Being SMART about conservation

Volunteers on Cousin Island help Dr Johanna Storm collect magpie robin data on the island

The Seychelles Magpie Recovery Team (SMART) has just met for the bi-annual meeting to discuss the state of the Seychelles Magpie Robin. The meeting held at Nature Seychelles’ Conservation Centre on Praslin was attended by representatives from Cousin, Cousine, Aride, and Denis Islands as well as Ronley Fanchette from the Ministry of Environment and Energy.

SMART is comprised of a team of stakeholders including the ministry of environment as well as owners and managers of islands which have populations of the iconic, endemic and endangered magpie robin. The team meets twice a year to discuss the progress of the bird populations on each island. SMART was started by Nature Seychelles with funding from Birdlife International in 1999. Nature Seychelles still coordinates the meetings with its own resources since funding form Birdlife stopped several years ago. 

“This meeting was particularly important because of the drastic decline of magpie robins on Aride last year,” explains Eric Blais, Nature Seychelles Island Coordinator. “We normally come together to discuss issues and share best practices. In this meeting it was especially important to discuss what steps Aride is implementing to tackle the declining number of magpie robins on the island.”

 SMART representatives on Praslin during the meeting held last week

In 2015, Dr. Johanna Storm, Wildlife Vets International’s (WVI) expert avian surgeon with funding from Conservation International’s Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund was brought to the five Seychelles islands which have magpie robin populations to try and discover the cause(s) of the dramatic decline of magpie robins on Aride from 24 to 12 in just four months. Samples were taken from Cousin, Cousine, Aride, Denis and Fregate and taken to the UK for analysis.

“After careful consideration of all my findings and the diverse and extensive examinations performed, I have to say that I cannot pin-point one single science-based disease that could be made solely responsible for the decline of the SMRs on Aride,” Johanna stated in her report. She however made several recommendations based on her observations and findings.

In last Friday’s meeting, the SMART representatives outlined some of the ways in which they were already taking measures to try and ensure the continued protection of the SMR which until December 2014 - when the sharp mortality rate on Aride came to light - was a shining example of a conservation success story.

 Blood samples from Cousin

In the 1970s, The Seychelles Magpie Robin was down to only 23 individuals found only on Fregate Island, now they are around 300 individuals on five islands. Between 1990 and 1997, through BirdLife International and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) a Recovery Programme was launched to first stabilize the remaining population. In 1998 Nature Seychelles took over the Recovery Program and formed SMART to increase efforts.

When the populations had grown owing to research coupled with intensive conservation work, Nature Seychelles with the island owners and managers established new SMR populations on four more islands.

Melinda Curran the Assistant Conservation Officer on Aride reported during last Friday’s SMART meeting that the SMR population now seems more stable with three territories nesting and two surviving fledglings from 2015.

Arising from Johanna’s report, the team also discussed what they would implement across all five islands. Tests carried out showed that in all the islands, some SMRs had salmonella. It was therefore agreed that the hygiene, especially handling and disposal of raw chicken or egg shells needs to be addressed through strict policies, and staff on the island educated on the importance of adhering to these rules.

 Dr Johana Storm showing a volunteer how to handle a bird during her visit to Cousin Island

It was also stressed that bio-security is of utmost importance. This means ensuring there is no introduction of invasive species and where present they should be eradicated. In Aride it was specifically suggested to eradicate mice in a way that would not harm SMRs as well as the other many bird populations, not to mention other wildlife on the island.

Reportedly, after the eradication of the invasive Mynah birds on Denis Island which ended in 2015 there has been an increase in SMR numbers on the island. In 2015 there were 65 individuals and by July 2016 there were between 75-80 individuals, 3 of which were the original trans-located individuals from 2008.
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“In 2005 the Magpie Robin, which was previously on the brink of extinction, was down-listed on the Red List of endangered species from Critically Endangered (the highest threat category) to Endangered, a significant and world class success story,” says Dr. Nirmal Jivan Shah, Nature Seychelles’ CEO. “Importantly, managers and owners of islands have taken responsibility for the conservation and care of the Magpie Robin populations established on their islands” Shah noted.

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