A magpie robin on Cousin Island Special Reserve by Martijn Hammers
One of the unique and distinctive birds that make the Seychelles holiday islands paradise so beguiling is in trouble.
The Seychelles magpie robin, one of the species where intensive and expensive conservation efforts have conjured sustainable populations against the odds, has been hit by a mystery disease threatening its survival. On one island numbers have halved in four months.
Wildlife Vets International (WVI), providing the only high level and dedicated wildlife expertise to islands with one of the most important biodiversities in the world, is now in a race against time to find out what is killing birds on two of the Seychelles most enchanting islands, Cousin and Aride.
Having dispatched a specialist bird vet to the islands in February to take samples from affected birds, WVI desperately needs funds for virology and histopathology research and to monitor the crisis.
Seychelles magpie robins were the subject of an extremely successful conservation project, partly funded by the RSPB, along with the previously critically endangered Seychelles warbler, white-eye, paradise fly catcher and Scops owl.
Rather than running their own projects, WVI provides an expert veterinary service to conservation partners. In this case, Nature Seychelles and Island Conservation Society run the two islands that avian expert Johanna Storm visited. As well as advice during a disease outbreak, WVI provides expert advice on routine disease screening and health monitoring that is essential as birds are moved to create new island populations as part of major translocation projects
The magpie robin was once down to just 25 birds on Fregate Island in 1970. After concerted conservation effort by BirdLife International and Nature Seychelles (BirdLife in Seychelles) with the collaboration of island owners and the Seychelles government, populations were successfully created on Cousin, Aride, Denis and Cousine Islands as part of the Seychelles Magpie Recovery Team programme (SMART).
Last November WVI avian specialist and co-founder Andrew Greenwood visited Cousin Island, where Nature Seychelles has a permanent biologist monitoring the endangered bird populations and where several SMRs had been seen with infected eyes.
Staff on Cousin Island monitoring the nests of magpie robins
A second trip was planned for later this year by WVI avian and reptile special Johanna Storm to provide additional experience and training to the terrapin and turtle rescue and rehabilitation programme run by Marine Conservation Society, Seychelles (MCSS) as well as disease surveillance training for field staff involved in the SMART programme.
But the trip was rushed forward after news from Aride Island, run by Island Conservation Society, that magpie robin numbers had crashed from 24 to 12 in just four months with only one chick surviving the recent breeding season. Birds were disappearing and no one knew why.
All remaining birds on Aride Island were caught and samples taken for analysis. Johanna's team then moved to Cousin Island to take samples from apparently healthy SMRs for comparison and to look at any sick ones.
Her trip included providing the Seychelles with a veterinary anaesthesia machine, training to the few vets on the islands in reptile and avian medicine, anaesthesia and with an x-ray machine to follow, thanks to MCSS funding.
Andrew Greenwood: "The urgency of this situation is best summed up by the death of a sick chick dying in a SMART coordinator's hands when Johanna was there. Tragic as this is, it is only with ongoing post mortems and samples that we can find out why.
"My visit in November was the first chance for us to assess the threat. I met key organisations working with magpie robins and developed a plan for how and what veterinary expertise WVI can provide to the recovery programme, which has now become an emergency.
"These birds are in serious trouble and we cannot let such a successful conservation programme fail for lack of veterinary resources. Seychelles species are found nowhere else in the world. The region has had few extinctions and huge conservation efforts had resulted in most species reaching small but viable population levels. "
The next step is for the samples we have to be analysed and to get more samples from the islands were no disease has been seen, to compare values. We hope to be able to get Johanna out again in the breeding season, next November.
WVI raised funds for Johanna's trip through The Big Give Christmas Challenge and from The Swire Charitable Foundation. Some funding also came from the Nairobi Convention. Further funding is needed to enable us to help stop disease undermine all the successful conservation work that has already been done.