be pursed rather than shelved.
Ortolan bunting decoy on a trapping site. Photo credit Baptiste Marechal LPO
President LPO, Allain Bougrain Dubourg releasing an ortolan bunting.
The LPO made a complaint to the European Commission, who replied in March 2015 that the French government had reassured the Commission that everything was under control! The EC therefore proposed to close the complaint. LPO sent further proof to indicate that no specific actions had yet been taken by the government and there was much evidence that the trapping was continuing.
Ortolan buntings illegally trapped handed over by the LPO to a representative of the Prefect as proof of the illegal practices. Photo credit – Ph. De Grissac LPO
As a result of this, and because the trapping of ortolan bunting is not the only species of passerines suffering persecution through traditional hunting methods, an estimated 400,000 of a dozen species are killed each year around France, the LPO has today launched a petition « Help stop the illegal massacre of common birds » in France.
This petition reminds President Hollande of his commitment announced at his election in 2012 to make France exemplary in terms of biodiversity protection.
Anyone wishing to help France drop these barbaric methods of trapping little birds and to simply apply the law is invited to click on the link to the petition and then share it with others
[i][i] Menz, Myles H. M and Arleltaz R.. 2012 The precipitous decline of the Ortolan bunting Emberiza hortulana: time to build on scientific evidence to inform conservation management. Oryx 46: 122-129
Guest blog by Chris Bowden, RSPB Globally Threatened Species Officer & SAVE Programme Manager based in Bangalore, India
At last! Indian Health Ministry bans multi-dose vials of human formulations of diclofenac, which have been responsible for the death of tens of millions of Asia’s vultures!
The painkiller was banned for veterinary use in India in 2006 because of its lethal effects on vultures that fed on the carcasses of treated cattle and buffaloes, but human formulations of the drug have been illegally produced and used to treat livestock since then.
The ban sees diclofenac production now restricted to human formulations in a single 3ml dose. The presence of this notification on the Health Ministry website has been something we’ve been eagerly awaiting for well over two years now. It has been a top priority at all the Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction (SAVE) meetings. BNHS vulture programme staff have been busily keeping up the pressure in Delhi and in various other ways ever since an inter-ministry meeting nearly four years ago. Then without any fuss, today, there it was. Its been a long and sometimes bewildering process, and we’ve often wondered why it hasn’t happened before – but then again, like the ban in 2006, it is a great credit to the Drug Controller and Indian authorities that vulture conservation is taken sufficiently seriously for such measures to be taken.
Critically Endangered Oriental white-backed vultures are expected to increase in response to the Indian government’s new ban on multi-dose vials of diclofenac. Photo by Mahseer Conservancy. The gazetted notification restricting human formulations of injectable diclofenac to ‘single unit dose pack only’ should mean that the main source of injectable diclofenac is stopped. The drug will become a lot less accessible to those who might illegally use it and more expensive; thereby, further tipping the balance towards using the safe alternative, meloxicam, instead. The notification takes immediate effect (dated 17 July 2015), and is legally binding. From a recent publication Avian scavengers and the threat from veterinary pharmaceuticals, Cuthbert et al. (2014) we know that diclofenac use by veterinarians has declined considerably since the ban of veterinary formulations in 2006, but unfortunately there is still widespread illegal use. Without further steps such as this, vultures remain under serious threat.
Pharmaceutical companies circumvented the ban on veterinary diclofenac by producing multi-dose vials of human formulations for veterinary purposes. Photo of large vials of drugs by Mahseer Conservancy. Ever since SAVE was formed in 2011, it has requested manufacturing companies to cease production of the larger vials - 3ml is more than sufficient for a single human dose, but the majority are ten times this size and an ideal dose for treating livestock. Only three companies voluntarily ceased manufacture ahead of this regulation, whilst over seventy companies in India ignored these requests. Health officials do not consider the ban to pose any serious problems for the legitimate use of diclofenac for humans. We think that this step will tip the balance in favour of the vultures. We see it as an essential step ahead of proposed releases of captive bred vultures and hope the dedicated Vulture Safe Zone teams around the region can help capitalise on this to get diclofenac levels down sufficiently to allow vulture populations to recover.
Meanwhile, we can then focus our attention on releases and preventing another vulture toxic drug taking diclofenac's place. But for now, lets celebrate this important milestone today, just ahead of International Vulture Awareness Day on 5th September!