Exciting news has recently arrived of a landmark event in the Philippine Cockatoo Conservation Program (PCCP), the long-term endeavour to bring-about the recovery of this ‘Critically Endangered’ species endemic to the Philippines. For the first time ever, a Philippine Cockatoo rescued from the wild, and subsequently released back to its original site, has been recorded to breed and produce a healthy hatchling. Such rescue and release to augment the wild population is just one of a raft of conservation measures conducted by the PCCP and supported by the Loro Parque Fundación over many years.
The release to the wild of any parrot which has spent some or all of its previous life under human care supposes a certain level of responsibility by the liberator. The parrot to be released might need to be trained to fend for itself in the wild, probably by the pre-release gradual replacement of the captive diet with suitable wild foods native to the release zone. Predator recognition and avoidance training is strongly indicated. The gregarious nature of parrots unequivocally argues for each release to comprise a group of individuals. Pre-release medical screening of all individuals for potential pathogens is a must.
Following the above-mentioned measures and other precautions, how can the success of the release be assessed? A so-called ‘hard-release’, where the parrots are set free never to be seen again, will not be helpful. On the contrary, a ‘soft-release’ where the parrots are gradually introduced to life in the wild, and are closely monitored over as much time as possible, offers the chance to determine success in terms of ability to survive without further human intervention. Proof that released individuals are able to breed in the wild contributes greatly to the definition of success, this being the case with the Philippine Cockatoo.
Worldwide there are relatively few examples of parrot releases which document reasonably long-term survival post-release, and fewer still that record successful breeding. For example, a Yellow-shouldered Amazon (Amazona barbadensis) release programme on Margarita Island, Venezuela showed that at least ten of 12 birds released had survived for at least a year and integrated into wild groups five days to nine months after release. At least three individuals explored nest cavities and one nested and fledged two chicks. Of 34 captive-bred Puerto Rican Parrots (Amazona vittata) released in north-east Puerto Rico, first-year survival was estimated at 41%.
Three released individuals attempted to breed, and one paired with a wild individual successfully fledged two chicks. At three Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) release centres in Costa Rica and Peru, the annual post-release survival of 71 captive-bred birds and former pets was 89% (60% to 90% first-year survival and 96% after). Survival was higher for individuals released in larger groups and in areas with Scarlet Macaws already present. Pairs formed at all three sites, with at least four chicks fledged at the Peruvian site.
The female Philippine Cockatoo (called ‘Gold’ from her leg-ring colour) which has bred was rescued as a 60g chick from starvation brought about by the lack of food due to extreme dry months in 2016. Although the Philippines has abundant rainfall, it can also suffer from periods of drought, especially related to ‘El Niño’ years.
These are the moments when the PCCP team of the Katala Foundation, ably led by husband and wife conservation duo Peter Widmann, Species Conservation Programs Director, and Indira Dayang Lacerna-Widmann, Chief Operations Officer, springs into action to rescue chicks if necessary. As Peter explains, the rescue of small chicks is a tough decision to make, and to release them back to the wild and monitor whether they are accepted by the wild flock is the great challenge. He says that to date in Dumaran Island (a satellite of Palawan Island and an important project site of the PCCP) where ‘Gold’ was rescued, the released cockatoos are well accepted by the wild individuals. Philippine Cockatoos rescued (with permits from the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development – PCSD) either from starvation, persecution or poaching, are first rehabilitated at the Katala Foundation’s own (Katala) Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation in Narra, Palawan Island.
‘Gold’ was one of five chicks from Dumaran rescued in 2016 due to starvation and, following proper care and rehabilitation, returned to Dumaran in August 2016 and released to the wild in January 2017. Any cockatoo found fit for liberation is returned to Dumaran and released into suitable forest habitat from the specially designed release aviary. The forest habitat is found within two cockatoo reserves and remaining forest patches earlier declared by the municipality, all connected by means of 1,628 hectares of a ‘Critical Habitat’ corridor approved by the PCSD in 2014. The PCCP has supplemented the natural population of Philippine Cockatoos in Dumaran since 2014, to help the aging population of existing cockatoos on the island as well as to improve its genetic diversity. This supplementation initiative is part of the joint Philippine Cockatoo conservation efforts with the PCSD and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
The team of PCCP wardens in Dumaran are rightly proud that all the efforts to track the released cockatoos and monitor them in each occupied nest-tree have been vindicated. Furthermore, local people have participated in monitoring the released cockatoos, reporting immediately to their officials and then to the field team if they see cockatoos too close to people. Another sign of official commitment is the local government’s support of the PCCP, especially in providing resources for wildlife wardens to continue their conservation work. In addition to the Loro Parque Fundación, other external donors are ZGAP, Chester Zoo, Fondation Segré, Beauval Nature, Wildlife Reserves Singapore, and other organizations and individuals.
Author: David Waugh, Correspondent, Loro Parque Fundación
Photos: Katala Foundation, Inc