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Friday, May 22, 2015

Marianas Avifauna Conservation

On Guam, the damage has been done.  The accidental introduction of the brown tree snake to the island has resulted in the extinction or extirpation of many of the island's bird species, the severe decline of many others.  Efforts to reduce the numbers of the snake are in place, but the main focus since has been to limit the spread of the snake.  The realization has been that what has happened on Guam could happen elsewhere.

But what do to about the survivors?  The Guam rail, the Micronesian kingfisher, and other birds which now survive in zoos and breeding centers - what about them?  Maintain them in captivity forever, and if so, to what end?  Reintroduce them to Guam?  You might as well pluck them first so the snakes will have an easier time swallowing them.  Recently, a consortium of government agencies, NGOs, and zoos has come up with another option - the Marianas Avifauna Conservation Project.

The premise of the MAC project is simple.  There are lots of islands in the Marianas, many of which tend to be similar in most respects - plant life, insect life, climate.  Not all have the same species of birds.  Most importantly, not all have the brown tree snake.  The decision was made to transport birds - either wild survivors, captured and relocated, or captive-bred individuals - to snake-free islands, islands where they might have not been present originally, but where they can survive in a wild state.

At first glance, the idea seems counter-intuitive.  It was introducing an alien species (albeit, not on purpose) which led to this mess in the first place.  What if fifty years from now we're watching some Micronesian lizard species being wiped out by invading kingfishers?  No one can be positive what will happen, but the scientists involved very thoroughly took a census of each candidate island and its flora and fauna.  They came to the conclusion that it would likely work out, and decided it was worth the risk.

The partnership requires the participation of many players.  Government agencies have the authority to allow the transfers.  Local peoples have the knowledge about the landscape and the presence or absence of birds or snakes.  Zoos have the expertise for breeding the birds in captivity, or maintaining birds that are temporarily held captive as they are moved from island to island.  Together, they are accomplishing the nearly-impossible task of restoring some of these species to the Marianas, some for the first time in decades.

It's not that Guam itself is being written off as doomed - they fight to control the numbers of the tree snake continues.  Still, the sooner members of the affected species are back in the wild living under natural conditions, the brighter their future will be.

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