Hope for Abbots Booby

Once upon a time, some men came to an island in Seychelles, mined it and in the process destroyed an entire population of birds found there. The men were guano miners, the island Assumption and the birds Abbott’s Booby (fou bef). This bird is now to be found breeding only on Christmas island which belongs to Australia. It has been classified as Critically Endangered, the highest threat category for living species in the Red List of the World Conservation Union (IUCN)

It once had a much wider distribution in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The population on Christmas Island is about 2,500 active pairs but an aerial survey in 2002 recorded about 1,500 active nest sites. During 1965 to 1987, guano mining on Christmas island led to the destruction of about a third of the birds’ habitat nesting. A cyclone in 1998 wiped out about a third of the fledgling birds and nest-sites.

But the greatest danger in recent years was thought to have been the introduction of the Crazy Ant (fourmi maldiv). The ants formed super-colonies during the 1990s and spread rapidly to cover 28% of the island’s forest. Something similar happened on Bird Island in Seychelles. The fear on Christmas island was that they would prey on baby birds or cause adults to abandon nests. However, monitoring programmes have showed no evidence of either.

The super-colonies did alter island ecology by killing the dominant animal, the red crab, and by farming scale insects which damage the trees in which the birds nested. But the impact on the trees was not found to be too serious. A control programme for the ant has been successfully carried out since 2000 and has eliminated the pest from 95% of its former range.

Other conservation measures to protect Abbott’s Booby include the creation of a national park  to include most breeding areas. An agreement with the guano mining company also prevents clearance of native forest. Since 1984, mined areas near nesting areas have been planted in an ongoing restoration programme. It seems that the breeding population is more or less stable now.

This year, Abbott’s Booby has been down listed to a lower category, Endangered, in the IUCN Red List. It is therefore in less danger today. There could also be small colonies elsewhere.  Recent observations from around Indonesia seem to indicate unknown breeding colonies or birds dispersing further afield.  About 150 individuals were seen not too long ago feeding around a school of dolphins off Sulawesi. The bird may also occur in the Chagos as reported in the Nature Seychelles magazine Zwazo.  The situation now looks more hopeful for Abbott’s Booby.

By Nirmal Jivan Shah, published on the People Newspaper, Seychelles, on 4 August  2005

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