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The eleventh hour for the Grey-breasted Parakeet

By David Waugh,
Loro Parque Fundación

It was early August 2007, and Albertos Alves Campos and his team-mates had scaled a cliff in the small mountain range of Serra do Estevão, Ceará State, in the dry north-east of Brazil. They stood quietly on a broad ledge near the top of the cliff, scanning the remnant patches of forest on the lower slopes, and they repeatedly played an audio recording of a parakeet, hoping to elicit a response from a real bird. Disappointingly, after many days of trying, they did not hear or see this parakeet, even though some of the local people they had interviewed had given diagnostic descriptions of the species.

They had also gone there knowing that in 1926, six of the existing museum specimens were collected from this area. This field team was from the Brazilian NGO, Aquasis, and, supported by the partnership of Loro Parque Fundación, Act for Nature, Chester Zoo and ZGAP (Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations), it was searching for a needle-in-a-haystack, a distinctive psittacid called the Grey-breasted Parakeet (Pyrrhura griseipectus).

Until recently considered a subspecies of the White-eared Parakeet (Pyrrhura leucotis), the Grey-breasted Parakeet had been neglected until it was almost too late, its disappearance from former haunts passing largely unnoticed. Since its recent recognition as a full species, its drastic circumstances have come to light, and it is now classified as Critically Endangered (Olmos et al 2005, SACC 2005, Birdlife 2007).

The available historic information, and observations of the known existing wild population (in the Baturité Mountains, Ceará State), all indicate that P. griseipectus inhabits the higher altitudes of the unique moist and sometimes dryer montane forests in isolated mountain ranges in the otherwise low-lying, semi-arid, caatinga ecosystem, north of the São Francisco River in north-east Brazil. In these upper portions of some mountain ranges, it is the humidity from the clouds which supports the moister forest, a naturally restricted and fragile habitat.

Habitat destruction, especially of the higher altitude moist forests, is related to the decline of this parakeet. Even in 1996, the original forest cover of the Baturité Mountains had been reduced to just 13%, with coffee plantations causing much of the forest clearance. An additional factor in the disappearance of the species has been intensive trapping in the past, and illegal trapping is still ongoing for the local and national trade. Just as alarming is the fact that, apart from the Baturité Mountains, we were not even sure exactly where Brazil´s most endangered parakeet might still cling on to existence.

Without doubt, the species required urgent conservation action to reduce trapping and habitat loss, and field research to better understand the major threats and opportunities for the recovery of the species and its montane habitat.

Geographical Range

Aquasis identified a minimum of 16 distinct localities © Aquasis

An important first step was to determine the geographical range of the species at that time, by searching the most likely sites where it still might occur, and this is precisely what Aquasis was doing during 2007. The Grey-breasted Parakeet was presumed to have originally occurred in the Alagoas, Pernambuco and Ceará States, with the Baturité range suggested as the type-locality for the species. However, through the painstaking work of its team, checking all known museum skins, reviewing the literature, and interviewing local people, Aquasis identified a minimum of 16 distinct localities.

Three of the sites were where museum specimens were collected (another site of museum specimens is the Baturité Mountain range), another seven sites related to unconfirmed but plausible records, and the remaining six sites had what appeared to be viable habitat for P. griseipectus in suitable ecological, climatic and topographical conditions.

The largest area to be surveyed, the Serra da Ibiapaba in western Ceará, was divided into northern and southern sectors to allow the field team to cover all significant remaining moist forest patches along this large mountain range. During the surveys at all sites, interviews were conducted with local residents living in rural and urban communities near the moist forest remnants.

This collection of evidence on the occurrence of the Grey-breasted Parakeet helped to narrow down the active surveys to the places indicated, and during this process, Aquasis built a GIS (geographic information system) database as the foundation on which to establish the actual geographical range of the species. To verify the knowledge of the interviewees and the accuracy of their observations, Alberto and his colleagues asked additional questions about other bird and mammals species known to each area.

If any recent evidence (less than six months) of the presence of the Grey-breasted Parakeet were indicated during the interviews, the field team then thoroughly surveyed the appointed areas. In each of these areas, a list of the avian fauna was produced, in order to identify indicator species of the habitat of the Grey-breasted Parakeet, eg Rufous-breasted Leaftosser (Sclerurus scansor cearensis), Grey-headed Spinetail (Cranioleuca semicinerea) and Buff-breasted Tody-tyrant (Hemitriccus mirandae).

Evidence of occurrence

A unique forest which is tiny and fragmented. Red crosses indicate existing sites of the parakeet, yellow crosses new sites, and blue crosses where nest-boxes are © Aquasis

News subsequently arrived from Aquasis about its search in the northern sector (100km north-south) of Serra da Ibiapaba, a sedimentary plateau bordering the States of Piauí and Ceará, with a steep, cliff-like slope facing east and a gradual inclination westward. There had been strong evidence of the occurrence of the species in that region in the past, based on descriptions from naturalists, but the original moist forest is now very degraded and fragmented, with remaining forest patches mainly along the slopes and in some isolated private areas. In five small towns, Aquasis conducted a total of 147 interviews with the residents of the area, the average age of the interviewees being 59 years (youngest 23, oldest 93).

During the field surveys, there were 138 geographic points where information was recorded about vegetation and land use, springs, streams and waterfalls, towns, villages, private land and formally protected areas. Approximately 170 km of roads and trails were recorded, covering mainly the moist forest remnants and cliff areas, the expected habitat of the species. In this region, only two interviewees gave accurate descriptions, but of a parakeet extinct at least 20 years ago. One interesting result from these interviews was that the species seemed to be associated with the slope and cliff habitats, since they are, or were, known locally as “ periquito-do-talhado” (Cliff Parakeet).

Sadly, the species was not recognized by the majority of the habitants: 59% of interviewees knew only one species of psittacid, 28% knew two species, 11% knew three and only 2% described four species. The interviews also revealed other bird species sensitive to trapping and hunting as virtually extinct in the region (eg the Bearded Bellbird Procnias averano and Spot-winged Wood-Quail Odontophorus capueira). The three indicator species for good Grey-breasted Parakeet habitat were recorded during the surveys. Thus, the interviews and field surveys conducted indicated that the Grey-breasted Parakeet had probably become extinct in the northern section of the Ibiapaba Mountain Range.

A ray of hope

At another site in the municipality of Quixadá, where the Serra do Estevão is located, the Aquasis team interviewed 38 local people, with an average age of 54 years (youngest 28, oldest 83). Ten persons interviewed gave positive descriptions of the species in one small region with remaining forests on the cliffs. Even though this time Aquasis did not find the species, the team still believed an extremely small population might be in Serra do Estevão, even though the habitat was limited, fragmented and under heavy pressure from the surrounding human population.

Therefore, Alberto and his colleagues planned to return once more in the hope of finding P. griseipectus. They would also continue in their search of other possible sites, but urgently needed to safeguard the known wild population in the Baturité Mountains. Conservation projects for threatened species of Pyrrhura parakeets in other countries, where degradation of their forest habitat has occurred, have shown that the populations can be increased by using nest boxes to compensate for lack of natural cavities. Therefore, Aquasis would try this technique with the Grey-breasted Parakeet, and use the opportunity to study the reproductive biology of this species.

Just as important would be the need to promote the Grey-breasted Parakeet as a flagship species for the conservation of the unique forest habitat of the Baturité Mountains. The interviews showed that local communities were not aware of the critical status of the species, and that making them aware would be a crucial first step to reduce trapping and habitat loss.

At the same time, with the additional support of the Brazilian Fundação O Boticário de Proteção à Natureza, the project would be developing alternative economic activities for the local communities. As an example, the Baturité Mountains are one of the top bird-watching destinations in north-east Brazil, and the project would provide courses to community members, partners and volunteers, aimed at training local guides for bird-watching and other nature activities. The creation of job alternatives for the local communities is fundamental in motivating them to get involved in the conservation process.

This was the start of turning back the clock for the Grey-breasted Parakeet.

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