Conservationist tracks bird family struggling to survive

Ian Herbert
Tuesday 14 December 2010 15:12

A British conservationist has become the first individual to view all 32 of the extraordinarily beautiful family of birds know as Pittas in the space of one year, as part of a drive to save many of them from extinction.

The Pitta Pittida family are falling victim to deforestation in part of the world where their existence is already fragile, according to the campaigning organization Birdlife International, which has been lobbying the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun, which concluded last Friday, for action on the issue.

Only three known ornithologists worldwide have viewed all of the Pittas in a lifetime, but Chris Gooddie’s resolve to tick them off in the course of one year was part of his mission to draw attention to the threat to a family originally known in parts of Asia as the ‘Jewel Thrushes’ by dint of their extraordinary beauty.

The Gurney’s pitta Pitta Gurneyi, a bird fabled among ornithologists and distinctive for its blue crown, is on the verge of extinction according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Birdlife is particularly concerned about a proposed rubber plantations in Thailand in which 1,280 sq kms of lowland forest is to be cleared, severely affecting the Gurney.

Eight more of the family are vulnerable and five near threatened. In total, 44pc of the Pitta family is of concern to conservationists. Gooddie, whose obsession began with the discovery of a Noisy Pitta Pitta versicolor bouncing along the lower reaches of an Australia mountain range 15 years ago, has since become dedicated to raising attention to the plight of the birds and the destruction of forests which sustain them.

His journey, captured in a book he has written of his experiences, entitled The Jewel Hunter, has revealed threats to some members of the family that had not been previously known of. Near the city of Bislig, on the east coast of Mindanao in the Philippines, Goodie discovered that the Philippine government’s ban on logging – an industry which had begun restoring the local eco-system through selective logging, having initially stripped the area of 97 per cent by over-exploitation - had prompted a free-for-all among illegal loggers which is contributing to vastly more deforestation and environmental devastation. Species including the Black-headed tailorbird, Mindanao miniature-babbler and Blue-capped kingfisher will now seem doomed to die off in this area.

Other wanton destruction of birds Gooddie stumbled upon almost casually. A guide who helped the Briton to find the recently rediscovered Sumatran Ground-cuckoo in the remote south-west of the Indonesian island had only turned to eco tourism because he couldn’t earn enough money by catching and selling the same bird. The Ground-cuckoo sells for roughly 35,000 Indonesian Rupiah (£1.80) and catching one was taking the guide three to five days. “Once he discovered that he could earn ten times that figure each day by guiding bird watchers through the forest, his hunting days were over,” said Gooddie, who also discovered Sumatra’s two endemic Pittas – Graceful Pitta and Schneider’s Pitta – on that leg of his mission.

The fragility of the Pitta family is only too apparent in the recent life story of Schneider’s, which was thought to be extinct having not been observed for over 50 years, between 1936 and 1988, until a British ornithologist, Phil Hurrell, rediscovered a male, and then a pair, near the summit of Mt Kerinci, Indonesia’s highest volcano. The Black-faced Pitta Pitta anerythra was not seen from 1938 to 1994 and also thought to be extinct.

Gooddie, 47, who resigned his sales directorship of a successful professional audio company to attempt the feat, has twice run the London Marathon twice to raise funds to protect the remaining forests in which Gurney's Pitta clings to existence. He discovered that particular species at one of only two sites where it is know to exist on the verge of extinction – in southern Thailand. It also known to survive in Tenasserim, Southern Myanmar.

All of publisher Wild Guide’s profits from Gooddie’s book for to Birdlife International, the RSPB's international partner. “I wanted to escape and embark on this trip, the idea of which had for a long time tantalized me,” said Gooddie. “It’s a mission accomplished but new missions gained where preserving this family is concerned.”

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