Vikash Tatayah is conservation director of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) which has driven the remarkable effort made over decades to save the endangered echo parakeet from extinction. Tatayah shared his team’s experiences with Times Evoke — and revealed the strongest motivation that keeps inspiring wildlife conservation:
My first contact with the echo parakeet was in 1996, when there were extremely few birds left. In the 1970s, there were just 12 to 20 such birds. When I began work as a young field conservationist, the situation was very grim. But we persevered — we began building aviaries in the forests, from which we would try, for the first time, to release echo parakeets into the wild. This was very challenging — we could have entirely failed.
But history went well — the birds were successfully reintroduced. Importantly, the parakeets were able to feed from hoppers or artificial boxes we put up with food pellets for them. We put up nest boxes too which was vital because the birds had been bred in captivity. When we released them into the wild, they saw the same nest boxes and hoppers they identified with. So, they managed to survive — then, they began mingling with wild birds, even bringing them back to eat with them at the food hoppers and getting them to use the nest boxes. It was a very successful effort — today, we have more than 800 echo parakeets.
Science has advanced greatly since and we now know a lot more about the diet, biology and needs of these birds. We can aspire further. We are now thinking of trying to reintroduce the echo parakeet to Reunion Island as well. There used to be a species of echo parakeet there which has gone completely extinct. With the aid of science, we hope to bring it back.
The situation is hard. On Reunion Island, all native parrots have gone extinct. On Mauritius, all native parrots, except the echo parakeet, have gone extinct. The echo parakeet faces major existential challenges. Habitat destruction is topmost — from an island close with vegetation, now we have less than five percent forests and only 1.3% of good quality native forests. The echo parakeet needs native forests for its food. It is also a tree nester which makes its home in the hollows of large, old, native trees. But, with habitat destruction, the quality of our forests is declining.
Another serious challenge comes from predator species being introduced in Mauritius, such as long-tailed macaws, cats and Indian ring-neck parakeets. These are all competitors for resources. Also, a viral illness called the Psittacene beak and feather disease arrived recently through introduced parrots and caused severe mortality among echo parakeets — more than half our fledglings were dying of this disease. We asked ourselves, will we lose all our babies, all our birds? Thankfully, many survived but it was not easy.
Throughout our struggles, one thought keeps us going — we do not have the right to abandon wildlife. For conservationists, abandoning is just not an option. We’ve saved more species of birds here in Mauritius and Rodrigues than any other country in the world. Even when we had very few birds left, we did not give up. We are guided by the philosophy that we do not have the right to let a species go extinct.
We therefore undertake conservation with advocacy. Development, manifest in the loss of forests, is a challenge for wildlife species. We tackle this at policy level, talking to government and the private sector, suggesting initiatives like ecotourism, which could be far more profitable than clearing forests for ranching. We are constantly energised by deeply committed people who love wildlife — they simply don’t give up.
People who aren’t specialists can also help. They can spend time in the field with us, helping us monitor birds. Students and people with stamina can do this — having energy is important as often, we traverse mountains and valleys with 25-30 kilos of equipment on our backs. Another way is to be aware of the impact of invasive species on your local environment. In Mauritius, it’s becoming very fashionable to have macaws and exotic birds as pets. But these introductions can be dangerous for native birds as these can bring diseases. So, people can help by modifying their desires. People can also donate funds for conservation. But a major responsibility lies with people driving development projects. They must acknowledge the fall-out of clearing forests and building dams. If developers can be more open to sustainable development, that would make a huge difference. And this must show in real attempts to live upto these ideas, not just voice hollow words, which will silence the sounds of wildlife like the echo parakeet.