Saved from extinction: conservationists hail recovery of 16 threatened bird species

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The first global audit of threatened species has revealed that 16 species of bird that were on the brink of extinction in the mid-1990s have been saved by determined conservation efforts.

In a stunning illustration of what can be achieved when concerted action is taken by governments and environmental groups, some of the most beautiful and rare types of birdlife have even seen their numbers increase tenfold in a decade.

The majority of the bird species, ranging from the Norfolk Island green parrot to the Mauritius parakeet, had populations of less than 100 in 1994. Most were tipped for imminent extinction. Yet conservationists said the findings showed that, with international co-operation and adequate funding, they halt and even reverse a worldwide decline in bird types. But they also warned that governments around the world are still doing too little to save millions of birds from being lost for ever.

Dr Stuart Butchart, author of the report and an expert with the British-based group BirdLife International, said: "These successes show that preventing extinctions is possible, given political will and concerted action.

"We need to scale up our efforts considerably to prevent wholesale biodiversity loss and many more extinctions in the coming decades."

In his study, published in the journal Oryx, Dr Butchart looked at 27 species of bird that were classed as Critically Endangered - the highest level of extinction threat - in 1994. The birds were being targeted with conservation efforts in the few places where they were still found.

Dr Butchart looked at the threats facing the birds and, using population modelling, estimated that without the conservation projects, 16 of the 27 species would have become extinct by 2004. Instead, the population decline had been reversed, and in some cases numbers are now flourishing.

In 1994 the Norfolk Island green parrot had declined to a point where there were just four breeding females and as few as 28 males. The birds were being threatened by loss of their natural habitat to human building, as well as falling prey to rats, feral cats and disease.

Conservationists began a scheme to protect the birds' nests and control predators, and by 2004 their numbers had grown to at least 300, the study found.

The California condor, which numbered just nine birds in 1994 and was classed as "certain" to become extinct, now has a population of 128, including 44 adults.

The birds had been dying from eating carcasses of animals killed with lead shot as well as from colliding with power lines in their natural habitat of the California deserts. Protection projects, a breeding programme and a ban on hunting in their habitats helped to save the birds, the researchers said. Other species such as the northern bald ibis in Morocco, the Bali starling and the Lear's macaw in Brazil, have also been saved from extinction by conservation programmes.

Ana Rodrigues, a conservation scientist at Cambridge University, published a commentary on the study in the journal Science. She said: "The main thing is we are making a significant impact. Usually we only see the bad picture, which makes us feel that what we are doing is useless."

Pressure from conservationists on international governments means that more than £3bn a year is now being spent on managing areas where there are protected species of birds.

But experts warned that far more needs to be done to protect biodiversity across the world from the threats of human development, hunting and habitat loss.

The 16 species in the study represent just 1.3 per cent of all those threatened with extinction. Almost half - 45 per cent - of all species under threat have suffered a decline since 1994.

Last month, a study by Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences concluded that without the impact of human exploration and activity, a natural rate of extinction would be around one species of bird a century. Instead, one species a year is being lost.

If current trends continue, more than 1,200 different types of bird could become extinct during the course of the 21st century.

Still at risk

The brilliant hues of the Norfolk Island green parrot or the dramatic white and black plumes of the Bali starling will always catch the eye and tug on the heartstrings of conservationists and generous donors alike. But experts are warning that many thousands more rare species of bird are being threatened with extinction - and are more at risk because they are simply not as attractive or "charismatic" as other types.

Of the 16 species identified by the Butchart study, three-quarters are considered to be "charismatic" by conservationists because of their looks and appeal. They include parrots, raptors, pigeons and large waterbirds. But only 48 per cent of all birds on the critically endangered list are in the charismatic class.

Dr Butchart said: "There is some element of charismatic birds attracting more funding and support, both from the public and conservationists, so that they get more protection. It's also partly because they are easier to help; they are often on islands and their conservation is easier than for the species that are continental, where the major threat is loss of habitat because of large-scale human development.

"We really need to increase the resources and effort for protecting all species that are under threat."

Species of bird that are considered most at risk but are not charismatic include the piping plover in North America, the Hawaiian crow and the Indian white-rumped vulture. While there are numerous parrot protection charities, there are few dedicated to "unattractive" birds such as vultures. But the issue of whether a bird is "charismatic" or not can be divisive. Some American conservationists are outraged that the sage grouse has not been included on the endangered species list and claim it has been omitted because it does not have the same appeal as a richly coloured tropical bird. Others have been debating whether the California condor is a thing of beauty or an ugly bird of prey.