World Class Success: Seychelles achieves a rare global conservation feat

Because of this songbird, a whole island was rehabilitated

Once you could barely hear the chirping of this songbird with its only 25 individuals left in a mangrove swamp on a small island in Seychelles, but now the singing is louder with a symphony that comprises over 3000 birds. The population of the Seychelles warbler (Acrocephalus sechellensis), which once had the dubious distinction of being one of the rarest birds in the world, is now 115 times what it was over three decades ago with a population spread over 5 islands. Intensive conservation efforts have ensured this endemic bird did not vanish completely.

In the recently revised IUCN Red List 2015, this bird which was once classified as Critically Endangered, the highest threat category, has now been downgraded to Near Threatened which is the lowest category possible. It also means that the Seychelles Warbler is now removed from BirdLife International’s own list of Threatened Birds of The World.

 Warbler research photo by Martijn Hammers

“As far as I know, this is the first time in the world that a species once on the brink of extinction has now been downlisted to the lowest category on the Red List solely because of conservation action,” says Dr. Nirmal Jivan Shah, Nature Seychelles’ CEO.

“Bringing back this bird from the edge of extinction is one of the greatest conservation success stories not only for Seychelles but for the world owing to years of consistent collaboration of BirdLife International and Nature Seychelles with its academic and island partners,” Shah says. “The Seychelles Warbler is a truly remarkable endorsement that conservation can deliver incredible success in our lifetime and we must thank all the partners involved in this great success including the Seychelles Warbler Group, the private island owners and managers, the RSPB and the Seychelles Government.”

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List is a global classification of animal and plant species that are in danger of extinction. BirdLife International is the official and leading authority that provides information on bird species statuses for the Red List by coordinating the review of data from partner conservation organisations all over the world.

 Seychelles warbler populations are now well established on five islands photo by Martijn Hammers

A critically endangered species is one that is deemed to be in extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. On the other hand, a near threatened species is one that can no longer be categorised as endangered or vulnerable. The Seychelles Warbler is among 23 other birds that were downgraded to lower levels of threat in the 2015 Red List. Nonetheless, this is not because of conservation work but a reflection of more accurate data and generally better knowledge of the downlisted bird species. In contrast, 40 bird species’ classification has worsened on the Red List. Of the seven species that have been uplisted as now being critically endangered, four are vultures.

Nature Seychelles is the BirdLife partner in Seychelles and manages Cousin Island Special Reserve which had the last 26 remaining individuals of the Seychelles Warbler in 1968 when BirdLife International, then known as International Council for Bird Protection (ICBP), bought the island with the sole purpose of protecting this bird species.

Protecting the Seychelles warbler first required that Cousin Island’s vegetation had to revert to what it was before it was cleared of its natural plant species and replaced with coconuts for commercial purposes. The island is now protected under Seychelles law, thereby further protecting the terrestrial and marine ecosystems on Cousin and in the surrounding 400 meters of water.

 Warbler translocation to Fregate Island four years ago photo by Martijn Hammers

After the Seychelles warbler population flourished on Cousin, several translocations were made to four more islands from the 1990s to 2011. The bird is now well established on Cousin, Aride, Cousine, Denis and Frégate islands.

“The success of the Seychelles warbler shows that Seychelles is a world leader in biodiversity conservation. Our success with this and other species must be showcased by the international community a model in saving threatened biodiversity. In fact, we may be able to prevent new species making the Red List,” says Shah.

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